Last year, much to my surprise, Donald Trump, in all his appalling ignorance, taught me what may be the most important lesson I could’ve learned in 2016. You see, throughout that campaign, I took it as read that Trump could never be elected President because he was such an obvious con artist. No way, I thought, could a guy who’s basically a gold plated Angel Martin from The Rockford Files ever get to 50%+1. There just aren’t enough stupid people in the United States to make that happen. After the November 8th horror, I had to rethink this, and I remembered something crucial.
The success of a scam depends not on the skill of the grifter but on the greed and fear of the marks.
This is what con artists will tell you about their victims, that there’s no way they could have stung them if they weren’t consumed with some combination of avarice and paranoia. Greed and fear are extraordinary motivators, and the person who can manipulate them, however crudely, can take power others. He can get them to invest in fake companies. He can get them to buy worthless information. He can get them to vote for him for President.
Now I and 65 million others weren’t taken in by Trump’s con, and I while I think that’s to our credit, I don’t think it’s because we’re significantly smarter than Trump voters. Instead, I think it’s because our fears and desires don’t match up with Trump’s pitch at all. I don’t fear or hate immigrants, refugees, liberals, or racial minorities. I’m not afraid of women. I’m not worried about someone shipping my job overseas. I’m not aching for an upper-class tax cut or the deregulation of my business. I don’t worry that my health insurance premiums are too high. I don’t worry about someone taking my guns. I don’t see myself as a temporarily embarrassed rich person who’d get my villa and Maserati if only Washington bureaucrats would get out of my way. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian who can’t handle gays getting married or women getting their contraception paid for by their health insurance. Trump could pitch at me all day and get nothing back but my hostility.
But Trump’s voters are afflicted by at least some, if not all, of those fears and desires. They feel them in different combinations and different levels of intensity, but as long as Trump hit on each of these in turn, any given Trump voters could rationalize supporting him. Hey, I may not like the racism, but he sounds like he’s really going to stick it to those Washington bureaucrats and get me my Maserati. Or You know, the whole immigrant thing bothers me, but I don’t think he’ll really hurt them, and I really want a Supreme Court justice who’ll make women carry babies to term. Or Maybe I don’t need that upper class tax cut, but I love how he puts blacks in their place and drives the liberals crazy.
Sadly, the people with the most reasonable fears, those afraid of losing their jobs to automation or overseas competition and those sweating their health insurance premiums, are the ones Trump’ll sting the hardest. Even if he cared about helping them–and since he was hoping to sign a bill that would strip them of their health care entirely, it’s obvious he doesn’t–he has no clue what to do for them. Trump’s a thief, not an economist or public policy expert. They’d have better odds of getting their share of a Nigerian Prince’s fortune. The people driven by pure greed or fear, greed for upper class tax cuts, fear of women or minorities, will probably get something to make them happy. Trump’s a con man, but he’s a genuine bigot and misogynist, and he’ll endorse any scheme that inflicts pain on those that he hates or that makes them pay his taxes for him.
The depressing part of this is that it’ll be nigh impossible to argue Trump supporters out of their choice. Since most people find nothing more embarrassing than admitting they’ve been had, they’ll instead concoct elaborate rationalizations to explain away Trump’s behavior. They’ll try to shift responsibility by saying they wouldn’t have voted for Trump if coastal elites weren’t always calling them bigots. (So you voted for a bigot just to prove you’re not a bigot? I guess you showed me.) The more time they’ve put in to supporting Trump, the harder they’ll be to talk out of it. And the smarter Trump supporters will be hardest of all because smart people build better rationalizations. However much he hurts them, most of them will stick with him. This doesn’t owe to any special talent on Trump’s part, but rather his supporters terrible willingness to suspend their disbelief.
For a bit more context on this, here’s Laurence Rees on Hitler, describing a similar dynamic between Hitler and his followers.