Almost a year later, Donald Trump is still president. Powerful men in entertainment, media and even politics have seen their public lives implode under scandal almost instantly for months now, but Trump holds on.
If you’re among the majority of Americans who oppose Trump, you can’t understand why. And it’s making you furious. I saw the same thing happen in my native Venezuela with the late Hugo Chávez, who ruled as precisely the sort of faux-populist strongman that Trump now loves to praise. Chávez’s political career (which ended only because of his untimely death) seemed not only immune to scandal, but indeed to profit directly from it. Why? Because scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains populism.
Pundits have been predicting Trump’s fall since before he won office. Sure, his overall approval rating has dwindled to below 40 percent, but his base — the only people Trump appears to think he needs to answer to — still loves him. If you want to fight Trump effectively, you have to learn to think like the base does and give up altogether the prospect that scandal will one day undo him.
To do that, take a step back and analyze the news cycle from outside the daily ups and downs, the tweets, the Fox News defenses. Once we leave behind the moral outrage, the sense of injury, the distinct cadence of each scandalous speech, it is clear that 2017 Trump is not very different from 2016 Trump on his way to power. Everything he’s done in the White House is more of the same: An enemy (the unpatriotic minorities, the lying liberal media, anyone not part of his vision) is being cartooned, blamed for all of society’s evils and offered in sacrifice as a scapegoat to the United States’ problems. The purported solution is still simple: Shame them, silence them, build a wall around them. The basic premise that the restoration of the country lies in the destruction of its enemies remains.
The only difference is that Trump, now in power, paints himself as a fighter under siege, even more so than as last year’s outsider candidate. The Russia scandal, the occasional betrayal by members of his own party, the condemnation of so many of his acts are all attempts to “stop” him. What you call scandal is only a sign that he is fighting back. To his supporters, this is no scandal at all. He’s doing exactly what he promised he would do.
Normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal because the scandals show them dozing on the job or falling back on their promises. To get elected, they offer a bargain: “Vote for me. I will make you richer/fight for your rights/assure your progress.” Scandals reveal they can’t do that, and thus, they tumble. However, like all populists, Trump offers a much different deal: “Vote for me. I will destroy your enemies. They are the reason you are not rich/have fewer rights/America is not great anymore.” Scandal is the populist’s natural element for the same reason that demolishing buildings makes more noise than constructing them. His supporters didn’t vote for silence. They voted for a bang.
So where you see Mueller making progress, Trump supporters see a completely different scandal. When Trump’s aides are indicted, but Hillary Clinton isn’t, the probe serves as proof that the system is corrupt. Or when the Muslim travel ban is not enforced, it means the “deep state” is plotting some sort of coup.
That’s how populism works. As long as Trump is still swinging back, scandals help him polarize the country further. The scorn of his adversaries, in the eyes of his supporters, proves that he’s doing exactly what they voted him for to do: dismantling a rigged system that they believe has destroyed their hopes.
I know how you feel. You are outraged. What did you ever do to these people to deserve their hate? What can possibly be going on? How can they, for example, make sense of so many former Goldman Sachs men in the Trump Cabinet? Weren’t the bankers supposed to be the enemy? Not to mention Russia?
As Venezuelans used to tell one another: Chávez te tiene loco. Trump is making you crazy. Making you scramble for ways to make this end.
Look, I’ve been there, and I still don’t have all the answers. Chávez is dead, but chavismo lives on. But I do know that before trying to convince Trump supporters that he is a hypocrite who must be impeached, that the news is not actually fake, before you try to persuade them that they are being racist, or worse, ignorant by believing in Trump, you should ask yourself: Will this help convince them that I am not their enemy?
Because what can really win them over is not to prove that you are right. It is to show them you care. Only then will they believe what you say.
Sheer outrage at the president’s scandals is pointless. But worse still is directing your anger at his supporters. By rejecting your common humanity and sense of country, you’re playing into the polarization game instead of defeating it.
This is not a call for appeasement, only for efficiency. If dwelling on scandal too much can be counterproductive, then the focus must be elsewhere. It should rest on understanding the grievances that brought Trump to power — wage stagnation, cultural isolation, a depleted countryside, the opioid crisis. Trump’s solutions may be imaginary, but the problems are very real indeed. Populism is and has always been the daughter of political despair. Showing concern is the only way to break the rhetorical polarization.
Finally, there is indeed a place for your legitimate moral outrage: not the dining table, but the voting booth. Just ask Alabama Democrats.
So as the second year of Trump’s administration approaches, stop. Take a deep breath. Let all the hatred circle from afar. Don’t let it into your echo chamber. Try to hush it, pause it. Don’t let it close your eyes and tear your own society, your own family, apart. Because remember: There’s more to life than politics. And scandal does not end in conflagration. It ends in silence.
Andrés Miguel Rondón is an economist living in Madrid.