'Trumpism' and the Rift Between Belief and Truth

To some conservatives, “real Americans” and “ordinary folks” are getting a raw deal. But just because it seems that way doesn’t make it so.

Evan Vucci / AP

The number of high-profile conservative commentators who enthusiastically support Donald Trump is relatively small. But the number of high-profile conservative commentators who enthusiastically support “Trumpism” is higher. Trumpism is the belief that Trump’s followers constitute the “real America” and that anyone who does not validate their grievances is an elitist who neither understands nor cares about ordinary folks.

Few columnists have embraced Trumpism more fervently than The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. In her writing, Noonan rarely cites interviews with actual Trump supporters or polls about what they actually believe. Nonetheless, she regularly speaks on their behalf. “Trump supporters have a more grounded sense of America and its problems” than do GOP elites, she wrote in June. “What Trump supporters believe, what they perceive as they watch him, is that he is on America’s side,” she declared in April. “And that comes as a great relief to them, because they believe that for 16 years Presidents Bush and Obama were largely about ideologies. They seemed not so much on America’s side as on the side of abstract notions about justice and the needs of the world.”

When a commentator employs the verb “seem,” they’re giving themselves permission to ignore what “is.” To many Trump supporters, it certainly does “seem” that Obama isn’t “on America’s side.” After all, fully 59 percent of Trump supporters think he wasn’t born in the United States, according to a May Public Policy Polling survey. And according to a June Quinnipiac poll, 55 percent of Republicans (among Trump supporters, the figure is almost certainly higher) agree with Trump that Obama “may sympathize with terrorist organizations such as ISIS.”

This is, indeed, what “Trump supporters believe.” It’s also false, paranoid, and bigoted. Unfortunately, in her desire to align herself with those “real Americans”—who don’t read The Wall Street Journal op-ed page—Noonan has adopted the habit of implying that whatever Trump supporters or their xenophobic European counterparts “believe” is true. Then she excoriates politicians for not shifting their policies in response.

Take Noonan’s latest column about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision last summer to admit 800,000 asylum seekers. “The result,” Noonan writes, “has been widespread public furor over crime, cultural dissimilation, and fears of terrorism.” Notice the conflation of perception and reality. Noonan doesn’t quite say that refugees increase rates of crime and terrorism or that they don’t assimilate, whatever that means. That would require evidence. (In fact, German police report that refugees are less likely to commit crime than other Germans and that the vast majority of crime they do commit is nonviolent.) Instead, Noonan merely says there has been a “public furor” about crime, terrorism, and a refusal to assimilate. Then she’s off to the races, excoriating Merkel for her insensitivity to those ordinary Germans “dealing with crime and extremism.”

Obviously, large-scale immigration—whether to the United States or Germany—brings strains as well as benefits. But Noonan makes no real effort to weigh them. (As evidence of the terrorism German refugees commit, she cites a July massacre at a Munich McDonald’s by a mentally disturbed, bullied German-Iranian teenager who, according to news reports, was inspired by the right-wing Norwegian mass-murderer Andres Breivik.) Rather, Noonan begins with the fears of those people most hostile to immigration, whom she dubs the “unprotected,” and attacks as elitist anyone who doesn’t make policy based on their desires. The phrase itself is revealing.

Which Americans, according to Noonan’s definition, are “unprotected”? Not African Americans or Latinos, who overwhelmingly loathe Trump and generally support pro-immigration candidates. (After all, haven’t conservatives spent decades saying African Americans are too protected by the government?) Not young people, who also largely shun Trump and disproportionately back a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, despite being more economically vulnerable than their elders. By “unprotected,” Noonan means the older, overwhelmingly white, largely male Americans who support Trump.

The problem with this categorization is that, compared with the rest of the American population, Trump supporters are fairly well protected. They are protected by their race and gender and even their age, since the American welfare state takes far better care of the elderly than of the young. As Nate Silver has noted, Trump supporters actually earn more than supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. After concluding a massive new study comparing Trump supporters with Americans at large, Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell recently noted that, although Trump says his supporters are “suffering because of globalization, … suffering because of immigration and a diversifying country, … I can’t find any evidence of that.”

What distinguishes Trump supporters is not their economic vulnerability. It’s their cultural, religious, and racial resentment. That doesn’t mean they don’t face economic hardship to which the government should respond. But it means that if the government responds to actual economic hardship, rather than the demographic anxiety that Noonan conflates with it, leaders will pursue policies utterly different from the ones she proposes. Making college more affordable, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and expanding the earned income-tax credit might not alleviate the anxieties of those Trump supporters bothered by a less white, less Christian, and less patriarchal America. Such policies would, however, help millions of Americans make ends meet.

Throughout her column, Noonan suggests that Merkel, Obama, and other elites favor admitting refugees because they feel “little loyalty” to their “countrymen” and are instead motivated by “selfishness and mad virtue-signaling.” How, exactly, admitting refugees constitutes “selfishness” on Merkel’s or Obama’s part, Noonan doesn’t explain. But the claim of “virtue-signaling” is intriguing. Noonan seems genuinely offended by those global leaders who think they bear a moral obligation to save some of the Syrians fleeing murder, starvation, and rape. Sanctimonious snobs! Holier-than-thou hypocrites! When will they start listening to the common people again?

I look forward to Noonan’s next column, on the worst offender of all. She can start composing it the next time she goes to Mass.

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