Why Trump's Sadism Hasn't Harmed His Ratings

Hurting people who "deserve it" makes Republicans feel powerful.

I read Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein every day. You should, too. Today, he asks: Why hasn’t the child-confiscation story (my words) hurt President Trump’s approval ratings? He offers some thoughts, but ends by saying “beware anyone who claims to be doing anything more than speculating.” I promise not to do more than that.

I think a major reason the president’s approval ratings have not yet been impacted by his policy of sadism is because most people approving of his performance are white Americans over 60 who live in rural areas. Most liberals understand the contours of racism, but most do not understand the role of geography. Politically engaged liberals tend to live in cities or on the coasts, where there are different kinds of people.

Not so for Trump voters.

These people live in what you and I would consider the middle of nowhere. They might go days without seeing someone who is not a family member or friend. (And they’re all white.) As a result, immigrant kids being taken from their parents, being put in detention camps, and being forced to recite the pledge of allegiance may as well be on Mars. To Trump voters, these immigrant children are not really real.

That’s the first thing. The second thing to keep in mind is that Trump voters don’t know much about anything, don’t want to know much about anything, don’t care that they don’t want to know much about anything, or, if they are aware of how much they don’t know, they convince themselves they know everything they need to know.

This comes almost entirely from the fact that most of the president’s staunchest supporters are religious conservatives whose chief concern is the maintenance of the natural order: God the Father over Jesus the Son; husbands over wives, parents over children, white over black, etc. The natural order is informed by nothing so much as obedience to established authority. All you need to know, then, is how to obey established authority, and thus join, affirm and perpetuate the natural order.  

Indeed, knowing something about anything might threaten the natural order, especially to those who most benefit from it (i.e., the men). That’s why disagreement is intolerable. There cannot be mutual respect over differences of opinion, because such deference risks empowering those who are not supposed to have power (women, children, black people), and empowering those who are not supposed to have power would pervert the natural order of things. It’s literally “my way or the highway.” Ask any liberal from a conservative background. That is the choice she has made.

It’s more complicated. Because power is the heart of the matter—who has it and who doesn’t—persuasion has no place. Good-faith arguments based on empirical evidence are not going to change someone’s mind when the natural order is at stake. Indeed, arguing itself is sedition, something to be suppressed, because arguing is, according to this way of thinking, not about persuasion, not about being open to a world independent of human consciousness, but instead about taking power away.  

For this reason, power is zero-sum. It cannot be shared.

Indeed, attempts to share power are suspect, because—I’m serious when I say this—equality is a kind of theft. If a woman has more, a man has less, and if a man has less, that’s a threat to the natural order. It’s common to hear liberals say conservatives are afraid of things they don’t understand, but that’s not the half of it. When liberals talk about expanding the franchise in the name of democracy and freedom, conservatives hear something else. Tyranny or worse, an affront to the will of God.

For all the above reasons, I’m not surprised the president’s approval rating is untouched by news coverage of his policy of sadism. Savaging immigrant families is not a crime against humanity, as some Democrats are starting to call it. It’s an affirmation of the natural order, because it takes power away from those who are not supposed to have it and gives it to those who are. Yes, that’s insane. Trump voters are not really more empowered. But truly having power isn’t the point. The point is how they feel, and Trump’s approval ratings suggest they feel more powerful.

Again, I’m speculating, but I’m basing my speculation of a lifetime of trying to understand my own family’s authoritarianism. Try as I might, I can’t deny the fact that my family and many Americans are fine with fascism, because literally nothing will change for them even if the US sheds all pretense of democracy. Yes, Trump is alienating allies, violating norms, and imperiling the rule of law. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that “the president is tough” on those who so clearly “deserve it.”

This past weekend saw serious debate over civility. Liberals risk debasing public discourse even more by “overreacting.” But civility presumes we’re all in this together. Sadists don’t believe we’re all in this together. One person’s pain, for them, is another person’s pleasure. Tyranny for brown immigrants and liberty for white conservatives. Such voters are impervious to civil disagreement. They only understand power.

I hope the Democrats are done arguing.


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