What's Tony Thinking

Confounded by Trump’s Popularity?


Are you confounded by Donald Trump’s continuing popularity? I sure am. Not just confounded. Astounded. Aggravated. Perplexed. Perturbed and pretty darn close to poleaxed.

The Iowa Caucuses are now two days away. Barring a miracle, Trump will win it easily, overwhelmingly. I follow the reports on Iowa voters and can’t figure out how in the world folks are still on the Trump Train. Like Iowa voter Jay Altena pictured sitting on a church pew, Bible in hand. Of Trump, says Altena, “He’s got principles; that’s the key feature here.”

Can someone explain this to me?

Bret Stephens in the NYT this past week has come as close as anyone. Stephens is a conservative, but a never-Trumper who has pledged to do all that he is able to keep Trump from regaining the Presidency this coming November.

But this week Stephens devoted a column to “The Case for Trump . . . By Someone Who Wants Him to Lose” which helped me kind of understand, begin to imagine, possibly fathom the phenomenon of Trump still garnering the votes of lots and lots of my fellow Americans. Stephens makes the case for trying to understand as follows:

“You can’t defeat an opponent if you refuse to understand what makes him formidable. Too many people, especially progressives, fail to think deeply about the enduring sources of his appeal — and to do so without calling him names, or disparaging his supporters, or attributing his resurgence to nefarious foreign actors or the unfairness of the Electoral College. Since I will spend the coming year strenuously opposing his candidacy, let me here make the best case for Trump that I can.”

Parenthetically, I do admire such an effort. I was schooled back in the day when one requirement of contesting or dismantling an opponent’s argument in academic debate was that you had to first state their argument in a way they recognized and felt to be accurate. Similar in that respect to actual debate tournaments, where debaters are supposed to be prepared to argue either side of the proposition at hand. Is that still going on?

So what’s the case for Trump according to someone who wants him to lose? Stephens says that Trump got three big things right, or more right than wrong. (I encourage you to read his more nuanced discussion of all three. But here they are, with a brief excerpt from Stephen’s on each.)

Number one, uncontrolled immigration is an actual problem. And calling people who say that “racist” doesn’t do a lot of good. Here’s Stephens:

“Arguably the single most important geopolitical fact of the century is the mass migration of people from south to north and east to west, causing tectonic demographic, cultural, economic, and ultimately political shifts. Trump understood this from the start of his presidential candidacy in 2015, the same year Europe was overwhelmed by a largely uncontrolled migration from the Middle East and Africa.”

Number two, despite experts and elites telling Americans that things are not so bad and getting a whole lot better, that isn’t how many people see it. “Broken” is the word that best describes one thing after another in the U.S. today. So . . .

“The second big thing Trump got right was about the broad direction of the country. Trump rode a wave of pessimism to the White House — pessimism his detractors did not share because he was speaking about, and to, an America they either didn’t see or understood only as a caricature.”

Number three, the failure of allegedly impartial institutions like the C.D.C., the F.B.I., elite colleges and media.

“Finally, there’s the question of institutions that are supposed to represent impartial expertise, from elite universities and media to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the F.B.I. Trump’s detractors, including me, often argued that his demagoguery and mendacity did a lot to needlessly diminish trust in these vital institutions. But we should be more honest with ourselves and admit that those institutions did their own work in squandering, through partisanship or incompetence, the esteem in which they had once been widely held.”

You can think of counter-arguments to all three. I can too. But the larger point is, as Stephens argues at the outset, “you can’t defeat an opponent if you refuse to understand what makes him formidable.”

All this makes me think is that the Biden/ Democrat argument that “democracy is on the ballot” and that electing Trump means the end of democracy isn’t going to cut it. At least it won’t be enough to move independents and undecideds. Biden and the D’s will have to make a compelling case based on what they have done and what they want to accomplish in another four year term. “Compelling” being the key word.



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