Contrary to the headline’s promise, Klein does not in fact explain “the eerie stability of Trump’s approval rating.” But he does marvel at it, as do I, most especially because of the pandemic. There is a big segment of the population willing literally to put their lives on the line, to buttress the fantasy that Trump tells about the virus. Klein thinks this is astonishing, and so do I.
Below, I try to give some context to the mass folly of a portion of the Trump base.
Ms. LeTourneau thinks that the hard core of Trump’s support is based on his open racism, and I believe she is right. She also worries that things might return to normal after Trump leaves office—and that the open racism might change, once again, into secret or semi-secret racism. On that score, I am confident—and sorry—to say, she should set her mind at ease. The toothpaste will not go back into the tube.
The Relevance of Life Experience in Helping to Explain Trumpism
Ezra Klein was born into a Jewish family in Irvine, California, in the 1980’s. I wasn’t able to find similar information on Ms. LeTourneau’s biography, but I would be willing to bet a considerable sum that her life story is quite different from mine: born in the 1940s to a working class family in the Deep South, a family that regularly attended a Southern Baptist church, and bloodly well believed what they heard preached from its pulpit.
Mr. Klein and Ms. LeTourneau are more famous and more insightful than I am, but I contend that my life experience gives me a distinct comparative advantage in understanding the fons et origo of Trumpism. In short, becausse of when and where I come from, I know some things that they just do not know.
The Fons et Origo of Trumpism: Let’s Do It by the Numbers
1) A Racist Mindset, Based on Centuries of History. The tribe into which I was born were slaveholders since the early seventeenth century. My ancestors were not slaveholders because they were racists. They became racist because they were slaveholders. Unless you came to view Black folks as less than human, how could you justify their mistreatment?
At church, our tribe sometimes heard of the radical inclusiveness and the universal love preached by Rabbi Jesus. Rabbi Jesus is like whack-a-mole: every time you whack him down over here, he pops up over there, still preaching about loving your neighbor and telling you about the Good Samaritan.
But, over the generations, my tribe became very good at tuning out the inconvenient parts of what Rabbi Jesus has to say.
2) An Apocalyptic Mindset. There were some, down at the Baptist church, who were big on End Times and the coming Rapture. But that’s not we heard from the pulpit. What we heard from the pulpit, at least once every month, was a sermon about how God was really pissed with America, and was soon going to smite us down. When I was a little boy, Baptists were not fixated on abortion. And nobody talked about gays and lesbians. But that left plenty of other things for God to be pissed about: divorce, adultery and fornication, crime, alcohol, drugs, etc. etc. And lots and lots of verses from the Hebrew prophets to tell us about how God intervenes in history to punish and to reward.
3) A Conspiratorial Mindset. People a little older than me became politically conscious during the McCarthy era. People my age and a little younger grew up in a time when the memory of McCarthyism was still green. My tribe was primed to believe that the government was infiltrated by powerful people who were working insidiously to undermine our way of life. And that Armageddon was just around the corner; see point 2.
4) An Antiscientific Mindset. About a hundred years before I was born, a good portion of Protestant Christianity jumped the shark in rejecting the theory of evolution, which their leaders misperceived as a mortal threat to religion. For almost two hundred years, many of the tribe into which I was born have believed that biology is a giant hoax. It’s a pretty small step to conclude that the pandemic is a giant hoax, too.
Who’re you gonna believe—your preacher or your lying eyes?
5) An Antigovernment Mindset—and a Particular Loathing for the Judicial Branch. Brown v. Board of Education, doncha know.
Trumpism Before Trump: a Rancid Melding of Racist, Apocalyptic, Conspiratorial, Antiscientific, and Antigovernment Mindsets
I vividly remember my father at the dinner table, going on and on about how Earl Warren and the other eight justices were, each and every one of them, card-carrying Communists, receiving generous monthly checks from Moscow to destroy our Way of Life.
And, by the way, just as I remember him, puffing away on his Winston cigarettes, going on and on about the terrible “statisticians” and their false efforts to link smoking with lung cancer.
Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Fox News, before Trump. And in spite of what we heard each and every night from Huntley and Brinkley or from Walter Cronkite.
No wonder people from my former tribe took to Fox and Trump like ducks to water. For decades they had been waiting for people and institutions of apparent national stature to validate their mindset. For them, watching Fox News and listening to Trump was like an alcoholic’s reaction to his first taste of whiskey after a long dry spell.
Trumpism After Trump
The hardcore Trump cultists represent, probably, somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of the population, concentrated in the rural areas. They are growing more conspiracy-minded by the day, more divorced from the mental world of the early 21st century. They will continue to demand political representation—by people as crazed as they are themselves. They are not going anywhere.