Trump Supporters Reject Choice, Tradeoffs

The president’s fans wish to escape from a complex reality.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Two recent stories have similar takes on what motivated millions of Americans to vote for Donald Trump:

  • Masha Gessen draws on Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) to argue in The New York Review of Books that Trump’s supporters are overwhelmed by freedom of choice and would rather cede agency to a strongman. Hence Trump’s obsession with those who embody choice: immigrants and transgenders.
  • Adam Garfinkle and Aviezer Tucker argue more specifically in The American Interest that it is a complex reality Trump’s fans wish to escape from:

We know it is impossible to vulgarly deride and offend most of humanity and still be respected and able to project soft power. We know it is impossible to reduce all taxes and not either increase government deficits or decrease the value of the currency — or both. We know it is impossible to have protectionist trade policies and at the same time develop a competitive innovative economy with long-term economic growth. Yet how pleasurable it would be to avoid the tradeoffs that reality forces on us.

This isn’t new, nor unique

An unwillingness to think for oneself and accept the complexities of policy has undermined freedom and democracy in countries around the world.

The United States were never immune from this, but — until Trump — did seem less susceptible to the authoritarian temptation.

Conservative columnist George Will argued during the 2016 presidential primaries that Trump’s unexpected success showed Americans could be “beguiled by a summons to Caesarism” after all.

A Quinnipiac University survey found that 95 percent of Republicans supporting Trump that year felt America needed “a powerful political leader who will save us from the problems we face”. 72 percent agreed that real leaders “don’t worry about what other people say, they follow their own path” — causing the Brookings Institution’s William A. Galston to remark that Trump’s voters were “literally looking for a savior who will solve our problems singlehandedly.”

Of course, it never works

I have argued before that what America needs is not a powerful individual who can break the deadlock in Washington but rather a national consensus for change.

Megan McArdle has argued that the country’s political system “is set up precisely to frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea.”

Governing is not like building a building; it’s not like running a business. It’s like, well, trying to herd three branches of government in roughly the same direction. These branches are composed of thousands of people, each of whom has their own agenda, and represents millions more, each of whom has their own agenda and will hound out of office anyone who strays too far from it.

It may be a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to run a country, but that is the price Americans pay for representative democracy.