Schansberg: Reflections on ‘Trumpers’

July 19, 2016

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

I’m not pro-Trump in terms of his style or his substance. That said, I’m not as anti-Trump, for a number of reasons:

1. I think a lot of Trump’s approach is rhetoric. To be sure, the rhetoric is not always helpful — and often harmful — and thus, regrettable. Most people, since all they have is a vote and a few bucks to send to a candidate, pay little attention to politics and policy. As a result, they are easily swayed by rhetoric, whether it is from Bush, Obama, Clinton, Sanders or Trump. But the point is that a lot of it is just rhetoric. So, I don’t think Trump’s rhetoric would translate into his policy actions to a high degree.

1a. People forget about the nature of *political* rhetoric. The taxpayer-financed primary season encourages politicians to appeal to their party’s voters — and then to pivot to some degree in the general election. We usually describe this as flip-flopping, and some politicians are more artful than others at hiding these flips. More broadly, politicians routinely say one thing when campaigning in the general election and do other things when governing. (See: Obama with Guantanamo Bay; Bush with “nation-building.”)

2. People forget about the nature of a divided government. In particular, presidents don’t get everything they want even when they control both Houses of Congress. If Trump is as inept at working with Congress as Obama, you’ll mostly get stalemate and contention — in other words, what we’ve seen the last 12 years. The same thing could be said of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Although he believes in unicorns in terms of economics and public policy, he wouldn’t have been able to govern based on those beliefs, and thus was not nearly as bad a candidate as one would imagine from his policy beliefs.

3. In comparison to the other, lousy, major-party alternative, Trump’s policy positions are surprisingly similar to Hillary Clinton’s. Trump’s character is roughly equivalent to Clinton’s — or better. (What problem does he have that matches her struggles with the truth and her enabling of a sexual predator?) If you’re into experience, it’s apples and oranges: Trump has ample executive experience in business; Clinton has some executive experience in government as First Lady. Neither Trump nor Clinton has the executive government experience of the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, a former two-term governor.

4. Trump might well bring some positives to the office, at least for those who aren’t fans of the political status quo. I like that Trump would be more likely to shake things up. Of course, this presents a higher probability of danger as well. But the status quo is nasty — both in terms of our politics and our policy — so I’m OK with rolling the dice, especially given the three caveats above.

In sum, I’m more anti-anti-Trumpers than I am anti-Trump. In a word, I understand why Trumpers are supporting him — or a candidate like him. And I think they deserve empathy if not respect. (See also Sanders’ surprising appeal.) Trumpers have been around for awhile. This political moment seems to be a replay of sorts of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and perhaps 1968. Through a combination of style, substance and political context, Ronald Reagan was able to attract and hold Trumpers within his amazing constituency. (As an aside, Trumpers were much of my support when I ran for Congress. They were dissatisfied with standard politics and happy to support a non-traditional candidate. I did worst in suburban counties and best in more-rural, “less-sophisticated” Trump country.)

But the number of Trumpers has also increased in recent years due to the fading idolatry of both major political parties and various economic changes both presume can be fixed by trade and immigration policy. Those problems won’t be fixed — or even addressed much — by public policy, at least in practice. As such, I think most Trump supporters are committing a different sort of political idolatry — which is bound to disappoint those who put too much hope it him. But dynamic idolatry is probably better than its static forms, so I’m relatively happy that they’re reflecting a new idolatry or trying out a different version.

One last thought: This may be provocative but I think it is easy to support: Most Trump supporters are more “sophisticated” in their thinking than either Sanders or Clinton supporters. Bernie mostly has two types of fans: a) Those who don’t support the status quo but want a different flavor than the one provided by Trump; and b) those who were attracted to his unicorn-like economic policies. The first thought process is equivalent to most Trump supporters; the second is naive and clearly not sophisticated.

And why are people choosing Clinton? Three of the least sophisticated reasons I can imagine: a) sexism (their top priority is for a woman to be president); b) avid partisanship (yellow dog Democrats); and c) opposition to Trump (rather than support for Clinton per se).

Whatever you think of Trump, recognize the valid reasons for profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, empathize as much as possible with his supporters and make sure that your reasons for supporting a candidate are principled.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. In 2006 and 2008, Schansberg ran as a Libertarian in the 9th Congressional District.


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