Donald Trump, vigilante

November 4th, 2016  |  Source: The Economist

Good people have been frightened and angered into backing a dangerous man

On November 8th around 60m Americans are likely to cast ballots for Donald Trump to be president. That will present the country with a puzzle. If nearly a quarter of the adult population are Trump-backers, many good people will have ended up supporting a bad man.

Partisanship explains some of this gigantic folly, as does widespread distrust of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. But another cause lies in something harder to criticise: the desire of most people to think of themselves as good and useful citizens, capable of providing for and keeping safe those people and values dear to them. After more than a year of meeting Republican voters and Trump supporters at rallies and campaign events and twice interviewing the candidate himself, Lexington is unexpectedly struck on election eve by echoes from America’s stand-your-ground movement. That movement has led dozens of states to pass laws which allow gun-owners to use lethal force when they reasonably believe that their safety is threatened, with no duty to retreat when they are in their home or other lawful place. Vitally, this defence can be invoked even if householders misjudge the perils that they face, in the heat of the moment.

Critics call such laws vigilante justice. They cite horrible mistakes, as when stranded motorists are shot dead for knocking on a door in search of directions or a telephone. Some see racial bias at work when courts absolve white householders of killing black men who alarmed them. But once passed, such laws are difficult to repeal. For that would involve convincing supporters that they are wrong to believe that they are the last and best line of defence for their family and property—a hard task.

Quite a few Republicans, including those who initially backed more mainstream rivals in their party’s presidential primaries, sound strikingly like stand-your-ground advocates when defending a vote for Mr Trump. Even if not every Trump voter takes all his promises literally, they feel heeded and respected when someone of his stature—a very rich man who could be a member of the elite, but instead chooses to side with them—agrees that their home, America, is under assault, whether from foreign governments scheming to “rape” the economy or by Muslim terrorists allowed in as refugees. At rallies in swing states from Arizona to North Carolina, this reporter has heard the cheers when Mr Trump roars that America has every right to fight back, even if that involves rough justice or being “so tough”, as he puts it.

Looking back, perhaps political opponents or news outlets were wasting their time when they challenged Mr Trump for exaggerating and making up his facts. Critics were missing the point when they chided the Republican for policies that sound like appeals to bigotry, sexism or other forms of prejudice. For if a vote for Mr Trump feels like an act of self-defence, his supporters no more want him to be fact-checked or nagged than they themselves would care to be second-guessed after blasting away at a shadowy figure on a darkened porch. What counts is their sense that when respectable people are protecting their own, they should be afforded the benefit of the doubt.

During the campaign Mr Trump has explicitly encouraged such thinking. His original call in December 2015 for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering America, later modified to become a ban on immigration from terror-prone regions, was justified as a reasonable response to uncertainty, rather than as a fully worked-out counter-terrorism strategy. Not long after a mass-shooting in southern California apparently inspired by the Islamic State terror network, the businessman called for a Muslim ban “until our country’s representatives can find out what the hell is going on.” To the election’s last days he has shown a talent for fanning fearful conspiracy theories, most recently by falsely claiming that the election will be rigged by corrupt officials allowing large numbers of illegal immigrants or the dead to vote.

Not all who will vote for him are diehard Trump supporters. Many Republicans have fallen in line behind him, rather than fallen in love. But his talk of jobs, lives and values under assault unites conservatives. Party grandees appalled by their nominee’s success should ponder how they have spent years denouncing Washington as corrupt, and accusing Democrats of threatening the country’s future. Not many months ago Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who came second in the Republican primaries, went around wooing Christian conservatives by beseeching God to “awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss.” As the primary contest began in the new year his supposedly less doctrinaire rival, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, made his pitch to the hard right by asserting that Barack Obama had “deliberately weakened America”, accusing the president of gutting the armed forces and betraying allies because he saw America as “an arrogant country that needs to be cut down to size”.

Republicans reap what they sowed

Having painted the established order as an assault on all that America cherishes, however, Mr Trump’s rivals offered only a reshuffling of political leaders in Washington as their solution. Mr Trump proposed something much more stirring: to take protection of the homeland into his own hands, as a sort of vigilante strongman. “I alone can fix it,” as he told the Republican National Convention. “I am your voice.” That is one reason why so many will forgive his boorishness, his refusal to release his tax returns, his praise for sundry foreign autocrats and other flaws that would normally doom a presidential nominee. Supporters hear a presidential candidate talking of the need for desperate measures in the name of self-defence, and that resonates. As a result, they judge him as they would judge themselves, should they hear window-glass shattering in the dead of night. Such voters will not easily be stood down, however this election ends. Mr Trump’s malign influence will not quickly fade.




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