Why Did Republicans (& Some Independents) Fall For The Trump Con?
The people of the United States live in bubbles. We each fall into certain subcultures that have a lot of influence over what we think, what we feel, and what we are interested in discussing. In politics, subcultures are obsessively collected and fought over (via messaging/branding, if not policy) and major political parties do their best to motivate and keep “their” subcultures by playing to core issues that the subcultures value or have been trained to value via influential talking heads in their world.
If we put an average human in a one-on-one show with a magician, they will likely be very confused how the magician “did something” that seemed impossible. Put a whole crowd in front of the magician, and not much changes. However, people realize that a magician isn’t doing real magic and what that magician seemed to do is impossible, so these audience members don’t believe their own eyes.
Unfortunately, con men do a similar thing with our minds, but not so blatantly, which results in people not realizing that they were fooled.
I would give the majority of politicians the benefit of the doubt and say that they went into politics to try to help society (not to just make as much money as possible in underhanded ways). I think Paul Ryan thinks his policies are supposed to help the country. I think Donald Trump thinks the same (as much as he pays any attention to policy). And I certainly think people like Al Franken, Tulsi Gabbard, and Ted Lieu are trying to help society as much as possible.
However, at the core of all the politicking/messaging are actual policies that either help the “average Joe” or hurt him.
- Not requiring that insurance companies cover preexisting conditions either hurts the average Joe or helps him.
- Not letting old coal plants pump a tremendous amount of pollution into our lungs and atmosphere either hurts the average Joe or helps him.
- Not letting oil & gas companies dump toxic, cancer-causing chemicals into our water supplies either hurts the average Joe or helps him. (This includes indirect as well as direct benefits and costs. For example, Joe may not live in an area where this matters, but if Sam does and gets cancer from these chemicals, that can then increase health insurance costs that then hurt Joe.)
- Requiring that corporations pay a minimum, livable wage either helps the average Joe or hurts him. (Again, there are indirect effects here too. Joe doesn’t earn minimum wage, but if the minimum wage is high enough to be a livable minimum wage, that means many more people in his community and society will make enough money for some discretionary spending, which then goes to the local and national economy to a considerable degree and eventually benefits Joe.)
- Not letting Wall Street gamble in too extreme ways helps society to avoid things like the Great Depression and Great Recession.
- Not giving billionaires massive tax loopholes obviously benefits the rest of society.
The somewhat surprising thing is that the Republican Party’s core policies are hugely harmful for the average Joe … yet approximately half of average Joe voters vote Republican and don’t understand that they are voting against their own interests.
The core policy isn’t “small government versus big government” (or variations like “state government versus federal government”), as is often claimed. The core Republican policy in the 21st century is essentially to fight incessantly for an ideal of “no government.”
Don’t think for a moment that this is about federal versus state rights — these same Republicans fight the same actual policies on the state level that they fight on the national level, and they fight them on the regional or city level as well. What they are constantly fighting for is “no government,” which is fine on certain topics, but not for other topics like the ones I mentioned above.
How this plays out in policy and hurts average Americans has been understood by legitimate researchers for decades. But many Republican voters and even politicians don’t get it.
Who’s the con? Who’s being conned? It’s hard to know precisely who the cons are, since it’s hard to know which high-rolling Republicans realize “no government” is a con on the American people. But there are certainly some super rich Republicans who realize they are robbing the middle class and poor, while there are other Republican leaders who genuinely think deregulating corporations as much as possible is somehow a good thing for Joe. (In other words, the con men have sometimes simply been conned themselves, so they aren’t so much con men as idiotic.)
Again, if you only pay attention to political messaging, you are super misinformed. Messaging is not policy. As David Roberts once pointed out on Grist, politics is not policy. Perhaps more than ever before, Democrats are labeled communists, socialists, and fascists by hard-right opponents — but the ironic/crazy thing is that Democratic congresspeople are probably more anti-government and anti-regulation now than in any time in history. They adopted Republican policies in the 1990s to “get things done,” and those policies have carried over to today or even shifted further right. The health care plan Obama got passed is more “corporate-friendly” and “citizen-unfriendly” than what Hillary Clinton tried to get passed in the 1990s, as just one example.
By and large, Republican voters (and many politicians even!) have been conned … putting faith in a hugely faulty policy ideal. They have put faith in highly effective political branding that is disconnected from the realities of that “no government” policy obsession. (Remember, the US government is supposed to be “for the people, by the people, and of the people.” Why would that make the government evil? And if your answer is that corporate control of the government is evil, then why would the party constantly deregulating on behalf of corporations be the party to trust?)
Is it any wonder that Republican politicians and Republican media have focused more and more on criticizing academia, scientists, “liberal elites,” and investigative journalists (top media companies)? These are the people who search for and reveal the facts. These are the people who try to go deeper than the superficial spin to unveil fundamental truths. These are the people who should not be trusted?
Just to come back to some actual policy points, let’s be clear about what independent, properly conducted research has found:
- Regulating polluting industries is good for average American health and wealth.
- Regulating polluting industries can even be a way to create jobs — regulation forces innovation, which creates jobs. (Don’t buy that nonsensical “jobs versus the environment” garbage — it was debunked ages ago.)
- Stimulating American business in the energy and transportation industries of the 21st century (solar energy, wind energy, and electric transport) is good for the US economy this year, next year, and in the decades to come. (This is one key reason why China, India, and Europe are speeding past us in these fields.)
- Regulating Wall Street is good for the US economy and US jobs in the long term.
The Republican Party is wholeheartedly against all of those things. Why? Because of irresponsible faith in the nonsensical idea that “no government” is the best government.
Can you actually think of a Republican Party policy that has been definitively shown to help the average American?
Maybe if we lived in an overly regulated society you could think of one, but our society is dramatically under-regulated.
Now, where did this long monologue come from? It came from some recent media consumption and my continued effort to try to understand why Republicans keep voting against their own interests.
For example, I accidentally started watching this Sheriff David Clarke NRA speech today and was blown away at the misleading political messaging and smears, including Sheriff Clarke calling Democrats “fascists” who hate and are fighting the US Constitution in order to beat down the average American. It’s insane, especially when you consider that the far left is critical of the Democratic Party for being too corporate friendly, and also when you consider the consistently anti-constitutional and fascist actions and statements from President Trump. But hey, it’s political messaging that moves people, that makes them scared of Democrats, and that has proven to be highly effective with most voters. Policy and the truth don’t matter — branding does. Politics is now about effectively selling a product, not creating a good product.
That said, sooner or later, many people do learn that they’ve been conned. Even watching a magician’s trick, if you see a prop slip out of a sleeve, you might start to see what’s going on.
Donald Trump is certainly a Republican — he wants to cut taxes on billionaires, let polluters pollute as much as they want, and deregulate at corporate request every possible morning of the year. But it seems he was also hugely ill-equipped to be president, lacks the temperament and critical thinking skills necessary to be a good president, and doesn’t even understand how the US government is organized and that the USA isn’t a dictatorship or old-school kingdom. Some sensible Republican politicians — many of them — saw this problem right off the bat, but they couldn’t stop their party from nominating and then electing him. The last two Republican presidents didn’t even vote for the man in the general election. (I think some of these people realize and regret that they helped create this “Frankenstein situation” by continuously playing “magician politics” that was focused on distracting people from the details and tugging on the emotional strings of particular subcultures.)
Trump came in and played the same “magician politics” — easy enough since he’s addicted to TV and was heavily brainwashed by it. But, again, he was not at all qualified to be president. Even people who thought he might do well because he was a “successful businessman” don’t seem to realize that he had several businesses go bankrupt due to horrible attention to the facts and mismanagement, that he had to get bailed out by family members on multiple occasions, that he basically just learned to protect himself via lawyers rather than good business practices, that his company largely turned into a licensing/branding company, and that he’s never had a check on his business skills via a board of directors or public stock. As it turns out, indeed, Trump’s “business experience” hasn’t translated well in the White House (or the Mar-a-Lago “Southern White House” as it may be).
More and more Republicans are starting to wake up to the mess they’ve landed the country in as …
- Donald Trump’s “team” blatantly lies about inauguration crowd sizes.
- Donald Trump claims (rather insanely) that Obama wiretapped him.
- Donald Trump has to quickly fire his National Security Adviser (Michael Flynn) for potentially criminal activity and even treason in association with the Russians and Turkish. (Flynn, it should be noted, was under FBI investigation before joining the trump administration and Obama’s administration warned the Trump administration to not bring him on.)
- Donald Trump issues “Muslim travel ban” executive orders that get shot down by federal courts as unconstitutional, and fires the top Department of Justice official who said the same and who warned the Trump administration about Flynn’s lies to the FBI and potential for being blackmailed by the Russians.
- Donald Trump repeatedly attacks our independent free press, and encourages the FBI director to jail reporters who write articles from government leaks. (He also repeatedly calls our top media outlets “fake news” even though the topic of fake news arose after Russia and others spread legitimately fake news on social media and blogs during the campaign season to favor Trump.)
- Donald Trump spouts conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory on Twitter.
- Donald Trump allegedly pushes FBI Director James Comey to drop the agency’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia … and later fires FBI Director Comey when he determines that Director Comey isn’t taking the investigation in the direction Trump wants.
- Donald Trump brags about firing Director Comey to top Russian officials the next day in a meeting requested by Vladimir Putin and in which Trump reportedly leaks highly classified intel obtained from an ally’s spy … thus compromising the safety of this spy, the safety of other spies working for this ally, and the eventual security of American citizens as well.
Donald Trump was supposed to be some kind of political savior for the white middle class. The problem is … that was all a con … or maybe not a planned con chock full of thoughtful details, but something similar. Maybe it was more of a highly successful branding/advertising exercise for someone completely ill-equipped to be in the White House.
In the end, though, voters wanted something.
Drain the swamp? Sure, if that means booting the middlemen and simply putting Goldman Sachs execs, billionaires, and ExxonMobil’s CEO in charge.
Bring back blue-collar jobs? Um, not so much.
Provide universal health care? Never mind.
Now Trump hypes tax cuts, but doesn’t quite share that they are basically just tax cuts for billionaires and multimillionaires. Trump hypes … actually, wait, what’s he hyping? All the rage now is “fake news,” crowd sizes, “witch hunts,” and … “Oh, hey, I’m president! Can you believe it?” He talks about not forgetting the forgotten people, but what the hell does that mean? What is he doing for anyone in the United States other than himself, his family, and super rich friends?
Here is apparently a real quote from the President of the United States to a top Russian spy and minister:
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Russia’s foreign minister and chief US spy (ambassador to the United States), according to a transcript that leaked to the independent US press, which wasn’t allowed into the meeting. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Hmm, something isn’t right. It’s surprising that Republican voters haven’t woken to the con yet, but some are starting to smell the coffee, including within the White House, which has been leaking to the press in unprecedented quantity and quality.
“If Donald Trump gets impeached, he will have one person to blame: Donald Trump,” one White House official said.
A Justice Department official commented on this matter in a clear way via email:
“Individual acts/comments may not constitute obstruction [of justice], but the whole pattern—starting with the requested loyalty oath, ending with the firing—does look like obstruction. And then the question is, is he obstructing because he knows he is guilty himself, or is he obstructing because he doesn’t know the full extent of [former Trump campaign chief Paul] Manafort, Flynn, and others’ shenanigans, and is terrified of finding out. Both are plausible; we know where I would place my bet.”
Here’s a shocker of a quote from a hardcore Trump supporter who worked on the campaign and is working in the administration: “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron. I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”
Ah, but that’s just the thing: Just because someone is good at selling doesn’t mean their product is any good.
Republicans knew on the campaign trail that Trump was lying like crazy — I think they knew, at least. His chief Republican opponents (and Democratic opponents) certainly tried to explain as much. “This man is a pathological liar,” Ted Cruz said. “He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth.”
Cruz had more to say that one would hope the American voters who elected Trump will come to understand before long: “[He’s] a narcissist at a level that I don’t think this country has ever seen. … Everything in Donald’s world is about Donald.”
When more Republican (and Independent) voters figure out what Ted Cruz knew last year, but are not so tied to their own obsession with certain policy topics (like Cruz is), what will they decide to do? Let’s hope they decide to look into why the sales pitch didn’t match the product and what they should do about it next time around?
Also, let’s remember one thing: 8 years of George W. Bush landed us in the Great Recession. After 8 years of Obama (supported mostly by a couple of years with a Democratic Congress), people forgot about the Great Recession enough that they decided to go back to the previous Republican policy approach (this time on steroids). Now we are headed again toward tremendously harmful deregulation in a country that lets corporations and billionaires take advantage of the middle class and poor too much already. Ted Cruz may have realized Trump was conning the American public, but he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that “no government” Republican policy also cons the American public.
The problem we landed in by the end of the George W. Bush presidency actually goes back much further than his administration. Wall Street deregulation going back to Reagan led to the Great Recession. Incessant deregulation over the course of decades has destroyed American health, skyrocketed the cost of American health care, and withered the US economy. Perhaps we can’t hope for the average Joe to learn about all of that (… unless a really popular Hollywood movie somehow explains it to him). But hey, can Joe at least learn that Trump’s emotionally powerful sales pitch didn’t mean Trump had a useful product to sell? Can Joe at least learn that every time Republicans are in power they work to rob the middle class (in order to give more money to the rich), let polluters cause more cancer in American citizens’ bodies, let corporations squeeze more blood and sweat out of American laborers, and move us again toward the eventual collapse of our economy?
Hmm, I don’t know. When you hitch your wagon to a con time and time again, you may have a problem learning that democracy is built on a strong and citizen-focused government, not fairy tales of a “perfect world” where corporations and billionaires care more about average Americans than career public servants.
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(Zachary Shahan is the editor of our sister site, Planetsave, where this was originally published.)