The “Base” Remains the Same
Despite John McCain’s “heroic” vote to kill the “skinny repeal” (whatever that means) of Obamacare, don’t expect Trump followers to stop believing in their President. Even with “the Mooch” waxing profane (how does the uber “Christian” Sarah Chucklehead Sanders defend that?) and the President continuing to express his “displeasure” with the Attorney General while simultaneously trying to dismantle LGBTQ civil rights, nothing shakes the faith of the True Believers --- that 36% or so who believe their fearless leader is doing all he can to “drain the swamp” and surely deserves to be on Mount Rushmore. For many on the Left it is hard to fathom how anyone, at this point, can still support the man. If you happen to be one of those folks, who just keeps shaking his/her head as we watch the office of the President suffer daily degradation, here’s a theory as to why that 36% will remain firm, no matter what he does.
Back in February of 2008 Susan Jacoby wrote a piece in the Washington Post entitled “The Dumbing of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces.” It opened with this:
Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.
The reference to “video culture . . . mean(ing) every form of digital media” dates the article and shows how far we have moved away from “print culture” in a bit less than a decade. What Jacoby chronicled was the rise of what I will call “screen culture” over print. As she noted:
Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book -- fiction or nonfiction -- over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004. This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing and video games.
Without even researching how those numbers may have changed further, it is pretty clear that by the 2016 election, even fewer people were reading books and Facebook, Twitter, and online news “sources” (of varying credibility) now held sway. In another prescient piece of research from Jacoby’s 2008 piece:
As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.
Certainly by 2016 the “candidate’s own voice” was often replaced by the candidate’s Twitter feed and “consumers” were even more impatient with acquiring information through written language. What compounds this source of growing ignorance (what Jacoby calls “Dumbness”) is what she rightly identifies as “anti-rationalism” and, again, she foresaw exactly where we were headed:
That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
Further evidence of the unshakable stance of Trump supporters has been provided by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economics PhD who is the author of Everybody Lies. Stephens-Davidowitz has used Google searches as a primary source for researching voter (and personal) behavior and preferences. According to Sean Illing in the June 13, 2017 Vox:
The idea was that you could get far better real-time information about what people are thinking by looking at Google Trends data than you could through polls or some other survey device.
Stephens-Davidowitz’s reasoning is that, “People tell Google things that they don't tell to possibly anybody else, things they might not tell to family members, friends, anonymous surveys, or doctors” and what he uncovered during 2016 is quite revealing, indeed. Mining Google search data, Stephens-Davidowitz found:
Searches containing racist epithets and jokes were spiking across the country during Trump’s primary run, and not merely in the South but in upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, rural Illinois, West Virginia, and industrial Michigan. Stephens-Davidowitz saw in the Google Trends data a racially polarized electorate, and one primed to respond to the ethno-nationalist rhetoric of Trump.
Stephens-Davidowitz was one of the few pundits who predicted a Trump victory based on what the Google Search data was telling him. He had found, in 2008, on Obama’s election night “one in every hundred Google searches that included the word ‘Obama’ also included ‘KKK’ or the n-word. Searches for racist websites like Stormfront also spiked.” So, information from 2008 --- Stephens-Davidowitz’s Google data and Jacoby’s Washington Post article --- were pointing toward 2016, though we may not have recognized at the time, or even in the fall of 2016.
The inherent, deeply seated racism in non-urban America, combined with the increasing ignorance and anti-rationalism (and pride in the ignorance) that has accompanied our move toward digital culture has not only fueled Trumpism but also solidifies the unwavering commitment for a segment of our population. I doubt the 36% will change or can be moved --- Trump was probably correct in saying he could “shoot someone right out on 5th Avenue” and not lose a voter --- but I do believe the other 74% of us can salvage what will be left of the United States by 2020.