why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

(Washington DC) Kevin Drum imagines how a Trump fan receives the president’s tweets:

You’re at home, watching the Factor, and O’Reilly is going on about the crime problem in Chicago. It’s outrageous! The place is a war zone! Somebody should do something!

Then, a few minutes later, you see Trump’s tweet. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Damn straight, you think. They need the National Guard to set things straight there. Way to go, President Trump.

This exchange is good enough for you–on its own. You don’t really want Trump to send the feds into Chicago, whatever that might mean. If it would cost money or create a precedent for federal intervention in your town, or anything like that, you might actually be against it. But your media stream will never give you an update on whether Trump sent in the feds or what happened to the murder rate in Chicago. You are immersed in media that consists largely of bad news about places you don’t like. You are satisfied that the guy in charge shares your opinion and has announced he’s on it. He even quotes verbatim the same stats you just saw on O’Reilly. It’s a magic solution–at last.

I think more or less the same will happen as a result of Trump’s announcement today that Mexico will pay for the border wall via a 20% import tax. That is highly unlikely to occur, because Congress would have to enact the tax, and I’m guessing the economic effects would be awful if it did; but Trump’s fans will probably never get an update. They may hear about battles between the president and Congress over taxes, but those will take the form of specific insults flung from his end of Pennsylvania Ave. up to the Hill, which they will endorse. Each exchange will be an event unto itself.

I happen to think that this kind of politics has yuge political limitations for Trump. Most people already disapprove of him, and his welcome is going to wear even thinner when people’s actual lives fail to improve. In turn, massive disapproval will weaken his already shaky position. But it’s still a very dangerous situation, at best, and is very far from any reasonable model of a democracy.

My explanation is that millions of Americans have lost all expectation that leaders will be accountable to them. At the national level, they are not getting very good results from the government that purports to represent them. At the local level, they have lost the kinds of institutions that used to depend on people like them. To reprise a graph from a recent post, here is the trend in the proportion of people who belong to a church and/or a union:

For all their flaws, these are the kinds of institutions that make promises and then have to deliver. If they fail, their members know about it and complain, act up, or walk out. A union or a church has a real covenant with its members. When people have no such expectations of accountability, they are much more likely to be satisfied because the boss just tweeted something they agreed with. Again, I think Trump’s own appeal will wear even thinner than it is now, but the underlying problem is a lack of accountable organizations in many communities.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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