Analysis by Reporting San Diego
Feb 6, 2017 (San Diego) We have seen the polls. Donald Trump is the lowest polling president at this stage of the presidency since polls have been taken. Yet, we know he is still popular since at least 47 percent of Americans favor a Muslim ban. This is when understanding American history is very useful. There are several dynamics at play.
The first is the silent majority made famous during the Richard Nixon years. During those years many polls got it wrong simply because people who were polled did not answer what they believed. There was a certain social pressure not to admit that you were a Nixon supporter. This became increasingly true as the Watergate scandal took root. Early during the scandal polls were not good at reading the true mood of the country.
People knew there was a problem. There is more, Nixon knew as early as 1969, that he was not going to keep some of his promises. This he spoke in a speech: “…I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace that I have chosen. Honest and patriotic Americans have reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved. In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading, “Lose the war in Vietnam. Bring the boys home.”
Nixon was not unlike Donald Trump. He was sure of his cause, even if it meant increasing US involvement in Vietnam. He had the backing of the voters, and those voters would return him to the White House with a landslide of unheard proportions in 1972. In time he would fall from grace, and that silent majority did remain quiet and increasingly nonsupportive.
The Polls and Trump
It is critical to understand how polls work. They can tell us a lot about the whole country from a small sample since they use statistics. How good or bad a poll is dependent on the size of the sample, how the sample is chosen, and the questionnaire. Some samples tend to be more Democratic, others lean Republican, the best try to be even handed on this.
National polls also rely on samples that include people from all over the county, and in any ideal world polls are far from self-selected. We are having a major problem with polls, however. Increasing numbers of people simply refuse to answer polls. They also tend to rely on an older population, since they still rely on landlines for their sample. Given the number of younger Americans who only have cell phones, this already means polls will skew older. This has been a criticism of polls for some time now.
For the record, this is not just an American problem. Pollsters misread the movement for Scottish independent and the Brexit vote. They have misread a few other elections around the world.
We know some of the reasons:
Pollsters primarily blame recent failures on two factors: “the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys,” says political scientist Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.
Then there are the feedback loops that mean we will talk about the results of polls, giving a policy, or a candidate, a push. Then there is another problem. What happens if we essentially have a panel of people who are willing to answer polls?
Whether they are cold calling or they have created a panel of individuals that they can repeatedly survey, polling companies all face the same basic issue of how to incentivize people to answer questions.
Some pollsters such as Pew Research Center pay respondents nothing, while others like YouGov offer credits that can be slowly saved up towards gift vouchers. What if the sort of people who are willing to spend hours with little or no reward have something in common? What if they tend to be consistently more conservative? More liberal? Wouldn’t that skew all the poll results in a certain direction? I’ve seen no research on this point, but it certainly seems a potential flaw worth considering.
Then there is another aspect. Some started to ask this question early. For example, Ives Smith did early on in Naked Capitalism. What if people are embarrassed to say they support Donald Trump? We know this happened during the Nixon era. So how much do we have to add to the MoE to account for this? It is not a simple question to answer, but one that I suspect we will continue to deal with as the years of the Trump administration pass by, especially if we have a major crisis.
The President of the United States calling negative polls fake news is just another attack on science and statistics. One that actually relies on ignorance of the target audience, which is the silent majority. This silent majority knows they are correct, in their cause. It is a moral cause, and as such, they cannot be wrong. For the moment, they cannot conceive their support could lead to trouble.
For a parallel, we can explore the Nixon era. The voters did not believe he was a wrong choice as late as 1973, and as the scandal unfolded, voters started first becoming quiet as to whom they voted for, but then denied they voted for Nixon.
This brings us down to what those in the resistance need to do. The first thing is that they need to recognize the dynamic. There are people they know that voted for Trump that will not admit to it. This is especially the case with members of different minority groups or even immigrants. This also applies to people who voted for Trump to send a rock through the window but did not expect that window to actually be shattered. They did not expect to lose their health insurance for example. These are the first cracks in the silent majority. We have seen them. Those who had family who is affected by the ban, or those who are now afraid of losing the insurance they have obtained for the first time in their lives.
There is another layer of doubt starting to coalesce. These are are the people who depend on social services, such as SNAP, to survive. They need those services to put food on the table. They are the first layer of a crack in this silent majority.
The last mistake people can make is embarrassing them.
Campaign Promises Already Broken
The promises that have already been broken offer another potential line of division within the silent majority. So far these are the major items the new administration has not fulfilled. The first is the Wall. During the campaign, and there was a lot of racism at play as well, Trump promised to build a big and beautiful wall between the United States and Mexico. This would keep Mexicans out and would be paid by Mexico.
For those of us familiar with history, this demand that Mexico pay for a wall, which is not going to be met by Mexico has a parallel in World History. This is the Danzig Crisis. The port of Danzig was deep in Poland, and Germany demanded it is returned to its control after the rise of Hitler. There were other things that the Nazi regime did, among them expel Germans of Polish decent.
The wall is creating a crisis where one does not exist. Danzig became the excuse for Germany to invade Poland. We are not saying history is repeating itself, but it is critical to maintaining a level of awareness of this. Trump has gone after Mexico starting with his first speech, and he is in the process of denying the humanity of Mexicans. This is following the well-honed road for an ethnic cleansing. It is also becoming an impossible promise to keep. There is resistance now, not just from Mexico City, but congressional leadership.
One thing Trump promised was to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It is true, the ACA has problems. The intent of the law was to ensure as many people as he could. It was also based on a Heritage Foundation system of insurance. It did work, somewhat, but replacing it without keeping attractive features, such as parental insurance until 26 or for that matter, no preexisting conditions, is impossible whiteout mandating participation.
So slowly this promise is falling apart. There is also this idea of single payer.It costs less to administer and tends to offer better care for most of the population. States like California are once again considering the implementation of single payer system. This will add a layer of complexity to the repeal process.
Trump ran in opposition to Wall Street, which is shorthand for economic elites. To say that this was silly coming from a member of such elite is to point the obvious. Yes, Franklin Roosevelt did run against the elites, while being one. Yet, this is rare.
Over the last week, Trump essentially is in the process of using an Executive Order to target the weak laws that came from the 2008 economic crisis. These are Dodd-Frank, and the consumer bureau. It will be, once gain, legal for your financial advisor to lie to you, and profit from the lie. In other words, wall street will be able to clean your clock, legally, once again. This is not just a broken promise, but it lays the ground for another deep economic crisis.
Draining the Swamp
During the campaign, Trump promised to drain the swamp of political influencers in Washington. Instead, he drained the swamp into his aircraft carrier. His choice for the Cabinet are not just well connected, but top influencers in Washington and the states.
Possibly with the exception of Ben Carson, who was the token minority, and Jeff Sessions, every other member of the cabinet is a top level donor to the Republican Party and in some cases, Donald Trump. Sessions is a special case. He stuck his neck politically and embraced Trump before most in the party were willing to. He is counting on most of his natural base to stop paying attention as soon as they cast the vote. Let’s be honest, demobilizing voting bases is almost as old as the United States. So they have not noticed this.
We must be clear. It is not Trump. Barack Obama did the same in 2008. When he said, “I got this,” that was a signal for his base to disengage. And every other president, going back to at least Dwight D Eisenhower, has done this to some level. This year the level of disengagement from his natural base is quite impressive. What is also not that common, are the massive protests in the streets.
We would not be fair if we did not at least point to the best-known promises that have been met. The first was pulling out of the already dead Transpacific Partnership. There was no resistance because Congress had already decided they were not going to vote for it. They read the lay of the land, and suicide, political as it might be, is not what they do. This is seen by many of his political base and even liberals on the other side, as worthy.
For example, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont agrees with Trump on trade. However, I suspect that his reasoning is different from Trump’s. The former has to do with standards of living and the middle class. Trump is an economic nationalist.
The Muslim Ban
Let’s be clear on this one. Regardless of how many ways to Sunday administration members deny it, this was a religious ban. It is based on a very toxic ideology, called the class of civilizations. According to this ideology there is a conflict for the heart and soul of the West, which is under attack by Muslim heathens. This is where things like, “they want to bring Shariah law” comes from. This is also where every foreign attack will be blown out of proportion, never mind that we have a lot of internal attacks from the same right that has embraced Trump. By that, we mean the white nationalist right.
Currently, this is in the courts. According to lawyers, it might break the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. which does not put any religion above any other. The government will argue in court that the judicial branch cannot know what the president knows. What is a fact, is that the EO is a test, and it is also the first overt step into this war of civilizations.
This is a war that has been embraced by many in the Trump base. The believes that these people are alien, and are dangerous to the United States are far more common in rural areas than in large cities, with mixed populations. So with no further…
Here we enter into national myths, some of which are not limited to the United States. One of the dynamics of the election crystallized itself when the returns came in. We are not going to look at the Federal College, but first the California breakdown and then the national breakdown, at a county level.
The first thing you will clearly see is that mostly coastal counties in California went for Hillary Clinton. Those who voted for Trump are far more conservative and chiefly rural. They are also in the interior. California is divided by income, and where the big cities are.
This pattern is not just California. This is a national pattern. So even in states that went for Trump, cities tended to vote blue more often than not. There were exceptions, for example, Michigan. McComb County, which contains both Dearborn and Detroit, is a good example. This is a county where things have increasingly gotten worse for workers, as factories have closed and gone to other places. Whether these plants moved to the American South or other countries is immaterial. These are also counties where African Americans sat it out. This also happened during the Reagan years.
By the way, this map comes from this site. It shows how the popular vote went to the democrats It was close to three million. It also shows where the blue is heavily concentrated. It is coastal, or urban even in the interior. The sea of red you see, is mostly rural counties, with some notable exceptions.
So let’s examine the series of both cultural and psychological issues that are dividing the country.
You must be living under a rock if you have not heard of fly over country. This is a way for coastal liberals refer to the interior of the United States, for which they hold a certain level of disdain. Urban coastal professionals are not quite understanding of these communities, or why they are in deep economic pain and blame anybody for it.In this case the immigrant, and the stranger.
It is also code for something else. This is the urban-rural split. It exists in every state, and the cultures of those living in cities are very different from those living in the countryside. There is more. those living in the countryside have resentment for those living in larger urban areas, due to things like services that city dwellers have, that rural residents do but to a lesser degree. In San Diego, fire protection is a classic of this divide.
In this, we also enter myth. Rural people are portrayed as either hick by some in urban areas, while the self-image of the countryside is that they are the salt of the earth hard working people. In some ways, this conflict goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who saw rural life as the epitome of what was to be an American.
In this mythology, the city is recognized as a center of social disease and mixing of cultures that is destroying the country. It is also a place that is trying to impose its ways and central government. The disdain for the federal government is just another layer of distrust for anything that comes from far away. Whether it is the County seat, or in the case of California Sacramento, or DC.
At the very heart, this is nationalist and xenophobic but also relies on confirmation bias. It is the cities that are destroying the rural way of life. When you listen carefully to the message of Trumpism, it is establishing us vs. them environment. It is also setting rural people against urban people, the base vs the degenerate city dweller.
City residents though are not above criticism. In their disdain of the countryside, who many see as uneducated, and unsophisticated, they are helping to create this narrative. We see it in San Diego County when rural residents see invasions of city residents every time it snows. But quite a bit of the silent majority, like with Nixon, lives in the area between the sky and the land. They are the residents of that flyover country. They are also not the majority of the country any longer. The electoral college did not reflect that reality because quite simply, most Americans do live in cities.
This is the perfect recipe for the kind of conflict we have not seen in a long time. Different value systems are quickly coming into open conflict. Trumpism relies on this. So while the people in Wisconsin who voted for Trump are asking those in coastal cities to stop protesting and give the man a chance, those in urban areas are coming to the conclusion that they are fighting for their very lives. This will only deepen the conflict.
Edited to reflect that Ives Smith did ask if people voted for Trump, but the polls did not reflect it. Thanks to my smart readers for pointing this out.