Andy Schmookler: Un-seeing what you have seen
A pattern in support for Donald Trump has repeated itself twice in recent months.
In early August, Trump’s continued questioning of the ability of a judge to do his job because of his Mexican heritage, combined with his days-long attacks on a Gold Star family that had publicly criticized him, led a number of Trump voters to withdraw their support.
Then, as Trump quieted down his rhetoric – after his new campaign manager came on board – that support gradually came back.
Something similar happened more recently.
First, Trump lost support when the Hollywood Access tape showed Trump boasting about how, because he’s a “star,” he could kiss and grope women without their consent. His subsequent denial – in the second debate – that he’d actually done the things he’d bragged about doing then prompted a number of women to come forward to describe Trump’s assaults on them.
Then, as that story played itself out and no new big Trump scandal dominated the news, the support that Trump had lost over the sexual assault issue returned to him.
How should we understand those voters that reject Trump and then return to him? What happens with those people who shake off the effects of a disturbing story about their candidate once the story leaves the headlines?
Is it evidence that, as has often been said, “the American people have short memories”?
Memory can’t be the heart of the matter, for surely, those voters haven’t literally “forgotten” the behaviors that had repelled them just days or weeks before. More likely, these voters choose not to pay attention to such information once the headlines no longer compel them to notice.
Even though the ugly things about their candidate that these voters had seen have in no way been changed by any new information, they can “un-see” these behaviors, in effect, by putting those disturbing truths out of their minds.
That choice to divert attention from something they’d regarded as important suggests a strong motivation to avoid rejecting Trump. What might that motive be?
One possibility is party loyalty. For someone whose identity is tied in with supporting the Republican Party, the idea of withdrawing that support in a presidential election can be quite distressing.
More comfortable to “forget” what you know about the character of your party’s nominee than to confront the unpleasant reality you have seen.
Another possible reason is antipathy toward the other party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton. After the many years the GOP and its media allies have demonized Hillary, many believe her becoming president would be so unacceptable that any Republican nominee would be preferable.
The editorial boards of newspapers are immersed in the political realities, and thus less influenced by propaganda. It is in that context that one should understand why a number of newspapers that have reliably endorsed Republicans for generations, and have no great love for Hillary Clinton, have this year endorsed the Democrat.
These editors – despite their Republican leanings — understand Hillary to be a normal American politician with whom the nation will be safe, while declaring Trump to be a “clear and present danger to our country” because of his “impulse control problem” (Cincinnati Enquirer), whose behavior shows “petulance” (Arizona Republic) and “a dangerous lack of judgment” (Dallas Morning News).
But voters with whom the decades-long vilification of Hillary Clinton has been successful, can return to Trump’s column so long as he doesn’t force them to confront what they already know about him.
And a third possible motive is the feeling that — whatever else may be true, however serious may be Trump’s defects – Trump at least will “shake things up.” Such voters – believing the nation to be in such bad shape that things can scarcely get any worse — regard the political situation as would a poker player who, instead of replacing two or three cards, wants to throw in the whole hand for a new one.
That’s a dangerously mistaken way to think. In poker, any losing hand is as bad as any other. But in the life of societies, there’s a big difference between difficult times and outright disasters.
Those people who want to “shake things up” because they can’t get worse, should take a closer look at history, and take a look around the world. Sure, we all would like for America to work better, but we Americans still have it good enough that things can get way, way worse.
As discomfiting as it can be to see unpleasant realities about one’s party’s candidate, this year the costs of “un-seeing” them can be much higher.
Andy Schmookler — who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author most recently of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World — and How We Can Defeat It.”