Schansberg: An Intellectual Defense of Trump Fans

January 22, 2016

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

It is common to support Trump — and among certain other people, it is common to have disdain for people who support Trump. A few thoughts from a two-time Libertarian congressional candidate who is more like Trump than you might have thought:

  1. First, recognize that your candidate is not all that impressive either, so you might want to avoid getting on a high horse. Aside from long-shot Rand Paul, all of the GOP candidates are an interesting mix of incoherence and semi-big government. And then there are the Dems . . . Wow: Clinton is a hot mess, and Sanders thinks everything from government is free. Even if you have good reason to think Trump is a joke, humility requires you to have a reasonable understanding of your own candidate’s impressive limitations.
  2. Recognize that most people put little effort into forming a coherent political philosophy or a consistent set of public policies. So, your vote — and the votes of Trump supporters — are based on a little information, a sense of intuition and usually a focus on one or two issues. Again, you’d be wise to avoid the high horse; your views are probably not any more sophisticated than theirs.
  3. Recognize that Trump is attracting a certain kind of voters. A recent Politico essay got a lot of traction in arguing that it was a penchant for “authoritarianism.” This is simplistic since his policy positions are a mishmash of “authoritarianism” — in roughly the same ballpark as all of the other candidates (save Paul). Trump is certainly more “authoritarian” in his rhetoric and apparent leadership style. This relates to an anti-establishment “strength” that voters do find appealing.

Interestingly, I think there is significant overlap with the sort of voters I attracted in my two Congressional campaigns. In this, I’m reminded of the central part of my congressional district (in south-central Indiana along the I-65 corridor). When I ran for Congress as a Libertarian, I thought my biggest vote percentage would be in southern Indiana, where we lived, worked, went to church and were involved with the community. Beyond my connections, I thought more people here would relate well to me, my style and my points.

In fact, Clark and Floyd were my two lowest counties out of 20 — with under 3 percent of the vote. My best counties? I earned 8-10 percent in counties with a high proportion of rural, Tea-Partyish, Trumpish voters. They believed that they were getting jacked around by politicians and “the system.” They respected my plain talk and appreciated my anti-political establishment angle. (I thought my geography would hurt my GOP opponent, given that he was from my area also. But polling data indicated that my supporters were evenly split between those who would have supported the Republican or the Democrat in the absence of my Libertarian efforts.)

So, try to have more empathy. Research shows that this will tend to be difficult for those on the Left, but all of us should do our best. For when people have given up on politics-as-usual — perhaps a more reasonable position than what borders on idolatry by the sophisticated — they’re going to be attracted to Trump (and Bernie Sanders) far more than the establishment candidates.

The catalyst for this essay, R.R. Reno in the most recent issue of First Things offered some helpful thoughts on Trump voters. Reno notes that things are not great in the economy, and politicians are trying to tell us that things are more or less fine. (Sure, the non-Trump GOP’ers are advocating change, but of the relatively mild, typically partisan sort.) Moreover, the underpinnings of the culture are threatened in the eyes of those who are “conservative” in a rural, Trumpian sense: religious liberties under attack; marriage being (legally) redefined; the influence of post-modernism “weightlessness”; the oppressive weight of political correctness; perceived attacks on the 2nd Amendment, and so on.

Reno argues that people are trying to reach for something solid in politics — particularly in support of “the nation.” They “need to have a place to stand in our postmodern, dissolving world. The nation seems the natural fallback.” Trump is especially effective at exploiting this perception. Reno: (Trump) “uses the ‘we’ word — ‘We will be great again’ — and offers himself as a strong man who will revive national pride.”

The elites and the semi-elite, “sophisticated” folks who laugh at Trump supporters, usually fail to empathize with these larger concerns. Reno: “Establishment figures often miss the profound political reality as they harrumph about Trump and his followers being anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim and ­anti-immigrant.”

Reno concludes: “Criticism of populist extremism is needed, to be sure. But I fear our political establishments, here and in Europe, can’t or won’t address the deeper political crisis. In a world being transformed by economic globalization and a cultural revolution that exalts individual desires and choices, the driving questions are Where do I belong? and Who stands with me? . . . The temptation we face is to denounce the inadequacies of nationalism while ignoring the deeper need for metaphysical density . . . We will fail if we only knock down the stupid, even dangerous answers offered by populist movements and leaders.”

Instead, “We need to find a revived vocabulary of belonging that makes sense for our times . . . It involves a renewed social imagination, not well-designed social ­policies. I’m biased, of course, but to my mind religious convictions and religious communities hold the most promise for this revival.”

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. In 2006, Schansberg ran as a Libertarian and won 4.5 percent of the votes in Indiana’s 9th congressional district race. In April 2008, he was the Libertarian nominee for Congress a second time, winning 3.8 percent of the vote. In both races, Schansberg emphasized fiscal conservatism, bringing troops home from Iraq, reducing or eliminating payroll taxes, reforming Social Security, and eliminating subsidies for corporations and Planned Parenthood.


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