This 19th-century philosopher explained the phenomenon that keeps Trump fans so devoted to the disastrous president

by Cody Fenwick AlterNet Dec 28, 2018


By any reasonable standard, Donald Trump’s record in office is a dismal failure.

The sole legislative achievement of his first two years in office is a massive tax cut for the wealthy, driven largely by the plutocratic impulses of the Republican Party he campaigned against, and which failed to deliver its proponents’ promises of an economic resurgence. The stock market, once a point of pride for the president, entered into a phase of wild volatility, which hardly bodes well for the future.

Trump’s pledges to unveil a great new universal health care policy are vaporware. He diminishes America’s standing on the world stage and engages in pointless trade wars. Even on his defining issue, immigration, Trump proves incapable of making any substantive reforms to policy, and instead, inflicts symbolic cruelty for those who share his animus toward immigrants. This is no grounds for celebration. Trump’s attacks appear to backfire and make many Americans more favorable towards immigration.

These are only the most prominent of Trump’s obvious policy failures. These don’t even touch upon the unending waves of personal corruption scandals, arising from both Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and beyond.

And yet, despite some signs of wavering, most GOP voters remain committed to Trump.

So why would such a large portion of people continue to support Trump, even when the evidence of his presidency’s disastrous track record — and the considerable likelihood it will only get worse — is plain to see?

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century philosopher who helped found the tradition of modern liberal political thinking, explained the phenomenon well at the beginning of his essay, “The Subjection of Women”:

So long as opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses instability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach; and while the feeling remains, it is always throwing up fresh intrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old.

Mill referred to certain forms of misogyny, a belief system characterized by contempt for women, which views women’s proper role as inferior to that of men. But support for Trump has, in many ways, been a proxy for a range of beliefs and feelings about politics and society, including racist and misogynistic beliefs.

This is reflected in the number of people who cite Trump’s opposition to “political correctness” as their basis for their supporting him. His support includes a personal element of devotion to the individual, reflective of authoritarian politics, in a way not always present in political support.

Consider, for instance, George W. Bush. While there was some amount of hero worship surrounding him as president, it also seems support for Bush is more sensitive to evidence of his competency than it is with Trump. As the failures of the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the administration’s management of the financial industry became apparent, his support continually dwindled — even if it took far too long.

Trump, on the other hand, has failure after failure and scandal after scandal. And it’s certainly not helping him politically, as was proven in the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections. But it’s not affecting his base of support as we would expect to be the case were his followers judging the president based on performance.

Indeed, sometimes it seems the weight of the scandals and maladministration bolster some supporters’ views of Trump, because it shows to them the extent of the forces he’s supposedly fighting against — just as Mill explained.

As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1721:

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.

Swift’s statement is often reformulated as: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into.”

But this view, I believe, is too pessimistic. Mill, for one, didn’t believe it, which is why he wrote the “The Subjection of Women.” He believed he could convincingly advocate for the equality of men and women, even if it would be an uphill battle, writing: “As regards the present question, I am going to accept the unfavourable conditions which the prejudice assigns to me.”

Regardless of whether or not the minds of Trump’s most fervent supporters can be changed,  it’s important to remember they are a minority of the country. Trump has never been a popular president, which will always limit his ability to wreak havoc on the country and beyond.

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