Commentators continue to marvel and puzzle over Not-My-President Trump’s apparent adulation of Vladimir Putin and, in turn, the adulation of Trump by the Rust Belt workers and families who have historically been the Democratic base. I have a theory of my own based on my and others’ observations of Trump’s behavior during the campaigns and since taking office.
Recall Jimmy Connors, the great tennis champion of the 1970s and 1980s who was known for his fierce competitive drive. When asked for an explanation of his ferocity in what had been a gentlemanly game, he said “I hate to lose more than I love to win.”
Trump sold his political base on much the same idea. With him as President, he claimed, the Rust Belt workers, who were either unemployed (and possibly unemployable) or were hanging onto tenuous positions in dying industries like coal mining and raw steel production and who felt, rightly, that they had “lost” something, would “win” again. No more losing!
Generally, behavioral economists tell us, loss-aversion is a stronger force on people’s thinking than is the opportunity to gain an equivalent value. Like Jimmy Connors, people really hate to lose especially employment that, in the American ethos, is so central to people’s sense of self-esteem. That was the psychology that Trump played to in the campaign with his “jobs, jobs, jobs” and “Make America Great Again” themes. He called the Rust Belt voters the “forgotten people” and assured them they were “forgotten no longer.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was announcing multi-part complex plans to solve the dis-employment problem while promising to put coal companies and their employees out of business and condemning Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” In essence, Trump’s simple message, while phrased in terms of “so much winning,” was actually “When I am president, you will no longer be losers.” By touching the “loser nerve,” Trump was able to capture the deep loyalty of his fan base that is seemingly impervious to repeated proofs that he has lied or made demonstrably false statements.
Now consider Putin. Many knowledgeable people in the Western world would describe Putin as dishonest, corrupt, despotic, a murderer and generally an immoral and evil person. To that description, Putin would likely have one answer: “Am I winning?”
Putin’s answer would be ‘yes,’ though the price of his “winning” is being paid in impoverishment of much of the Russian population along with suppression of opposition speech, among other horrors. To which Putin would respond again, with a smirk, “Am I winning?” That is the only relevant metric for him. His political goal, to the extent one exists beyond ill-gotten accrual of personal wealth, and the likely source of such support as he enjoys among some Russians is the restoration of the Russia of days gone by – a global superpower equal to or even dominant over the United States and the “West.” Not too far in concept from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” theme. Putin uses different techniques than Trump to advance his agenda, but in fundamental ways the goals are very similar. The crucial point is that losing and winning are not equivalents. “Avoiding loss” carries more psychological heft than “winning.”
That perception is, I believe, the true meaning behind the question he reportedly kept asking as the ObamaCare “repeal and replace” legislation unraveled: “Is the Ryan legislation a good bill?” He really meant “am I going to lose with this bill?” When it became clear that losing was almost certain to happen, he abandoned the effort before the losing could become choate in a House floor vote.
Trump hates to lose and ending the healthcare fight was a way to avoid losing, even if in reality he did not achieve his goal and by any objective standard would be seen as having lost with resulting damage to his self-image as an infallible deal-maker. When he was widely portrayed in the media as having lost the ObamaCare replacement fight, he immediately reversed course and said that the battle was not over and that negotiations were on-going, an assertion now shown by recent reports to be true. http://wapo.st/2nYE37S.
Given Trump’s history and lifestyle, it is hard to imagine he ever really got to know people like those who are now his most ardent supporters. It is highly unlikely that he is capable of genuine empathy regarding their situation. But Trump doesn’t have to genuinely care about those people in order to “win” with them. He showed during the health care battle that he was prepared to deprive millions of them of health care coverage in order to avoid losing the fight to repeal ObamaCare. And, by recent accounts of what is being discussed among Republicans as a “compromise” approach, the “essential benefits” and “pre-existing conditions” coverages that he promised to keep are now expendable. One solution reportedly being considered is to amend the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) so that the states can individually decide which essential benefits to retain. In the states the influence of the giant corporations and the big-money SuperPACS is even greater than at the federal level, so the principal benefits of the ACA will likely be diluted or eliminated.
On the other hand, we are now witnessing an apparent backlash against Trump’s agenda at multiple Town Hall meetings of Republican legislators. Republicans are facing the wrath of their constituents who are finally beginning to recognize the threat of the Republican agenda to their welfare. The reality that Trump lied to them appears to be sinking in, as his popularity in polls has fallen to 35 percent.
It is, on the other hand, often reported that many of his infatuants still appear to forgive him every sin, no matter what he does or says. These folks are impacted by a real conundrum. Trump promised to lift them up from their “loser” status. He is failing to deliver on those promises, but his base really hates to return to being losers. Losing is the worst thing and they have nowhere else to turn that offers the same comfort. So they reject the idea that their chosen champion has played them. They refuse to accept a self-image of being losers and … chumps.
Putin, of course, doesn’t have to worry about whether his constituents approve of his policies. His dictatorial control over the state machinery of compulsion assures that he cannot be displaced or even seriously challenged. Putin hates to lose too and no doubt understands what might happen to him if he were displaced, given that Russia is not wedded to the peaceful transfer of power. He would readily crush any opposition with any and all means at his disposal.
Trump doesn’t have the same tools at this disposal as Putin, so he is forced to negotiate when he would prefer to dictate. That Trump admires Putin so much is one of the most disturbing aspects of his status as President of the United States. One wonders whether Trump would attempt to use the instruments of state compulsion to get his way if he believed he was otherwise completely blocked and that he was losing his hold on the infatuants who continue to believe he can do no wrong. He is showing signs of that in his deportation policy and in the latest announcement that the Department of Justice consent decrees on law enforcement practices in some major cities may have gone too far in compelling the use of non-violent policing practices.
Ultimately, Trump’s affection for Putin may be his undoing. The investigation of the Russia connections, and possible collusion, involved in the presidential campaign is on-going and almost every day some new revelation emerges that strengthens both the concern about possible collusion to influence the election and the concern about Trump’s efforts to sabotage the investigations. To the more suspicious mind, there is a major cover-up underway whose unmasking would likely bring about the premature end of the Trump presidency.
Assuming that does not occur, the 2018 electoral season is afoot and it’s time to prepare to act where it matters most. The challenge for the Democrats is to relearn the language that in the past had earned them the voting loyalty of the working-class American. It is not enough to offer complicated ten-point plans to these citizens. They have experienced loss, are suffering deeply as a result, both economically and psychologically. If Democrats are to be successful in regaining their prominence with this voting group, they have to change how and what they are communicating. Trump still knows how to talk their language and the Democrats need to catch up.
And they need to do it fast.