Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Like many liberals, I’ve been struggling to understand why millions of Americans continue to back President Trump. Just as rain and snow couldn’t stall the Pony Express, it seems, neither coronavirus nor recession have cut into Trump’s base of support. Why not?

We’ve all heard the stock answers: economic dislocation, fear of immigration, and especially the racism of white voters who see “their” America slipping away. But the best short explanation I’ve seen appeared in a letter to the New York Times over the weekend by Arthur Saginian of Santa Clarita, California. I don’t know Mr. Saginian, but his letter taught me more than a thousand news articles and op-ed columns about Donald Trump’s popularity: it’s about how Trump behaves, not what he believes.

And that has huge implications for our country, even if Biden wins bigly. Our thickest dividing line isn’t about taxes or the Supreme Court. It’s about something more elemental: our norms of civic life.

“It really comes down to personal style,” Mr. Saginian wrote. “I like Trump because he is uncouth, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and maybe just a bit crazy. I happen to like that in a leader.”

And that’s how Trump is different from the Democrats, who lack “the desire or even the ability to confront the big, bad world on its own terms,” Mr. Saginian added. Put simply, we live in a dark place. So, we need someone who is dark—and even a little scary—to shepherd us through it.

Mr. Saginian provided an especially stark summary of this philosophy, but he’s hardly the only American who shares it. In their recent book, Trump’s Democrats, Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields demonstrate that Trump’s aggressive persona—a tough guy in a dangerous world—was the real reason so many people crossed party lines to vote for him in 2016. “He’s a loose cannon, rough around the edges,” one Trump convert told Muravchik and Shields. “I like that.”

To be sure, Americans have elected uncouth and unlovable types in the past: Richard Nixon, especially, was nobody’s idea of warm and cuddly. But Nixon kept his darkest impulses under wraps, saving them for private conversations that came to light only when the Watergate tapes were released. Nixon also showed that he knew how to govern, which seems much less important to supporters of Donald Trump. His darkness is out there, for everyone to see, and that’s precisely what attracts so many people to him.

Indeed, they equate it with “strength.” A strong leader needs to be confrontational, at all times. When he is attacked, he must strike back with greater force. He must never apologize, which is a sign of weakness. Most of all, he must be willing to say anything—literally, anything—to defend his territory.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. “As for lying?” Mr. Saginian asked. “I expect everyone to lie. So that’s not something to which I give any consideration when selecting a leader.”

For the first time, reading Mr. Saginian’s letter, I understood the “Trump: No Bullshit” signs I’ve seen in the Republican strongholds of rural Pennsylvania. I live in Philadelphia, which is solid Biden country, but the state as a whole remains up for grabs. And the Trump campaign knows it can’t win without a big turnout in the exburbs and rural counties. So as soon as you get outside of Philly, you start to see Trump hats, bumper stickers, and advertisements like the “No Bullshit” signs. It’s not that Trump’s supporters think he’s honest; they know he isn’t. Unlike other politicians, however, Trump has the honesty to admit it.

Cynical? You bet. But it also suggests that journalists and scholars are wasting their time when they fact-check Donald J. Trump. Indeed, that probably makes him even more attractive in the eyes of his disciples. You can’t argue with an honest liar, and we should stop trying.

A better strategy would be to confront Trump’s rough style head-on, borrowing just enough from it that we don’t sink to his level. Joe Biden probably erred in calling Trump a “clown” in their first debate, but I imagine that he also earned some grudging respect from the likes of Mr. Saginian.

Second, we should focus on what makes America strong and good–especially its traditions of freedom and equality–rather than on its racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Does racism exist? Of course, it does. But the best way to challenge it is by proposing specific remedies, like criminal justice reform, rather than via blanket self-lacerating statements that serve mainly to burnish our woke bona fides. Wisely, Biden has avoided labeling America as racist. But other Democrats continue to do so, which makes the party seem weak to many voters.

And if you think otherwise, listen to Mr. Saginian. “I actually see Democrats as having slightly masochistic tendencies,” he wrote, concluding his letter. “Pain and suffering seem to resonate with them . . .  just a bit too much for my liking.”

Finally, we also need to find a venue where we can challenge Mr. Saginian’s cynicism without condescending. I know just the place: our public schools.

That’s where we cultivate our next generation of citizens. And my guess is that even the most loyal Trump supporters wouldn’t want schools to promote or condone the president’s bellicose and inappropriate behavior.

Would Mr. Saginian want a child’s 3rd-grade teacher to tell her class that it was OK to lie because everyone does it? Would he want the principal to get on the public address system and rant like a madman? Would he want a visiting speaker to inform the school assembly that the world is a violent and scary place, so you should do whatever it takes to survive in it?

Let’s face it: our schools–and our society, writ large–have failed to teach democratic civility. Somebody tried to instruct Donald Trump in civics, during his own childhood, and it obviously didn’t work. Ditto for his legions of supporters. You can’t account for Trump’s rise and still formidable political strength—or for Mr. Saginian’s defense of him—in any other way. But that doesn’t mean we should simply throw up our hands because you can’t change human nature. Who cares if our kids are kind, decent, and honest? Everybody does. Even Arthur Saginian.

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which was published last year by City of Light Press.