It was more than a century and a half ago that Abraham Lincoln told us, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” While the wisdom behind these words is clear, what has long confounded me is, quite simply, “why can some folks be fooled all the time?”
Answering this question has never been as important as it is today because we have a president who, despite having a strained relationship with the truth, retains a hardcore base of supporters who continue to believe in him.
It appears that Donald Trump can’t spend a single day without using Twitter or press meet-ups to make statements that are an obvious exaggeration or outright fabrication. Some of these have been dismissed as harmless or even laughably silly, while others can be legitimately categorized as dangerous acts of incitement.
Some media outlets have kept a running tally of his falsehoods – we are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 – or an average of 13 a day since he took the oath of office. The problem has become so concerning that many major newspapers and television networks have taken the unprecedented step of allowing their journalists to now describe the president’s statements as “lies.”
Among his bizarre exaggerations are those about the size of his rallies, the extent of his wealth, the number of jobs he has created, or the honors he has claimed to receive. There are, however, the more damaging false statements he has made targeting individual members of the media, judiciary, Congress, or vulnerable minority communities – painting them as dangerous or even anti-American, “enemies of the people.”
In addition to these, there are the tweets or harangues that have caused uncertainty about our foreign policy, resulting in consternation and insecurity among our allies, and boasts or threats about trade issues or domestic policies that have created havoc in world markets.
What is troubling is not just the accumulated mass of distortions that have become even more frequent over time. More disturbing are the polls that show about 30% of the electorate saying that they believe that this president almost always tells the truth. These are the folks to whom Lincoln was referring when he spoke of fooling “some of the people all of the time.” This is where we must ask the question “Why?” What don’t we understand about Trump supporters? How have the political experts continuously been so wrong about this president and those who believe in him?
Ever since the early days of the 2016 contest, the pundits proclaimed Donald Trump unfit to run for president and assumed after each of his early outrages that he was finished and would never become the nominee. They then convinced themselves that he would never be elected president. And even now, there are almost daily columns by the very same commentators saying how exhausted they are with Trump’s outrages, making predictions that his presidency is doomed.
They were wrong because they missed a fundamental point: there remains a sizable base of voters who despite all evidence to the contrary continue to believe that what Trump says is true and who, therefore, cling to his leadership.
In addition to the 30% who are “true believers,” there are also those mainstream Republicans who support the president because, as I described in an earlier occasion, they made a “Faustian deal.” They recognized the power of his base, feared to confront it, and felt that if they got behind him, they could ride on the back of his presidency to achieve their goals of deregulation, more conservative judges, and implementation of more regressive taxation – all of which they have, in fact, realized.
What was key was that they feared his base. They saw the fervor generated at his rallies. And they came to understand that given the devotion he generated, it would be dangerous to oppose him. They also came to believe that the irrational support he had earned was so strong that he could, as he himself once boasted, “shoot someone on 5th Avenue” and get away with it.
This is the problem we must understand and the dilemma we must confront. We know why the GOP’s leadership supports this President – he is fulfilling his part of the “deal”. But why is it that his “base” – made up of a disproportionately large percentage of lower-income, less-educated white folks, who are living in formerly prosperous farming, mining, or industrial communities – why do they continue to suspend disbelief and support him? And why do they stay with him despite the fact that the policies he has promulgated have not only not been to their benefit, they have proven harmful to their economic future?
He promised to protect their jobs, to provide them with better health care, to bring prosperity back to their communities, to reopen their closed mines or bring back their factories. None of this has occurred and yet they remain supporters. So while we can see Lincoln’s words playing out – that indeed “you can fool some of the people all of the time” – the challenge is in understanding why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they continue to believe in him.
If I might propose an answer, it’s not because they are bad or dumb or easily misled. Rather, it is because: they are profoundly alienated from the institutions that have failed them; they are worried that they are losing control of their lives and their values in a world that is changing so fast and leaving them behind; they are angry that governing elites either look down on them or do not consider their needs; and they are desperate to believe that Trump is different because he speaks directly to them about their anger and disappointment and insecurity and their need to feel empowered.
This, as I see it, is why they continue to believe – because they need to believe in something and he’s “the only show in town.”
When I hear Democrats running for president make defeating Donald Trump the focus of their campaign, I am worried that they are missing the point. Even more shortsighted and dangerous are those who run against Trump’s voters by disparaging them. To make this campaign about mobilizing “our voters” to become more numerous than and victorious over “their voters” may produce a short-term victory but at the cost of an even more deeply divided country and may even lead to greater social unrest.
Rather, the goal must be to address head-on the anger, disappointment, alienation, and loss of control of those who feel left out of the national discussion. What is needed is a message that speaks to voters across the spectrum, telling them that they are being heard and their needs will be addressed by proposals for economic and social progress that will include and benefit everyone.
Only if they and their needs are directly addressed and their anger and alienation are understood will they be able to move beyond feeling slighted and disparaged. At that point, they may be in a position to shake the dust from their eyes and realize that, all along, they had been fooled by a huckster who had exploited them.