After hearing Iowans talk about Trump to an NPR reporter I wondered, once again, why people support him. I am not going to straw man his supporters and say that it is because they are all stupid or racist. Rather, I want to consider reasons why people back Trump.
To start with the easiest and most obvious, there are people who largely agree with his actions and policies and like him—their support is no mystery. Given that they agree with his actions and polices, it is rational that they support him—though some might argue that supporting some of his actions and policies is problematic.
There are some supporters who express dismay about some of what he says, usually in his intemperate rage tweets. This seems to imply that if their only expressed criticism is about such things as his word choices, they largely agree with his policies and actions. This is certainly rational—if the only dispute they have is that he sometimes gets salty or a bit rough, then these are hardly reasons to abandon him when one is in favor of the substantial things he does.
Some supporters do express concern about some of his policies and actions; this is what the “moderate” Republicans sometimes do in feeble and futile ways. For example, they might agree that the Ukraine incident was bad, but they still back him. In most cases, their motivations seem to be pragmatic: they get something from Trump or would pay a high price for not supporting him. For example, a Republican politician might get taken out in a primary if they earned Trump’s ire for daring to offer criticism or opposition. As another example, a wealthy person might loath Trump and dislike many of his policies and actions, yet really like the tax breaks and de-regulation that increase their wealth. This involves setting aside certain values for others, but this can also be quite rational. We all must make such judgments and it need not be foolish or wrong to select one value over another. This notion leads nicely to the next part of the discussion, how Trump supporters try to persuade others to support him.
When I and others are critical of Trump, his supporters who are willing to engage us in discussion will generally make the argument that Trump should be supported (or at least not loathed) because of the economy. For example, one might make the assertion that because the stock market is doing well, my retirement investments are doing well and because Trump is responsible for this, I should support him. Or at least stop attacking him. His supporters also respond to those who are critical of the racist policies under Trump by contending that African Americans ought to support Trump (or at least shut up) because their employment is said to be at an all time high. They are obviously making use of the basic principle most eloquently put by James Carville’s “the economy, stupid.” While Carville originally presented this as a talking focus for Clinton campaigners, it has become a general claim that what matters the most is the economy.
From a factual standpoint (that is, what has the strongest causal influence), this claim does have merit: people often claim to be most influenced in their voting by economic concerns and a president’s approval rating tends to be influenced by the economy. The first George Bush is often taken as an example of this: his approval rating was sky high after the victory in the first Gulf War; but crashed in correlation with the recession.
But what matters most can also be interpreted in terms of values: not simply what happens to have the most causal impact but on what should be regarded as most important, independent of its impact on voting and approval. When Trump supporters make claims about the economy being great and contend that these claims show that others should support Trump (or at least not attack him) they are not reporting on how people do or will act. Rather, their argument is that Trump should be supported because of the claimed economic success occurring during his administration.
From a factual standpoint, there are obvious problems with the premise of this argument. First, while the economy is relatively good, it is not as good as Trump claims in his lies. But is comparable to the economy under Obama—so not bad. Second, the economy is mostly good for the wealthy and not so good for everyone else. This is also comparable to the economy under Obama. Third, the influence of the president on the economy is often exaggerated. In good times, supporters of the president give him the credit, in bad time his opponents assign him the blame. As such, an honest version of the argument would be that the economy is about as good (and bad) as it was under Obama and Trump probably has little positive impact on the economy, so people should support Trump. Not a very strong argument. Naturally, Trump supporters will dispute these claims and assert (as Trump does in his lies) that the economy is the best ever and that it is mostly (or all) due to Trump. Let these claims be granted for the sake of argument. The Trump supporter version of the argument would be:
Premise 1: The economy is great.
Premise 2: This is because of Trump.
Conclusion: You should support Trump (or at least stop attacking him).
This argument is advanced, as noted above, to convince people who oppose Trump’s policies and actions to support Trump or at least stop criticizing him. I oppose many of Trump’s policies and actions. These include his racist immigration policies, his Ukraine debacle, his lack of support for the CDC, his tax cuts, his putting incompetent grifters into positions of power and so on. While Trump’s supporters would dispute my views on these matters, the economic argument is that I should set aside my moral concerns because of his (alleged) success with the economy (though I am actually not better off than I was under Obama). This sort of argument is an old one and ties into the original sin of America.
The slave owning founders, for the most part, recognized that slavery was morally wrong. They allowed it to continue for pragmatic reasons: profit and political support. Those who supported them but who had moral concerns about slavery were often swayed by similar reasons: slavery was crucial to the economy. People looked away, morally speaking, because they wanted to get paid. This approach has certainly persisted in America: people who have moral qualms often set them aside for economic reasons—and are often persuaded to do so.
I must clearly state that I am not saying that supporting Trump is the moral equivalent of supporting slavery. Rather, my point is that the original sin of America is putting economics over ethics. What Trump supporters are now asking me to do is analogous, albeit not as bad: they want me to set aside my moral concerns about Trump because of his alleged economic success. That is, I should look away because I am getting paid.
One could try to make a utilitarian case for this by arguing that the bad created by his actions and policies are outweighed by the good of the economic benefits of his presidency. But even if it is (wrongly) assumed that Trump is significantly responsible for the positive aspects of the economy it is not plausible to claim that most of his morally problematic actions and policies have anything to do with the economy. For example, his adventures with Ukraine certainly do not help the economy, nor do his racist immigration policies. If Trump did have to do morally problematic things to make the economy better, then one could make the utilitarian argument to justify those actions and policies. But the economy certainly cannot justify the evil actions and policies that do not impact the economy. To use an analogy, one could imagine a spouse who does some questionable things to make money for their family. These could be, perhaps, justified on utilitarian grounds. But this would not justify wrongdoing on their part that had nothing to do with making money. So, if mommy must do some shady business to pay for Timmy’s cancer treatment, then that could perhaps be justified. But the fact that she makes money would not, for example, justify mommy committing adultery, beating Timmy, or vandalizing the local mosque and synagogue. Likewise, for Trump; whatever he might have to do to allegedly improve the economy might perhaps be justified on utilitarian grounds. But this does not warrant his other numerous misdeeds. Those who believe he is a bad person doing bad things should not be swayed by an appeal to money; they should not look away just because they want to get paid.