People who actually think seriously – you and I, perhaps? – simply can’t understand why so many voters support Trump. Who are all these wing nuts, we ask? Don’t they even listen to what he says? Opposing Hillary makes some sense. She is clearly a flawed candidate. But that hardly translates into wholehearted support for Trump, as the long agonizing of the leading Republican politician, House Speaker Paul Ryan, clearly shows. Well, an anecdotal example reported in yesterday’s Washington Post may explain just a bit of what is really going on.
Ordinary middle-America is reaching blindly for genuine change, not the kind of false promises trotted out by politicians of all stripes every four years. The Post article discusses Teresa Sikorski of small-town Parma, Ohio. A life-long Democrat, Teresa and her husband recently changed their registration so that they could vote for Donald Trump. The Sikorskis have long been active in local Democratic party politics, voted twice for Obama and still are largely favorable to him, and are well aware of Trump’s shortcomings. The Post quotes her as saying, “I would never have in my life believed I would be voting for a Republican.” But now she and her husband expect to vote the straight Republican ticket in Ohio. She doesn’t promise that this switch will be permanent. Much depends, no doubt, on how well it works out.
Oh yes, I neglected to mention one interesting aspect of this particular example. Teresa Sikorski is the loving sister of Dennis Kucinich, who was the Democratic mayor and congressman for Cleveland, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the most ardent liberals of our time. If Teresa can make that leap of faith, do you suppose that other thinking voters can too?
On the subject of change, there have been two Presidents in the modern era who made a serious attempt to produce the change that they promised. Both followed failed Presidencies and times of existential crisis in the minds of ordinary Americans. They were Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The changes they genuinely desired and sought couldn’t have been more different.
Roosevelt fought for expansive government economic powers to hold back what he saw as an economic oligarchy running wild. He wanted to force individuals to act in the public interest in a new expanded form of social compact. He clearly saw the erosion of economic opportunity and a growing separation of “haves” and “never will haves”. Reagan was pessimistic about the government’s ability to resolve social problems and felt that the crushing weight of big government would permanently hinder the vast potential of our people. Each saw untrammeled entrepreneurs and the wealthy class in completely different lights. Roosevelt perceived them as the root of the problem; Reagan saw them as the crucial basis of economic success. Whatever opinion you might have of their ideas, successes and failures, no one can doubt that they had sincere visions for change and that they seriously tried to implement them.
Is this another of those times? Is Obama yet another Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover? I don’t think so, but I suspect that many do. And I must admit that I do see a few parallels. Like Hoover, Obama can be cerebral and detached, and he seems overly committed to policies that have failed to achieve their purposes. But to be fair, Obama mostly succeeded in taming the terrible economic crisis he faced while Hoover failed abysmally. With respect to Carter, Obama similarly exemplifies the consequence of ambitious good intentions not backed up by strong political leadership. Both had disastrous relationships with Congress, including within their own party. No President could conceivably succeed in such an environment.
But Trump is no Ronald Reagan and I still hold to my belief that Hillary will pull it off, although it should be a close call. Crucially, she has demographics on her side. But the hidden factor is the voter who won’t openly admit it to friends or pollsters, but who will nevertheless pull the lever for Trump in the privacy of the voting booth. This phenomenon was on display recently across the Atlantic in our mother country. British voters gave the outward impression first that they would elect a Labour government and then later that they would reject Brexit. Then on Election Day something strange happened. A combination of hope and emotion triumphed and both expectations foundered.
These Trump supporters are not crazy or thoughtless. They are not part of a right-wing cabal. They are neither racist nor generally bigoted. Oh sure, a few Trump supporters are some or all of these things, but some are just ordinary folks who are genuinely upset and frightened about their future and that of their kids.