This is the first in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, is especially virulent, as if he alone has been solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the erroneous idea that our fixation on Trump is warrented – as if he were not just the leading actor in the virus drama but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.
I – The Base
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” So said Donald Trump in Iowa in January 2016, when he was campaigning for president. He was not suggesting he was intending to kill. He was boasting there was nothing he could do that would deter or derail his most fervent and fervid followers. They would, he predicted, remain fervent and fervid – loyal to him personally and politically, loyal to him above all. To a remarkable degree Trump was proved right. Despite gaping flaws in his character, and despite gaping flaws in his personality, and despite gaping flaws in his performance, what Americans came to call Trump’s “base” has continued to stand with him.
Estimates of the size of his base vary, in part because its size has varied over time. For example, in the immediate wake of his 2019 State of the Union speech, President Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was a sky high 97 percent, whereas in the immediate wake of the coronavirus crisis his approval rating among Republicans was only 87 percent. What? “Only 87 percent”?! As recently as early April 87 percent of Republicans still thought the president was doing a good job?! Yes. Moreover even by late April evidence was that the country’s deeply entrenched partisan divide was still precluding the president from losing more than a few percentage points on his overall rating.
Let me be clear: numbers like these can deceive or, at least, mislead. For example, most polls do not distinguish between weak approval ratings and strong ones. Case in point was last fall, when polls indicated that whereas 74 percent of Democratic registered voters strongly disapproved of President Trump, only 50 percent of Republic registered voters strongly approved of him. Still, even his detractors agree that his base – his core group of diehard followers – is approximately one third of American voters. Moreover, at least until the current crises – the public health crisis and the financial crisis – the president’s approval ratings have stayed remarkably stable. Whereas in every other recent administration, the president’s numbers were irregular, so far at least Trump’s numbers have been regular. His approval ratings were never as high as Richard Nixon’s, or George W. Bush’s, or Barack Obama’s – but they have, again, so far at least never sunk so low. As Don P. McAdams noted last winter in the Atlantic, “Unlike all other presidents [Trump] has never exceeded a 47 percent approval rating. But he has rarely dipped much below 37 percent. He has a sizable core of support that refuses to shrink.” This after all the damning evidence unearthed by the investigation of Robert Mueller, by the impeachment proceeding, and by the repeated indications of everything from financial corruption to sexual misconduct.
The stability and durability of Trump’s base has never been fully understood. McAdams provided a psychoanalytical explanation: he speculated that Trump enables his admirers to “feel a rush of excitement and allure.” They enjoy, he writes, being in the presence, really or virtually, of such a “beautiful figure – or a powerful, creative, dynamic, charismatic, or intriguing figure.” Tim Alberta, in contrast, provided a political explanation: To consider Trump’s “unwavering support” within the Republican party is to recognize “the essential ingredients of American life: instinctual outrage and involuntary contempt, geographical clustering and clannish identification, moral relativism and self-victimization.” (Alberta’s book on Trump and the Republican party is titled, American Carnage.) For further insights I suggest the best literature on charismatic leadership: far from implying a casual connection it describes the powerful bond between the charismatic leader and his (charismatic leaders usually are men) enthralled followers.
Whatever the source of the base’s unswerving support is, obviously, less important than its effect. Its effect has been to give Donald Trump a rock-solid foundation on which to stand first during his campaign, and then after he became president. Its effect has been to enable him to do whatever he has done – and is continuing to do even now. It is impossible to understand the leadership of the American president without understanding the followership of the Americans who make up his base.