In my relentless attempts to understand the Trump base, I’ve reframed the question we keep asking: “Can you imagine how the Republicans would be reacting if Obama did the same things?” The consensus answer to this is that the GOP would have had their hair on fire from Revelation One, even as we find it inconceivable that Obama could have ever done 1/100 of the crimes Trump has gotten away with.
But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine Obama engaged in some kind egregious conduct within the first two years of his Presidency, revealed only after he passed so much progressive legislation. Let’s even imagine that we on the left reluctantly agreed he had crossed a line, and done something genuinely impeachable. When I do this thought experiment, I have no trouble imagining how extremely reluctant I would have been to support Obama’s impeachment, no matter what his guilt, because I couldn’t have borne the possibility that the first chance in 8 years we had to really move this country forward might be thwarted, and the 2012 election put into doubt. That scenario would have absolutely panicked me, and I think most of you.
So when I apply a mirror version of this thinking to the Trump base, I have to also re-imagine what they feared before he was elected. In their minds, the country was galloping towards a future in which they were required to speak Spanish, in which they would go to jail if they used their guns to defend themselves against home invaders (armed and black and crazed on PCP, of course). They saw a future in which they would be denied cancer care because a bureaucratic death panel decided they would die anyway and needed the money for a trans person in prison to get a sex change. A future in which they could lose their job because they told a dirty joke to a co-worker in earshot of their undocumented Latinx lesbian boss.
And then came Trump, making one basic promise in the formulation of MAGA: your accidents of birth will feel like accomplishments again. And indeed, since his election, even if nothing much has actually changed in their lives, inside their minds, being white, English-speaking Christian Americans no longer feels simply like who they are, but something they’ve done. They feel elevated back to a status they felt was unjustly taken from them by condescending coastal latte-sipping libtards who had no idea what their lives were really like, how hard they worked, how God-fearing they were.
So of course the more guilty Trump is, the more panic they feel, the more they double down on supporting him no matter what. For three years they’ve felt their self-esteem expand like a balloon, inflated by his hot air, allowing them to float above the rest of us in their mind’s eye. Of course they can’t bear the idea of it popping.
As a liberal gay man who lives in a highly mixed urban immigrant-heavy neighborhood, I know from daily personal experience that their dark vision of where Democrats would take America is ridiculous — nothing but Fox-fueled fear. But because it’s irrational to me, doesn’t mean it’s not real to them. Every bit as real as my certainty that Trump and the GOP are hurtling the planet further into irreversible climate change, robber-baron income inequality, and a rapid degradation of clean air and water — among so many other nightmare policies.
What we can’t do is keep asking: But don’t they see? How can they not understand? — as if they’re drawing conclusions from the same well of information. They’re not. However wrong are the conclusions they draw is not the point. The resulting fear is just as real and rational to them as my fears are to me. To understand the base, I need to feel my own fear and acknowledge that they are feeling that same physical sensation in the stomach, that anxiety in the mind, the deep discomfort at the certainty that what lies ahead is very, very bad.
I still think my fears are incalculably more valid than theirs — but when a 4-year old cries about the non-existent monster under her bed, we don’t say “You’re being ridiculous” do we? We acknowledge that the fear she’s feeling is still real, even if what’s causing it isn’t.
We may feel utterly alienated by anyone who could support this wretched incompetent narcissist, but we must also realize that as a practical matter, we still have to share a country with them when Trump is gone. Detaching the causes of our fears from the experience of fear itself is a way to repair that fraying footbridge over the ideological chasm that divides us. We may perceive two entirely different canyon floors beneath us, but the fear of falling is exactly the same.