Pollsters, pundits, and historians all have speculated about the reasons for President Donald Trump’s unwavering support from his base, in spite of the unceasing multitude of misstatements and missteps that would have doomed conventional politicians.
The loyalty of Trump’s supporters may in fact mimic a phenomenon similar to the perverse popularity once upon a time enjoyed by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Bonnie and Clyde were a Depression-era couple infamous as lawbreakers — but also as America’s darlings from 1931 to 1934. That they were folk heroes is largely attributable to the fact they stole from banks, which were virulently reviled for taking so many people’s homes. It also helped that they were not just any masked, anonymous bandits, but an unmarried couple in love and on the run. And Bonnie was attractive, manifested in multiple photographs left at a hideout, along with poetry she wrote, all of which was circulated in newspapers nationwide.
The public forgave them their Robin Hood-style “mischief” while celebrating their nobler deeds, such as when they took hostages during robberies but gave them cash for their troubles and trips back home.
Their felicitous legend came to a sobering end when their brutal murder of two motorcycle cops in Grapevine, Texas, was graphically described in the press and people were finally awakened to the reality that these were not matinee idols but violent criminals responsible for 13 murders.
Trump is also a product of the times, having politically emerged on the heels of the Great Recession and Barack Obama’s presidency, when many working-class whites feared the loss of their majority status and influence. The strategy for his presidential run was to target the perceived enemies of this group, such as urban elites like Obama, invading immigrants gobbling up jobs, and Democrats who raise their taxes and funnel the money to welfare recipients, minorities, foreigners, and Democrats’ friends like NATO. Trump subsequently won the presidency, though losing the popular vote, thanks to white and rural America cornering the Electoral College vote in pivotal states.
Unlike Barrow and Parker, Trump is no murderer, though he did once brag he could become one in Times Square with no loss of support from his base.
But there have been allegations of lies, the misuse of campaign funds, and the appointment of cronies and hacks to offices for which they were unqualified, leading to the fastest revolving door in White House history. Also, there have been charges that he has used his office to enrich himself and his family, accusations of sexual improprieties, and obstruction of justice, as detailed in the Mueller Report. But all this “mischief” seems to mean little to his adoring fans.
Instead, they celebrate his patriotism and “grit” when he hugs the American flag on stage or taunts his critics with derisive or even racist nicknames like Sleepy Joe or Pocahontas.
So all the claims about his lies, ethics violations, and criminal behavior have caused zero loss of support from his base. And Trump sustains the support with monthly rallies in Republican strongholds, where he repeats what are considered “coded” racist attacks against socialists; crime-infested neighborhoods; or opponents who are weak on crime, have a low IQ, or who should go back to where they came from.
It is conceivable that Trump’s mythical standing, like Bonnie and Clyde’s, will end badly when his constituency, about to feel sharp pain from his huge tax hike in the form of tariffs for his ill-advised but prideful trade war, are finally awakened to the reality of his anomalous presidency.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He previously taught English at the University of South Alabama and is the author of "The Territory." He can be reached at email@example.com.