Ducking Donald Trump

For many Republicans, staying at home on Election Day is increasingly an option.

July 21, 2016 01:23 am | Updated September 18, 2016 03:24 pm IST

"The U.S. can’t seem to look away from a narcissistic authoritarian who is appealing to its citizen’s worst qualities.” Demonstrators chant during an anti-Donald Trump rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: AFP

"The U.S. can’t seem to look away from a narcissistic authoritarian who is appealing to its citizen’s worst qualities.” Demonstrators chant during an anti-Donald Trump rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: AFP

It would be easy to believe that Americans are falling in love with Donald Trump, > the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential election. Media coverage of Mr. Trump is relentless, from stories about his latest rant on Twitter to profiles of his top campaign aides. In May, several television networks chose to broadcast the empty podium before a Trump speech rather than an address by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, that was happening concurrently. Over the past year, Mr. Trump has received substantially more news coverage than all the Republican candidates combined. The chairman of one of the three largest television networks in the country explicitly stated that Mr. Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America”, but was “damn good” for his network. When the media covers his outrageous claims, people tune in — and this means more advertising dollars. Mr. Trump is a phenomenon on social media as well, as both his supporters and opponents take to Facebook and Twitter to offer their opinions. It often seems as if the entire country is obsessed with Donald Trump (which I suspect is exactly what Donald Trump wants).

Channelling racial resentment The Republican nominee is especially popular with a segment of the American electorate: white men, particularly those without a college education. Over the past decade, this group (along with many other Americans) has faced a world with fewer jobs, increasing health-care costs, and rising inequality. While both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump recognise that America’s working class is in trouble, they differ on who to blame. Ms. Clinton points the finger at structural problems, including relaxed financial regulation and a faltering system of education. In contrast, Mr. >Trump has explicitly and repeatedly laid the blame on people — and specifically, people who are not white. Among others, he has directly or indirectly targeted Mexican immigrants, the Chinese, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and welfare recipients as a source of America’s economic woes. This rhetoric resonates with many Americans, both because it is easier to be angry at a person rather than at an institution, and because Mr. Trump is channelling a deep racial resentment that has existed in this country since its founding, and using this resentment to his political advantage.

So far, this is a depressing story: the country can’t seem to look away from a narcissistic authoritarian who is appealing to its citizen’s worst qualities. But I remain optimistic — both about the election and about the future of American democracy.

First, though it would be easy to interpret the public’s obsession with Mr. Trump to mean that Americans are falling in love with him, the data suggest that, in fact, the opposite is true. While Americans may be fascinated by him, a majority of them also deeply dislike him. Mr. Trump is the least popular presidential candidate in history. Sixty per cent of American adults believe that he is not qualified to be President. Women are especially critical of Mr. Trump — about seven in ten women rate him very unfavourably. And people don’t just dislike Mr. Trump, they are ashamed of him: more than half say that they would be “embarrassed” if he became President.

Second, many Republicans are deeply uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. This discomfort may not lead them to vote for Ms. Clinton, but it will hurt his candidacy both indirectly and directly. Over the next three months, it will be extremely difficult for Mr. Trump to attract the donors and volunteers that are critical for running a presidential campaign in the U.S. Already Mr. Trump is far behind Ms. Clinton in fundraising and field organising.

The lead-up to the Republican convention — and the refusal of many GOP elites to appear — has highlighted the internal conflict that many Republicans feel about a Trump candidacy. While many are intensely loyal to their party, they are also deeply sceptical of its nominee. Political science research shows that in the U.S., party identification is increasingly intertwined with self-image. For partisans, being a Republican or Democrat is more than just a voting record — their party identity represents who they are as a person. And so Republicans are faced with a difficult choice: abandoning the party they love or supporting a candidate they despise. Some people have criticised Republicans for not taking a stronger anti-Trump stance, but these critics underestimate how difficult that choice is — explicitly denouncing Mr. Trump would be a betrayal of these Republicans’ own identity.

The discomfiture within However, for many rank-and-file Republicans, there is a third option: opting out of voting altogether. When a Republican voter is faced with two candidates he dislikes, he will almost certainly not vote for Ms. Clinton. In the U.S., it is increasingly rare for voters to cross party lines, especially in presidential elections. On Election Day, Republican voters may simply stay home. They would be in good company, given that only about half of Americans bother to vote in most presidential elections.

The bad news is that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric reflects a very real belief held by many white Americans that the country’s economic and social problems are directly attributable to people who do not look like them. The media have consistently amplified his message, and from the perspective of someone outside the U.S. it may seem as though his rhetoric accurately reflects public opinion. But I am optimistic that the Americans to whom this message appeals are a minority — and the data support my belief. A Trump presidency, while not impossible, is unlikely.

Emily Thorson is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston College, Massachusetts, U.S.

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