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Paul Fanlund: A more charitable take on Donald Trump voters

Paul Fanlund: A more charitable take on Donald Trump voters

Election 2020 Trump

A Donald Trump backer waits for the president to arrive at a North Carolina rally on Sept. 8. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that many Trump backers aren't necessarily fond of him; they support him because they hate people who look down on them, and Trump excels at attacking those enemies.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

The six months since COVID-19 crashed down have been surreal for us all. For those afflicted with the virus or for those courageous front-line workers in health care and other essential roles, it must seem like some circle of hell. Many whose livelihoods have been upended are scrambling to pay for housing and food.

Adding to this dismay for many is what feels like the oddest and longest presidential election of our lifetimes. Doesn’t it feel as if this thing — the campaign I mean — has gone on forever?

Perhaps that is in part because of fewer distractions, or perhaps because of its seemingly unprecedented animus. It feels like living in the movie “Groundhog Day” — the same day repeating, one after another.

As I look back, I notice a recurring theme in many of my columns from this period is to try to fathom those who would stick by Trump, given, among other failures, his deceit on COVID-19 and his contempt for our military. Both controversies are once again glaringly evident in excerpts from “Rage,” legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book.

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Trump’s hold on a subset of Americans — many of them white with no college education — has long horrified and fascinated me, in part because of my own background. I grew up in a manufacturing town in which almost every dad, including mine, fought in World War II. Almost no parent had gone to college.

And throughout my quintessentially middle-class childhood, folks saw themselves foremost as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Race, gender and religion were certainly facts of life, but at least from a young and white perspective, they seldom surfaced in contentious ways in polite company.

I’ve been eager to understand how things went so far off the tracks. I began writing about the topic in earnest when Kathy Cramer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist, did her eye-opening field research a decade ago on what she famously called the “politics of resentment” in Wisconsin. Her work was about how many regular Wisconsin folks deeply resented the knowledge workers and people of color in Madison and Milwaukee.

In my columns during the pandemic, I noticed my tone toward Trump backers has been rather harshly judgmental.

Just last week, I wrote how research shows that Trump backers are prone to embrace authoritarian leaders and that they seem willing to surrender freedom and submit to a dictator-type personality. Such an assertion could explain their fealty to Trump despite evidence that he acts against their interests.

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I have also written that racial animus is central to why Trump’s base sticks with him. Trump is clearly banking on race as a wedge issue late in his campaign — pointing to mayhem in city streets to frighten white voters.

I have also fully explored what I see as his backers’ misogyny. How curious it is that so many of them so viscerally disliked Hillary Clinton, revealing a contempt seldom witnessed toward a male candidate, except perhaps if that male candidate is Black.

And I have also contended in my writing that Americans, especially Trump supporters, no longer seem to embrace the concept of a common good. I quoted a foreign essayist on his theory that many Americans embrace individualism as a smokescreen for selfishness.

That essay contended that Americans are quicker to pick up a gun than a book and will deny a neighbor’s kid health care even as they regularly attend church. This theme portrays many Trump voters as selfish, self-absorbed, self-concerned and narcissistic.

These pejorative themes about Trump backers felt accurate and probably all contain more than a grain of truth. But perhaps not as much as this notion from Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist.

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Friedman writes in a new column that it is not Trump whom his backers like; they just dislike people like me ... and perhaps you.

“It has been obvious ever since Trump ran for president that many of his core supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump, more than they care about Trump or any particular action he takes no matter how awful.”

They are not attracted to his policies, Friedman suggests, but to his attitude, “his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and feel look down on them.”

In the same column, Friedman quotes from a book by his friend, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, who suggests it is the “politics of humiliation” that is central to Trump’s appeal. His book is titled “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of The Common Good?”

The politics of humiliation in this sense appears to be a more virulent form of the politics of resentment. “Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream political parties had no compelling answer,” Sandel writes.

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These grievances “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”

Contends Sandel: “Elites have so valorized a college degree — both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem — that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes on those who have not gone to college.”

Happily, Friedman sees Democratic nominee Joe Biden as possessing the credibility and genuine empathy to talk with and listen to likely Trump voters in these final weeks. Friedman suggests Biden should tell them where he agrees with them, where he does not, and why.

In that way, Friedman writes, Biden can legitimately be seen as the kid from Scranton with real Pennsylvania working-class roots, nothing at all like the millionaire’s son who is president. To me, that makes perfect sense, certainly politically, but also morally.

So where does this “humiliation” theme leave me? At a minimum, thinking a bit differently.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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