Obama vs. Trump. Logic versus unreason?

President Obama spoke against a strain of anti-intellectualism in political debate in his Rutgers commencement address. But Trump voters say their support transcends political reasoning.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office at Trump Tower in New York May 10. Trump plans to win the White House largely on the strength of his personality, skipping a heavy investment on what he calls the "overrated" use of data to shape campaign strategy and get out the vote.

If Donald Trump is illogical, why do his voters like him?

That question came to mind while watching President Obama’s Rutgers University commencement speech on Sunday. Mr. Obama criticized Trump and Trumpism in the address without naming either, and one of his sharpest jabs concerned anti-intellectualism.

“Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science – these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy,” said Obama, to applause from the crowd.

But there’s a strain of anti-intellectualism in today’s political debate, said the president. Ignorance or not knowing what you are talking about is not challenging political correctness, according to Obama. It’s just dumb.

“When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem,” said Obama.

Lest anyone be mystified as to whom he was talking about, the president then threw in a reference to outsiders. You’d never want to board an airliner piloted by a nonpilot, he said, but this election cycle voters seem eager for a nonpolitician to pilot the nation.

Geez, put it that way and it sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Are Trump voters choosing to reject logic, or what?

That’s not what they think, obviously. They’d frame their choice differently. Maybe they are looking for action, or an emotion above all.

According to a fascinating look at Trump followers by the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson, they say that The Donald has touched something deep inside them, something that transcends political reasoning.

He makes them feel as if America can be the biggest and baddest once again.

“We need a leader, not an ideologue,” one Trump voter in Georgia told Jonsson.

In that context the coherence of Trump’s debunked statements about seeing Muslims celebrating 9/11 on New Jersey rooftops seems less important, perhaps.

Of course, many Trump voters might take issue with the “debunked” in the above sentence. That’s another reason they’d reject Obama’s critique. They don’t trust the authority of mainstream experts.

This disbelief in traditional sources of authority is one of the strongest predictors of a Trump voter, according to political scientists Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago and Wendy Rahn of the University of Minnesota. That’s an element inherent in political populism, the pair wrote in March at The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage political blog.

Trump voters are farther over on the “mistrust experts” scale than all other Republicans, according to Oliver and Rahn. They’re in a different universe on this question than Clinton supporters.

That means that in the end, Trump voters may see themselves as the rational ones in the national political discussion, as opposed to Obama Democrats.

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