My framework for viewing Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 general election involves seeing his supporters in two distinct groups: Despite and Because.
Some people are still supporting Trump despite all the awful things he has said and done. Despite his “grab them by the pussy” boasts of sexual assault, despite his fantasies about Mexican rapists pouring over the border, despite his enthusiasm for torture, despite his calls for unconstitutional religious bans, despite his wanting to build a ridiculous wall, despite his awkwardly transparent attempts to pander to religious audiences, despite his sleazy track-record of litigiousness and stiffing contractors, despite his bankruptcies, despite his long history of vile racism and misogyny, despite his evident ignorance and his constant flip-flop-flipping and vacillating that makes it impossible to know what policies he really supports or opposes. They don’t like any of that and find it all embarrassing and unfortunate, but despite it all they’re still leaning Trump because of abortion, or because they hate Hillary Clinton, or because of the Supreme Court, or just because they’re Republicans and Trump these days carries an “R” by his name.
The Despite voters didn’t support Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, but their vote in those contests was scattered among the 16 other candidates in that contest. Now, after all those other options are off the table, these folks will, they guess, be forced to support their party’s nominee, despite everything.
Trump won those primaries without the help of Team Despite because he had the unwavering allegiance of Team Because. These are the folks who look at that whole long list above and love every bit of it. They love and support Donald Trump because of his crude language, because of his anti-immigrant slurs, because of his enthusiasm for torture, because he has promised (and un-promised, and re-promised, endlessly) to ban Muslims, because he wants to build a ridiculous wall, because of his sleazy business history, because of his racism and misogyny, because of his puffed-up ignorance, because of his disdain for constitutional restrictions and his disdain for basic mores, manners and fundamental decency.
The widening split between Trump’s Despite and Because supporters is reflected in the weird dual personalities of his Twitter feed, which swings wildly from his own red-meat postings intended to fire up Team Because with over-the-top conspiracy theories and skewed scary stories retweeted from Breitbart or 4Chan or RT or Alex Jones or white-supremacist websites. Then his aides take over — using iPhones instead of the candidate’s personal Android phone — and Tweet out campaign banalities in calm tones they hope will soothe the damage Trump is doing to his support among Despite voters.
This is also reflected in the split between Trump’s campaign advisers. Breitbart’s Steve Bannon only cares about Team Because — he hates Team Despite almost as much as he hates Hillary Clinton. But Kellyanne Conway is a pollster who recognizes that Trump can’t win without the support of traditional Republicans, and particularly of white Republican women. She’s fighting a losing battle trying to reassure those voters — Team Despite — to stick with Trump, all the while Bannon and the candidate himself are constantly finding new ways to insult, offend or horrify them.
The Because voters are the ones who show up at Trump’s rallies, where they wave signs and chant slogans that terrify and embarrass his Despite supporters.
Team Because loves everything about Donald Trump, and thus he loves them right back. That’s why he can’t stop focusing his campaign on pleasing those supporters even when it risks alienating the much larger faction that makes up Team Despite. Team Despite gets a little queasy reading old stories about Trump’s baldly racist efforts to lynch the falsely accused Central Park Five, but they try not to think about it too much — it was a long time ago, after all, and think of the Supreme Court. But the vicious racism of that ugly chapter is part of what Team Because loves about Trump, so he keeps bringing it up now — keeping the story fresh, and current, and reminding everyone that he’s still the same vile bigot he was then. He’s still doubling-down on that — insisting even today that the boys he helped put in prison, who have now been exonerated by irrefutable evidence, still deserve to be executed for crimes they didn’t have anything to do with.
At the second debate on Sunday night, Trump was focused almost entirely on Team Because. That’s the only audience that likes — or believes — any of the pure fictions he was spewing about Benghaz-e-mail or Obamacare. And that’s the only audience who could cheer, rather than cringe, at his disturbing talk of jailing his political opponents after the election like a banana republic dictator. They were also the target audience for his creepy pick-up-artist shenanigans of asserting his “dominance” by hovering behind Clinton on the debate stage. That was tailored exclusively for the gamer-gaters and sad puppies and other rabid members of Team Because who think of “beta” as a devastating insult. And it was done with no concern for the way it would make everyone else view him as That Creepy Guy on the Train — the one who has every other passenger unnerved enough to contemplate getting off at an earlier stop just to get away from him before he … God only knows what.
This split between Because and Despite carries over among Trump’s white evangelical supporters. A few white evangelical leaders — Russell Moore, most notably — have refused all along to even join Team Despite, seeing Trump’s personal morality and his racism as beyond the bounds of any possible support. But Team Despite is still where most white evangelical leaders found themselves — at least up until the pussy-grabbing video came out last week. These men — mostly men, because that’s how white evangelicalism works — mostly supported other candidates in the Republican primaries, but then they swallowed hard and, thinking as always of abortion and the Supreme Court, came around to join Team Despite.
But they were still worried. And they weren’t just worried because of all the things Donald Trump was saying and doing — they were worried because many of their followers, the people in the pews whose donations fuel their ministries, seemed to be part of Team Because. Trump’s naked racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, and his authoritarian white nationalist message seemed to be resonating with many of those followers far more than their tepid “Yes, but, despite that …” qualifications ever could. Adding to the long list of “despites” they already had with Trump, these evangelical leaders dimly recognized that Franciscan writer Richard Rohr was speaking the truth when he said, “[White] evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against its validity as a Christian movement for generations to come.”
So, on the one hand, there’s abortion and the Satanic baby-killers and their three-decade commitment to the Supreme Court as the author and finisher of our faith. On the other hand, there’s the near-panic over the “rise of the nones” and the vague realization that support for Trump — even qualified, Team Despite support — would likely be a mass-production machine for the creation of even more ex-evangelical nones.
So even though these folks have trained themselves for the past generation to be unable not to vote for any Republican nominee, they were looking for an escape. An audio tape of Donald Trump extolling sexual assault in crude language provided just the opening many of them were praying for, and some of them have now, at last, given up their membership in Team Despite.
We can, and should, discuss why it took so long for them to get to this point, and how appalling and disappointing it is that nothing before this tape led them to take this step. “Grab ’em by the pussy” was too much, but lynching innocent black boys was acceptable?
But let’s save that conversation for November 9. The important thing, right now, is to convince any wavering members of Team Despite still sticking with Donald Trump that they have other options.
It’s tempting to think that anyone sticking it out on Team Despite even after the pussy tape must surely be willing to vote for Trump no matter what. But there’s still almost a month to go, and that won’t be the last such opportunity for them to make their break. There will be plenty more where that came from.