Oh, the times they have a’ changed, but not for the good. As Jonathon Freedland has noted in an opinion piece in the Guardian, the recording released in late July by Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, speaking to Trump about the need to pay hush money to Karen McDougal, would have likely been enough to undo any recent presidency, including Clinton’s. It implicates the president not only in the sordid affair, but in possible campaign finance breaches. Yet, the fact is that hardcore Trump supporters are simply unswayed by traditional moral argument. The “moral realm” they inhabit is one in which any act by Trump, however brazen, is justifiable as long as it keeps Democrats out of office — because the greatest moral threat to the country, in their view, comes not from the daily lies, the sexually predatory behavior or even the threat to our global political alliances of the president but from Democratic policies.
Some of them see this great threat to consist in the Democratic Party’s cultural policies, which support gay marriage and abortion, promote equal pay for women, and support diversity in education and the workplace and a more generous immigration policy. Each of these policies is thought to threaten traditional ways of life.
But the hostility extends toward social programs to alleviate the poor, to provide medical care for all, to increase debt relief for students, and to regulate corporations. Insofar as these are connected with tax increases, much of Trump’s base rejects them — even if those tax increases are only for the wealthiest Americans. In the positive light in which Trump supporters see this, their own policy choices reflect the value of self-reliance. Everyone is to take care of themselves. Policies that require solidarity are to be rejected — even if when we look around the world we see that they pay off in higher life expectancies, greater literacy rates, lower infant morality rates and a host of other quality of life issues.
Much of this is tied to a hyper-masculinity. The cultural policies outlined threaten the dominance of white males in America. The fiscal policies noted require empathy and point to a sense of community responsibility, both of which are rejected by the hyper-masculine, who live in a world where each takes care of himself, and there is no acknowledgement of the social character of the self, but an illusion is cultivated that each of us is self-made, not a product of our own decisions against the backdrop of cultural and social forces that were not of our choosing.
So Trump can do what he wills. He will suffer no repercussions from his staunch base because that base has a quasi-religious ideological entrenchment. When it comes down to it, many of them will chalk up the political dispute to cultural values. Of primary importance to many of them is a cultural war, in which they see themselves as the preserver of traditional values and, as startlingly mad as it may seem, view Trump as the champion of these values. Because Trump at times talks with respect about traditions they value (even while invoking prejudice and sexism), is willing to make promises about them that he cannot keep and fights against a world that makes his base feel uneasy, his greatest sins are forgivable. The Democrats, by contrast, threaten Trump’s base with an openness to new cultural mores and with the support of policies that require, as Obama put it, quoting scripture, that we acknowledge that we are each our brothers (and sisters) keeper.
It does not appear that this will change. In fact, the more frightened the Trump supporters become, and the more who join them in the fear, the less open these voters will be to policies that reflect openness and challenge us to social solidarity.
For now, we find ourselves in a strange, topsy-turvy world where a base strongly supports the least moral president in our lifetime at least in part for reasons that many of them find morally imperative.