Trump Supporters Aren't Stupid, They Profoundly Distrust the 'System'

To grapple with the Trump phenomenon, one must understand it. And that holds true for Israel too, and not just America.

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends campaign event at Windham High School in Windham, New Hampshire August 6, 2016.
Eric Thayer / Reuters

I have American friends who are seriously thinking about emigrating. I’ve yet to hear, however, of anyone selling his house and quitting his job, since their trepidation is coupled with the profound hope that Donald Trump will be defeated and this whole thing will fade away like a bad dream. That’s the prevailing expectation in the media and in the political arena, too – that he will lose. But it’s already clear that even if Trump is defeated come November 8, what’s happening right now in the United States will not soon be forgotten.

Trump’s very candidacy – and let's bear in mind that he is the official candidate of the “Grand Old Party,” the Republican Party, and not some eccentric fringe group – is already stirring up darker inclinations and old demons, and these have a life of their own. As Trump has dominated American public discourse for months now, with every bit of nonsense and worse that he utters resounding from coast to coast and sending tremors through the political system – a vision of America that is hard to grasp and accept has been revealed.

Millions of Americans eagerly support Trump. It’s tempting to say that they’ve just fallen victim to a deception. Or that they simply “don’t understand the danger.” Such condescending pronouncements (“We” understand; “they” don’t) tend to lead to a political dead-end where everything is reduced to the idea that “the people are stupid” and therefore there is nothing to be done. In order to grapple with the Trump phenomenon, one must understand it. And that holds true for Israel too, and not just America.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who support Trump. Most of them, as far as I could tell, were far from stupid. They are aware of all his flaws and shortcomings, yet they still support him. They’ve given me all kinds of reasons: total distrust of Hillary Clinton (and her husband); fierce opposition to Barack Obama and his policies; admiration for Trump’s success and his business prowess; fear of the serious problems facing America, such as crime and poverty; concern over terrorism and a decline in national security; and a keen yearning for change.

Bottom line: Nearly all of them evince a profound lack of faith in the political establishment, in “the system.”

Trump is attracting wide support precisely because of his crudeness and defiant attitude. The harder he kicks, the more shocking his words. Each time he slaughters another sacred cow in “polite discourse” (minorities, race relations, the media), his supporters feel that he’s giving voice to their thoughts. When he proclaimed at the Republican National Convention, “I will be your voice!” – this is exactly what he meant and exactly what they want: for him to swim against the tide.

Statements that would normally be considered laughable or objectionable, even completely out of bounds, are not perceived that way in the dialogue between Trump and his supporters. And it is a dialogue. He speaks and they speak, via Twitter and other means. And they open their wallets.

This last point is important, because in politics, money is a key player. A lot of big GOP donors are still sitting on the fence. They are totally part of the system, and Trump scares them, too. But in the last month, Trump’s campaign has raised close to $80 million, mostly from small donations online – a crystal clear indication that he has a broad and committed base of support.

Instead of others of us disdainfully labeling his supporters “stupid,” or gloating about their candidate’s expected downfall, these voters should be listened to, their distress must be heard, and they must be presented with a worthier alternative that will address their concerns without promoting racism and isolationism, and disseminating degrading comments.

The grave condition of the socioeconomic system and its political representation, which leaves millions of Americans by the wayside, must be acknowledged and confronted. Without a candid acknowledgement of this sort and a genuine commitment to change – the political alternative is left to the likes of Trump, who is riding huge waves of frustration and lighting a tremendous blaze that will scorch everyone. As in America, so too in Israel.