“Do you support Trump?” It is one of the most loaded and divisive questions that can be asked in America today. But what does it mean? What does a yes or no tell us about the people being asked? Does it tell us anything about their views, policy preferences, hopes for the country? With Trump’s reelection campaign two years away, is it essentially a moot question? Is it akin to asking if you support the Astros as World Series champions when, after all, until next October, what difference does it make?
Typically, in cases of presidents so far from a reelection bid, we think in terms of approval, not support. There is a subtle but vital difference between the two concepts. What we approve or disapprove of is job performance, not the person. What we support, on the other hand, is the person, not the policies or accomplishments.
One can readily imagine people who approve of the job that the president has done and appreciate his accomplishments yet still do not consider themselves to be one of his supporters. This is partly a symptom of just how unconventional a figure he is for the position he holds. For many, the coarsening of our discourse and standards, from insulting tweets to alleged dalliances with porn stars, outweigh what they may see as serious positives from his first year in office.
How About Looking At It From the Opposite Angle
Perhaps, in order to understand what it means to support President Trump, it is useful to consider what it means to oppose him. His fiercest critics, who make up a good portion of the country, have dubbed themselves “the resistance” instead of the more typical term, the “opposition.” Again, the subtle differences between these two terms are telling.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, opposition means “Resistance or dissent, expressed in action or argument.” Resistance means, “The refusal to accept or comply with something.” Resistance is absolutely the correct term to define how much of the Left has reacted to the Trump presidency. “Not my president” is a sentiment that refuses to accept the outcome of the free and fair election. Thus one challenge for Democrats in office, who might otherwise be open to working with Trump, is that for this resistance, any deal with Trump is complicity.
Not without some justification, Democrats will point to Republican obstruction of President Obama’s agenda (and Supreme Court pick) and say the GOP is reaping what it sowed. But something different is happening with Trump and what it means to support him.
During Obama’s presidency, “Obama supporter” was roughly synonymous with “Democrat.” There were a few radicals, like Cornel West, who called out Obama’s neoliberalism, and Occupy Wall Street expressed some degree of criticism, but no major faction of Democrats or liberal media were in an anti-Obama camp.
This is not true for Trump. The Never Trump movement still has important adherents and many nominal conservatives or Republicans still openly oppose him. This means the term “Trump supporter” is not synonymous with “Republican.” Instead, it describes a specific segment of the population that the media has been spending two years trying to figure out. J.D. Vance and Salena Zito write about them, and Frank Luntz does focus groups with them. To the Left, they are at best rubes voting against their own interests and at worst racists. To the establishment Right, they are an enigma to be somehow wooed back.
The Difficulties Of Voxplaining Trump Supporters
The “Trump Supporter” has been dealt with, not with journalism, but with anthropology. Who are these strange people living in backwater, anti-dancing Footloose towns that can’t see through Trump’s chicanery? One day last week, The New York Times forewent an editorial page to give voice to letters from Trump supporters. It was a strange gesture, but it made clear how bizarre the mainstream media finds those who support Trump.
The “Trump Supporter” needs a special section, a Vox explainer. They need a spread in National Geographic next to the one on the indigenous people of some nowhere place who haven’t ever touched Western society. Who are these people? the right sort asks, while more and more Americans ask, Is it me?
The upshot is that identifying as a Trump supporter means one is joining a tribe that Hillary Clinton described as deplorable. We have had these kinds of political designations in our political history, but not recently. The last real analog was probably the “Reagan Democrat.” Interestingly, these were to some extent the 1980s version of the Trump supporter: White, working-class, and traditionally Democratic-leaning ethnic whites. It was a demographic very similar to the one Trump flipped to win the presidency.
We are far removed from a world in which, once they win, all Americans hope for the success of the president. Frankly, this may never have existed. It may have been simply a form of polite discourse. It might also have been a form of polite discourse that makes a country run better. But for better or worse it appears to be abandoned in the scoreboard-driven politics of our time.
Do you support Trump? What a question. What a measure of one’s desire for ends and tolerance of means, what a statement of self. The gravity of this question, and the extent to which good hosts will try to avoid it, tells us something about our political moment. As more mainstream conservatives remove the fingers from their noses and support Trump without the prerequisite reservations, the definition of Trump supporter may be shifting.
Maybe this will mark a change in Trump himself. Perhaps as the experts and influencers take him more seriously, he will take himself and his statements more seriously. Whether this happens or not, the question will stay with stay us: What does it mean to support Donald Trump? I suspect we will be asking this question for a very long time.