Stop Bashing Trump Supporters

When in American history have so many people felt that they no longer recognized the country of their parents and grandparents?

Timothy Egan needs to get a grip. The New York Times contributing writer is going bonkers over the presidential candidacy of billionaire Donald Trump. In his latest political commentary, the Seattle writer essentially equates Trump supporters with neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. It is true, as Egan appropriately notes, that some of these far-out types have endorsed Trump. But does that mean Trump’s base of support is made up primarily of such people?

Egan seems to think so. In a December 12 column, he takes pains to acknowledge that “all the little Hitlers probably don’t amount to a hill of beans.” Then he asks: “But what about the 35 percent of Republican voters…who say they’re all in with the man sieg heiled by aspiring brownshirts and men in white sheets?” He talks of the Trump base “and their awful bedfellows in the neo-Nazi bunkers.” He says Trump has given his supporters “permission to hate” with an “un-American sentiment” that has been a “mainstay of conservative media for at least a decade.”

Indeed, the columnist tells us Trump’s supporters would throw out the Constitution and welcome a police state. Thus they constitute a “lunatic fringe.” But he warns that “the fringe is huge.” Thus does the columnist lump Trump’s supporters with these fringe “bedfellows,” harking back to Hitler’s mass killings and the worst episodes of American racism.

This constitutes the polemics of a lazy polemicist. It’s easy to attack a politician with an apparent following with clever and brutal language designed to thrust the politician and his followers into a netherworld of evil and disrepute, unworthy of any serious analytical regard. It’s easy to hoist the hoary Nazi analogy as a definitive definitional stamp, not admitting of rebuttal or any kind of interpretative parsing.

What isn’t so easy is attempting to determine just why such a political phenomenon as the Trump poll numbers might emerge in the American polity at such a time as this. When a crude, pugilistic politician emerges in the country, it shouldn’t be dismissed as simply an evil sump of outlandish political sentiment that threatens the very foundation of our democracy. Far better—and more productive—would be to seek to understand the origin of the Trump emergence, such as it is. After all, railing against it won’t neutralize it; it will have to be either absorbed into mainstream political thinking in some way or rebutted effectively through the normal channels of American discourse.

An attempt to understand the phenomenon might begin with a sentence in Egan’s own column that resides in a paragraph in which the writer seeks to describe the Trump constituency. Conceding that these people don’t see “the shadow of the Reich when they look in the mirror,” he then portrays them as white, lower-middle-class, with little education beyond high school. Following this somewhat elitist description, he adds, “They don’t recognize their country.”

They don’t recognize their country. This carries more freight than Egan seems to perceive. In the context of his overall column, this appears to be a pejorative, a kind of explanation as to why these benighted people—without college degrees, after all—are flirting with something approaching Nazism. But, if we strip away the smugness, it actually might get to the heart of the Trump phenomenon. Egan probably could have built a meaningful column around that single insight, had he been willing to dispense with the fulmination and pursue a true analytical quest.

Begin with this question: When in American history have so many people felt that they no longer recognized the country of their childhood, the country of their parents and grandparents? True, technology has altered the face of America just about every decade. New entrants arrived from different areas of the world in a kind of kaleidoscopic process. New styles and habits of thought emerged over time. New social customs and mores were embraced, while others were discarded. Certainly, attitudes about race and ethnicity have evolved significantly over time.

But never have these things converged upon the country with such force and so quickly, redefining what it is to be an American.

The late Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, once identified four components of American identity that have held sway within the country’s civic consciousness over the course of the U.S. experience. Two have fallen by the wayside, but at the beginning of nationhood the country was defined by ethnicity, race, culture and the American creed (meaning adherence to our governmental institutions).

On the matter of race, Huntington writes, “For all practical purposes America was a white society until the mid-twentieth century.” This was reflected in the country’s attitudes and policies regarding native Indians, in its racist views of blacks brought here against their will as slaves, in immigration policies, in Supreme Court rulings. Race played a significant role in the U.S. identity until the mid-twentieth century, when it was redefined as a moral issue and lost its standing as an element of identity.