It takes a special kind of anger to be a Trump supporter. It’s not just that you might be frustrated with your economic condition or how you see yourself in the mix of a multi-cultural society. There has be something that motivates you to displace whatever anger you have to individuals who have very little to do with how you’re doing.
It’s hard to imagine anyone being a nicer, kinder person than Barack Obama. What he has stood for in his campaigns and his presidency is decency and trying to improve the lot of everyone. Yet Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said upon Obama’s election this his first job was to make Obama a one-term president. Why the vitriol?
If Hillary Clinton was someone who you sat next to on an airplane, you would likely find her to be warm and caring. She would take interest in your life and share her own experiences with you. As a politician and a public official, has she ever supported policies that are motivated by hate? I don’t think so.
Yet Obama and Clinton are among the personal targets of people who are angry about something, but not necessarily what either of them have done. The image I think of is a tornado floating around a town that finds a particular target and relentlessly gloms onto it. Then it won’t leave.
In 1998 when Hillary Clinton introduced the idea of the vast right-wing conspiracy, she got part of it right. That is the mean-spirited conservative activists like McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and others who actually would manipulate situations to do harm to people not like them. What neither she nor most of the rest of us could see at that time was how fertile the ground was for plowing by the architects of the conspiracy. The 1968 supporters of George Wallace and Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” were just as open to demonizing politics in 2016 as they ever had been.
It’s not unlike the person who stubs his toe while entering his front door and then kicks his dog out of frustration. The dog is an easy target, but it had nothing to do with why the man was angry. So many Republican voters are angry and don’t know what to do with their strong feelings. When a largely innocent target is identified by others as the cause of their woes, many are quick to jump on the bandwagon to assault largely innocent souls like Obama or Clinton.
If the United States is going to embrace a progressive agenda, as it has done at various times in its history (think both Roosevelts and LBJ), then we have to address what it is that makes so many people like the Trump supporters so angry. That’s the easy part, and Trump in himself may unwittingly do some of the heavy lifting, if he and Congress can enact an infrastructure stimulus and other job-creating projects. But that only gets us halfway there. The tougher part is to learn more and do more about why so many people so readily displace their anger like the man stubbing his toe.
I can only begin to conjecture about this, but I hope that our psychologists, sociologists, and just plain observers of human behavior spend a good portion of the next four years trying to figure out why so many demonize the wrong target. A good place to start might be with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas and the role that religion plays in forming political opinions.