Henningsen: Why The Base Won't Shake

Jul 27, 2017

If there’s anything angering liberals more than Donald Trump, it’s his loyal base of unquestioning supporters. “How can people be so blind?” they ask.

They aren’t. They may see more clearly than those denouncing them. Attacks on the president and efforts to persuade his supporters of their mistakes not only fall on deaf ears but actually reinforce the depth of his support.

It’s human nature to resist being told we’re wrong; to defend our rightness, and demonize those who say otherwise. The more we’re told how misguided we are, the stronger our hold on our current beliefs.

But there’s more to it than that. The president’s base consists of people who believe the fix is in; that those who obey the rules have been played for saps by an arrogant and uncaring governing elite. When bankers who almost destroyed the economy escaped punishment – even profited – as ordinary families lost homes, jobs, and savings, it’s no surprise many people decided the promise of American democracy had been perverted.

Long repressed, their anger finally, frighteningly emerged. If American government comes to a halt because of this administration’s policies, they say, "so what? Trump promised disruption and that’s what we’re getting. Deal with it." The more he’s criticized, the more they like him.

This isn’t new. In 18th century America, Shays’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion threatened mass rejection of elites, as did the Populist Revolt of farmers and workers in the 1890’s. The grievances of those long-ago Americans have a strikingly contemporary ring, with their rage against excessive taxation, against rigged policies favoring the rich, against government that does things to people rather than for them.

And while those feared revolutions didn’t happen, each played a major role in the long-term re-organization of political life, first in the form of Jeffersonian democracy and, later, the Progressive Era. Whether the playout of today’s divisiveness will be similar is anyone’s guess. What’s certain is that the discontented must be listened to, not lectured to; their grievances must be acknowledged and addressed, not derided and dismissed.

Donald Trump won’t be around forever, but those who see him as an answer to their despair will – unless we take them seriously.

So go ahead. Lecture everyone on how wrong Mr. Trump is. It might make you feel better. But it won’t do much else.