Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Trump's Base

Over the last couple of years, it's become common to hear policy discussions about the Trump Administration, which typically include the word base. Speakers will use the phrase "Trump's base" or "he's playing to his base" or similar remarks, which are clearly intended to suggest that the President's actions are deliberately (or cynically) designed to please those who support him, or to fulfill promises or implied obligations he may have made or suggested when he campaigned for office. 

Though this use of the word "base" doesn't sound new, its use in connection with a President--this President--seems fairly novel. I've listened to political discussions and political talk shows for 40 years, and I couldn't recall any previous President referred to in this way. "Trump's base." Can anyone recall "Reagan's base" or "Clinton's base" or "Obama's base"? 

What exactly do they mean when they say a President's "base"? 

Presidents are elected by the people, through the persuasions of expressed policy or attitude, and in large measure the elections are about political parties. But parties are only one way of defining the differences among the electorate. Inside or outside parties, people can be grouped or segregated according to interest, background, age, social class, wealth, etc. People who vote for a candidate may be said to comprise a society of supporters, those whose interest in and support for that candidate transcends the momentary act of voting, those few minutes during which one actually casts a ballot. 

There are many reasons that people choose to vote for one candidate over another, but it seems safe to say that they do so with the expectation that their choice is likely to fulfill the promises--stated or implied--by the words of the candidate during the campaign. 

In a democratic society, the will of the people is assumed to be represented by its elected officials, though of course that will may be thwarted in various ways. Candidates may lie about their positions of intentions. Minority lawmakers may find it impossible to get anything done against the tide of the voting majority. The influence of money or lobbying may work against the actual sentiment of the public. 

What is new, it seems to me, is the way that opponents of our current President tend to demonize those who voted for him, or who attend his "rallies" or "vote" in polls--by referring to them as "his base." 

In what way, perchance, is Trump's "base" different in kind or type, to Obama's "base" or Bush's "base" or any President's base of support?

By continually referring to Trump's base, it seems that commentators or critics are trying to suggest that there's an illegitimacy to Trump's support, a sort of stubborn ignorance to it, a reliably naive or counter-intuitive obsession, to which the President feels obligated to turn whenever he's on the spot or cornered--a retreat to a defensible position, from which he can rely upon his army of obedient supporters.

But how is the support that Trump may claim, different in kind or intensity, either unique or new? 

All this mention of "base" it seems to me is an attempt to de-legitimize those in the electorate who voted for, or continue to support him. It's an attempt to make those constituents into grotesques or benighted fools, unfit for the democratic responsibility of self-governance.

Who would be dumb enough to vote for Trump? Dumb enough to support his policies? 

46% of Americans who voted in the 2016 election, or almost 63 million people, voted for Trump. That's what they mean when they refer to Trump's base. Of course, there are varying degrees of support, which may change and shift over time. Perhaps the "base" they're referring to is his most rabid, most stubborn supporters, those who will stand by him no matter what he does or says.

But all this "base" talk seems pretty basic to me. Clinton had his base, and Obama had his. Abraham Lincoln had his base, and so did FDR.

Pretty basic stuff.