I took a brief trip to Pittsburgh this week during the two-day outburst of treasonous remarks by Donald Trump, who first said he believed Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence services, then tried to weasel out of it by focusing on one word of one sentence of a long diatribe, but still managed to get in a dig undermining the intelligence agencies yet again.
Being in Pittsburgh meant I spent some time with two old friends who are Trump supporters. Although both are long-time Republicans, neither is a virulent racist and both are old-fashioned cold warriors, so their support of Trump in light of his denial of Russian tampering in the 2016 elections and the likelihood his campaign colluded with the Russians is both frightening and illuminating.
One of my friends is a high-level professional service vendor in his late 50s whose expertise mostly helps nonprofit organizations. He lives in a distant white suburb and is extremely Christian, building virtually all of his non-work life around his church. My guess is his family’s net worth is about like mine—upper middle class. The other friend is in his late 70s, retired from working for the government in a position in which he primarily interacted with poor people. For decades has also pursued a career in the arts that has made him prominent local presence. He lives in a diverse city neighborhood and has libertarian views on social matters, although he is definitely against a woman’s absolute right to get an abortion. He barely scrapes by on his pension and savings.
There are many things that should have offended these guys about Trump from the first. His all-too-frequent rude comments and multiple marriages and affairs should have disgusted my Christian friend. As a small business entrepreneur, he should have seen through Trump’s bluster and realized the Donald is a bad businessperson except in the narrow specialty of mass-appeal branding. He should have also resented the thousands of lawsuits filed against Trump for breaking contracts with small contractors and suppliers. The racism and treatment of women should have turned off my friend who lives in the city, who has a number of African-American acquaintances and is what I call a “true ladies’ man,” meaning he always has a lady friend because he respects women and treats them as equal, at least in public.
Both of these guys have a hard time accepting reality when it contradicts their beliefs, but in profoundly different ways. The fervent Christian is used to dealing with facts and reality and is ready to accept science, but when the facts undermine his basic beliefs, the scales seem to fall from his eyes for literally a nanosecond before forming again as he retreats into an almost catatonic state in which he keeps repeating a core doctrine. Several times over the years I have tried to convince him that lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations does not create jobs or grow the economy. I have carefully explained that the government spends all its money, whereas rich folk and business put their extra cash from a tax break into assets that form bubbles, like real estate and secondary stock market. He admitted that he—like me—has put the proceeds from our recent tax break into the secondary stock market, meaning it doesn’t go to any company and creates no new jobs. He had this moment of realization that I was right and then his eyes glazed over and he said in an affectless, hypnotized drone, “Tax cuts are good. We should cut taxes more.” Another time, he and a group of other conservatives who all owned companies that serve nonprofit organizations were complaining that their business was down. I patiently explained that a large number of their clients depend on government contracts and cuts by federal and state governments were choking these organizations. I proposed that we raise taxes to what they once had been so the state had more money to fund these organizations, all of which deliver vital services. Again, I could see the look of epiphany in their eyes—the beam that says, Eureka, “Yes, he’s right!” Then almost in unison, as if members of a cult, they said, “Can’t raise taxes. Must lower taxes more.” My friend’s faith in the false Reaganist creed of cutting taxes is as strong as his faith in the truth of every word in the Bible.
My other friend argues from a cynicism born of no faith in anything. He explicitly states that he prefers to believe a single anecdote that supports his argument than reams of facts and studies that prove that what he thinks is wrong. Now in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman uses extensive research to show that many if not most people are exactly the same, putting more credence in anecdotes than facts. But hardly anyone admits it as brazenly as my friend, who reasons that all research is suspect because it always reflects the biases of the people or organizations paying for it. He lives in a post-Karl Rove world in which reality is a construct of those strong enough to force their version on everyone else. It was Rove who said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” My friend’s argues that if all research is inherently corrupt, he might as well believe the stuff that supports his side. It’s the scholarly equivalent of fake news. All news is fake and all pursuits of knowledge are fake. If it sounds like Machiavellian rhetoric, that’s because it is. His true belief may rely on faith, but he maintains it through a cynical and amoral disregard of truth. In this, he resembles Trump.
When I asked them why they continue to support Trump, I get the same answer: Trump has done more good than bad. They mention they like the tax breaks, the Supreme Court justices and placing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. They also point out that they don’t like the tariffs. No mention of the treatment of immigrants or the massive rollback of regulations that protect the environment and consumers. In a real way, my friends reflect the attitude of Republican leadership, which forgives anything Trump does or says, as long as they get their tax breaks, relief from government regulation and a conservative Supreme Court. If Trump delivers those things, they’ll overlook all of the man’s failings. And that includes treason.