RW Johnson: The very rational (to them) reason so many Americans support Trump

Former Oxford University professor RW Johnson nails the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s cult-like support in this interview with BizNews editor Alec Hogg. In it Johnson cautions that although it’s no foregone conclusion America’s Captain Chaos will return to the White House, he explains an “uber truth” behind his continued popularity despite many missteps and dangerous pronouncements. Should South Africans care? As one of the world’s most open economies, you betcha.  A nation heavily reliant on global trade, it is hard to overestimate the impact on SA were Trump’s heavily isolationist policies implemented. 

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction
  • 01:28 – Changing demographics of the country
  • 04:49 – Taking us back through the past
  • 14:16 – Why international leaders are in support of Trump?
  • 17:10 – What can we learn for better understanding in South Africa?
  • 19:03 – Why there are no more people in South Africa supporting Trump?  
  • 20:56 – How would the world change over the next four years if Trump becomes president again?
  • 24:12 – Conclusion

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Edited transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Alec Hogg: It’s a warm welcome again to R.W. Johnson, political scientist, historian, bestselling author, and the most popular columnist on BizNews. Last week, we published one of Mr. Johnson’s columns on BizNews Premium, shedding light on the reasons why many Americans support Donald Trump’s return to the White House, despite his age of 77 and the controversies surrounding him, including a conviction for inflating the value of his assets and a $500 million fine.

Mr. Johnson, your column was instructive and eye-opening. Let’s start at the beginning. It seems peculiar to those of us outside the United States that they are pitting an 81-year-old against a 77-year-old for the highest office. Is this due to the changing demographics of the country?

R.W. Johnson: Well, I don’t think so. Longevity is increasing, as in all Western countries, but that’s not the main reason. Trump’s popularity has special reasons we’ll discuss. As for Biden, his nomination was largely secured by being Obama’s vice president, which was crucial for the black voters, a key part of the Democratic coalition. Once the black vote settled on him, he gained momentum, and it became clear that Democrats cannot win without it.

Biden’s successful first term, despite being in his 70s, surprised me. He could have opted not to run again, given many younger and capable Democratic contenders. Instead, he believes he uniquely positioned to defeat Trump. However, the risk he’s running is significant, as a younger Democrat might have a stronger position. The electorate appears to prefer someone in their 40s or 50s.

I can say that a good Democrat of a younger sort would have had a much stronger position. Polls indicate that Nikki Haley could beat Biden comfortably, offering the Republicans a winning alternative without the troubles associated with Trump. The electorate seems to favour candidates in their 40s or 50s.

Alec Hogg: Yet, as we delve into the arguments you presented in your column, there’s much more at play here, especially for those of us outside the United States who may not fully grasp the situation. Specifically, the influence of the Hispanic voting block stands out. Could you guide us through that and provide some historical context?

R.W. Johnson: Certainly. America, known for immigration, shares the world’s longest border where the first and third worlds meet. With a 2,000-mile border, mainly a shallow river, it’s easy for people to cross illegally. This has led to a rapid influx of Hispanic immigration, originating predominantly from Ecuador due to its no visa arrangement with the U.S.

Various immigrants from China, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico enter through this route. Notably, Mexicans, being on the border, contribute significantly to this immigration, reshaping America into an effectively bilingual country. Regions like Los Angeles, Miami, and the entire Southwest are becoming increasingly Hispanic.

Historically, immigrants assimilated into American society, adopting English and striving for upward mobility. However, Mexican immigrants, the largest group, maintain their Spanish language, often in large enclaves, with little inclination to identify as Americans. This breaks the traditional pattern of assimilation and upward mobility seen in previous generations of immigrants.

Mexicans, even in the third generation, show limited social mobility, and a significant number rely on welfare. This poses a challenge to the traditional notion of the American dream. The consequence is that America is swiftly approaching a point where it will no longer be a white-majority country.

This demographic shift is accelerated by an estimated five million immigrants arriving this year, with potentially 10 million by the next election, including several million illegal immigrants. The impact includes a downward pressure on wages, affecting poorer Americans, and a sense of loss among the traditional white majority who view America as their country, built on their institutions and traditions.

This feeling intensifies as the demographic shift threatens their majority status, leading to a strong desire to regain what they perceive as being taken away. Trump’s promise to build a wall resonated with this group, making him their chosen candidate. The ongoing border situation reinforces their belief that they are losing control.

For these supporters, Trump represents the chance to restore what they believe is rightfully theirs—a country dominated by their values. This explains the almost fanatical loyalty to Trump, despite issues that might deter others from a typical candidate. The core motivation lies in the desire for white nativism to prevail, a sentiment predicted by Samuel Huntington in the early 2000s, recognising the inevitable reaction to such a monumental demographic shift.

Alec Hogg: I recall a wise man sharing insights on “uber truths” – those universally understood but rarely discussed. Your analysis of Trump’s enduring popularity, centered around his commitment to building a wall and curbing immigration, aligns with these underlying truths. However, the international support for Trump and his affinity for leaders like Putin, steeped in nationalism, begs the question: Is this part of a broader global nationalist wave?

R.W. Johnson: I don’t believe so. These aspects can be dissected separately. It’s worth noting that Trump’s appeal is stronger among men, particularly those in lower-income brackets. There’s a segment of his following that some unkindly label as “trailer trash.” For many white men in this category, resentment has built over affirmative action favouring women, blacks, and Hispanics at their perceived expense. Trump, beyond border issues, rails against political correctness and champions isolationist ideas.

The slogan “Make America Great Again” carries an assumption that America’s greatness aligns with the leadership of people like them. There’s undoubtedly a nationalist element, but other countries have different dynamics. Immigration is a potent force globally, yet in America, the magnitude and speed of demographic changes have ignited a unique response. The Democrats, in my view, have been slow to address this.

To be frank, Biden’s mishandling of the border situation throughout his term was a significant error, allowing Trump to exploit it. The belated attempts to address the issue are too little, too late.

From a South African standpoint, there are limited parallels. Resentment toward immigrants exists, particularly among nativist black communities resenting incoming Africans. While there’s an open border contributing to the issue, the parallels are constrained. Unlike in America, there isn’t a substantial white group seeking to restore previous white rule. Any sentiments in that direction are acknowledged as unrealistic and impractical, limiting the parallels between the two situations.

Alec Hogg: In social media and business columns, we observe individuals endorsing Trump and extending their support to Putin. Is this due to a preference for narrative over facts, or do people simply not read thoroughly?

R.W. Johnson: Many have embraced the fallacious notion that Putin is a successful nationalist leader who revived Russia in certain aspects. Putin, aligning with the international right, opposes homosexuality and politically correct ideals. It’s crucial to note that he’s advised by individuals with fascist and Nazi inclinations. While some may appreciate the defence of Russian national interests, the reasons for supporting both Trump and Putin seem disparate, unless it’s merely a rejection of the politically correct international consensus, which I find less compelling.

As for the potential of a Trump presidency, if he were to win again, the impact could be substantial. His camp appears more organised, with stronger programmatic views. The absence of supposed “adults in the room” would allow Trump’s ideas to be more effectively implemented. This includes not only the border wall but also potential withdrawal from NATO and significant tariff increases, particularly on Chinese goods. These policies could have profound global consequences, affecting world trade, and breaking a lot of diplomatic “furniture.”

Trump’s second term might see more successful implementation of his ideas, which could be popular with certain segments of the population. His isolationist impulses, once a traditional stance in America until Pearl Harbor, might find renewed support. As a South African with a highly open economy, it’s crucial to recognise that changes in global trade dynamics, influenced by a Trump presidency, would significantly impact South Africa.

Alec Hogg: R.W. Johnson, a political scientist, historian, and bestselling author, emphasises that even for South Africa, with its highly open economy, global trade shifts influenced by a potential Trump presidency would be keenly felt, given that more than 60% of South Africa’s economy relies on imports or exports.

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