Donald Trump’s approval rating among American adults has generally fluctuated around 43%; roughly that percentage, maybe even a little higher, will vote for his re-election. These facts are both appalling and bewildering. Appalling because, his destructive policies aside, Trump personally is so obviously unfit for the presidency—unfit psychologically, intellectually and morally. He is no less obviously a horrible human being—a malignant narcissist who is indifferent to the toxic consequences of his endless drive for self-aggrandizement. His relative popularity is bewildering for much the same reasons. We can’t help asking: how can millions and millions of our fellow citizens view this grotesque figure with anything but revulsion?
Perhaps we can find Trump’s popular support less puzzling if we break it down into recognizable subgroups. Trump supporters, I submit, fall into three categories: the base, the cynical and the passive.
The base are the wild enthusiasts who see Trump as practically incapable of wrongdoing. They are cultists and he is their leader. Many, probably most of them, are motivated by racism and xenophobia. Many, probably most of them, are motivated by cultural grievance, a sense of loss of their America: a mostly white, God-fearing, Christian America whose modal family is headed by a straight male. An important part of the change they see and deplore is the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs that has produced a rustbelt of shuttered factories and downtowns through much of the country. They view politicians—especially Washington politicians–as indifferent to their economic and cultural grievances and they see Trump as the disrupter who shakes things up and fights for them.
The cynical among Trump supporters are generally more sophisticated than the base. They understand, at least on some level, that Trump is a scoundrel and a dunce, but they don’t care that much. They like the performance of the economy under Trump; they like his tax cuts and they like his de-regulation. They may not be virulent racists, but neither are they particularly troubled by American racism. Most of them can probably be considered lite racists.
The passive fall in between the base and the cynical. They think Trump is a good but fallible guy who wants to do right, but they are not so enraptured of him as the base, and generally less focused on politics.
So, how many people fit into each of these categories? A couple of years ago I did a post challenging the common notion that Trump’s base constituted one-third or more of the population. I pegged the actual number at about one-quarter. I have seen no reason to change that estimate. For example, one recent poll showed just 27% of registered voters “strongly approve” of Trump. Since it’s reasonable to assume that strong approvers might include a few cynics and passives, an estimate of 25% for Trump’s base is if anything a bit high. But let’s stay with it for now.
How large are the cynical and passive segments? According to a 2019 poll, only 30% of Americans considered Trump honest; 26% of Republicans consider him dishonest. Keeping in mind the 43% of Americans (overwhelmingly Republicans) who can be considered Trump supporters, these two numbers together suggest that around 10-12% of the public supports Trump even though they consider him dishonest. Let’s say 11%. These are our cynics. The remaining 7% (43%-25%-11%) are the passives.
Survey data suggests that about two-thirds of Trump’s base are white working class (WWC) people. It’s harder to characterize the cynics and the passives, but my guess is that the WWC are also heavily represented among the passives, while the cynics are more upscale in income and education.
Does this help? Does this breakdown of Trump supporters make it somehow more understandable, less upsetting, that over 40% of our fellow citizens support a sociopathic jerk as their president? Maybe not, but maybe it is helpful to remember that most Americans are simply not as attentive to and sophisticated about politics as you are. (I know you are because you’re reading this.) Most people don’t have the time or inclination to pay much attention to current affairs. That’s certainly true for most of Trump’s passive supporters, but probably also for many of the cynics and even for a significant portion of his base. While outright malevolence—notably, racism and xenophobia—are important determinants of Trump’s support, we need to consider that passivity, indifference and cynicism are also in play.