Trump Exploits Civic Ignorance

Gallons of ink (both actual and cyber) have been spilled trying to explain the sources of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's support. Voter anger lies at the center of most explanations. No one climbs on a limb when they say that a sizable portion of the American electorate is angry. Some voters are angry about immigration, the size of government, the national economy, and congressional dysfunction. Others can't understand why gays can marry and that Obamacare has been upheld, among other issues. While these are real and fundamental contributors to the angry electorate that is the wind beneath Trump's wings, there is a far worse factor driving his support: civic ignorance.

The American electorate is shot through with voters who don't know the basics on how the political process works. That ignorance opens them to all manner of ill-conceived, unconstitutional, or otherwise dead on arrival proposals masquerading as serious policy ideas. The marriage of illogical ideas and an angry electorate leads us to where we are now: a major party candidate -- in this case the one most likely to win his party's presidential nomination -- completely absent of reasonable ideas and winning by tapping visceral public ignorance.

He can't undo media shields without amending the Constitution, a long and arduous process to people who paid even the slightest attention to their middle school civics teacher. Or how about the one where he rips up existing trade agreements and negotiates new and better ones? His supporters seem to think that he can just snap his fingers and things will happen. That's not how our system works. But in a nod to hyper-cynicism, his strategy is to keep pushing voter buttons on items he knows will never happen. He's able to do it because he knows his voters don't know how the system works.

There are so many examples of Trump's policy positions that reveal this ignorance that it's hard to pick just one. Here are three of my favorites.

The Great Wall of Mexico.
Trump supporters clearly want the wall. They seem to actually believe not only that Trump will build a wall, but also that a sovereign nation that is the target of this xenophobic policy will pay for it. It doesn't appear that many, if any, of his supporters have bothered to ask the following (admittedly unsexy) questions: How much will it cost? How long will it take? How, exactly, will Congress approve funding? The answer to the first two questions, based on conservative estimates, seems to be in the neighborhood of $20 billion (wall only, not labor) and four years. A government estimate says it could take $750 million annually to maintain. Basic knowledge of the legislative process shows that there are hurdles too numerous to list here that make clear there is no chance this wall will ever be built. Ignorant voters, however, continue to provide grist for the Trump mill. And he keeps playing them like a violin.

Ban Syrian Refugees. Trump generated some heat with his call to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the United States. That heat shed little light on the issue. He provided no real plan for actually doing what he wants to do. He never told the country how U.S. immigration authorities were to look at someone and guess whether they were Muslim. There are Christians from the Middle East that look like Muslims. And if they are refugees, it's quite likely that they won't have a passport to give you a hint. According to exit polling data following the South Carolina primary, and analysis published by The New York Times, Trump won twice as many votes from those who supported the ban than any other candidate.

Make iPhones in America. This is among the most reckless of his promises. It ignores decades of tax policy and overseas labor market changes that made it more profitable to offshore all sorts of American jobs and suggests that undoing that damage is pretty easy. Congressional Republicans in particular, sometimes aided and abetted by Wall Street Democrats, crushed the labor intensive, smoke stack industries in America and off-shored most of the remaining to cheaper labor markets in Asia. Rather than tell voters that those jobs are gone and won't ever return, presidential candidates often float the idea that those jobs will return if the circumstances change. But they won't change because Big Technology, Big Textile, Big Steel, and related industries prefer the current status quo: offshore jobs for less cost and more profit without fear of policy punishment. It's the best of both worlds. Trump knows this but promises otherwise.

What Trump is doing isn't new. Many politicians knowingly make promises on which they could never deliver. Trump is simply extending what has been happening in the GOP for years (examples like proposals to amend the Constitution to outlaw abortion, define marriage only as a union between a man and a woman, and limit congressional terms in office; tax cuts to spur the economy; and opposing Obamacare arguing that it will doom the economy come to mind pretty easily). The problem is that the lack of action on illogical policies only breeds more anger that things aren't getting done. A sizable chunk of American voters believe the country is going to hell because congressional Republicans won't stand up to President Obama. This is ridiculous. But ignorant voters believe it anyway.

The civic ignorance that has pushed Trump to the top of the charts can no longer be ignored. His supporters need to know that his promises are no more plausible than the other illogical ones they have bought over the years from other candidates. Their anger that "nothing gets done" is largely a function of the civic ignorance of wanting things to be done that can't. Or shouldn't.


Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. His new book, More Than Just Partisanship: Conservatism and Black Voter Suppression, will be published next year.