This election, there’s been considerable discussion about who makes up Donald Trump’s support base. This is an interesting question from a political science perspective; after all, Trump is far from the typical Republican nominee. But for many, it’s also a personal issue. How could anyone support a man who’s boasted about sexual assault, claimed that Mexicans “are rapists,” and suggested that the US ban Muslims from entering the country?
Daniel Robinson is not a stereotypical Trump supporter. While the Republican nominee’s supporters include a disproportionate number of white people without college degrees, Robinson is an Oxford University philosophy professor who focuses on philosophy of the mind, legal philosophy, and moral theory. But Robinson is one of millions of Americans who plans to use his vote to support Trump.
I wanted to understand what led an eminent professor like Robinson to this decision. And so I asked him to explain his reasoning to me, and whether his support for Trump could be tied to ideas in moral philosophy.
Trump the businessmen
The crux of Robinson’s support for Trump is based on his deep disgust with the current political system and on his admiration for Trump’s business prowess.
“If the question is, whom would you choose to move assets around and get the best deal for the country, I think Trump probably ranks high on that list,” he says. “I do think he’ll have an immediate effect on the regulatory part of government. Don’t underestimate the importance of that.”
Trump’s four bankruptcies, says Robinson, are to be expected from a successful businessman with a decades-long career. When I point out that many Wall Street banks now refuse to do business with Trump and that Deutsche Bank once sued him, Robinson insists that Trump has never been formally denied a loan and is considered a good credit risk.
Meanwhile, Robinson considers the United States, as well as the UK and other Western democracies, to be “cultural backwaters,” spending themselves “into oblivion” and living on assets earned by previous generations. He laments the high cost and poor performance of the US education system, and the need for financial donations that corrupts US politics.
Ultimately, Robinson views Trump as a pragmatist—which he sees as an entirely positive trait. He cites 19th-century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who defined pragmatism as “the end point of an infinite number of successful experiments.”
Pragmatism “doesn’t declare that it has truth within its ambit,” Robinson says. “It says whatever it is you will ultimately regard as true, you’ll regard thus after a large number of experiments in which that possibility is played off against a large number of counter possibilities and that was the one that survived. Without ever reading philosophy, Trump and people in the world he occupies have that orientation.”
And so, Trump’s misunderstanding of how national debt works doesn’t concern Robinson. He believes Trump is a pragmatist and won’t make the same mistake twice. “If he’s elected, and I don’t think he will be, there’s going to be a fair bit of on-the-job training,” he adds.
Politics and prejudice
Trump has certainly had financial success in his life, although his relative level of achievement, and how much of it he owes to the help he’s received, is a subject of heated debate. But surely his misogynist and racist comments outweigh his business acumen?
In general, Robinson is unperturbed by Trump’s comments. “He doesn’t have what Aristotle called ‘proper pride,’” he says. “I sometimes apologize for him by saying, ‘Remember, he’s from Queens.’”
The one exception, says Robinson, are Trump’s sexual assault boasts, which he finds “greatly” concerning. “If I don’t support him, of everything you’ve brought up, that would be the reason,” he says. “I’ve played a lot of sports as a young fellow. That’s not locker room talk.”
But Robinson seems to find the other controversies easy to brush off. Trump being sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to African-Americans? Robinson says Trump was “one of many” and argues that his decisions were based on credit, not race. However, this theory is discredited by evidence cited in the Justice Department case. In one instance, a Trump Management building told a black applicant that no apartments were available, but offered an application to the applicant’s wife, who was white, the next day.
Trump’s comments that Mexicans “are rapists,” according to Robinson, reflect the crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Robinson argues that two-thirds of those in federal penitentiaries in California are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. “These are not made up statistics,” he adds. When I later tell him that I can find no evidence to support his claim, he revokes this statement but sends an article from the conservative daily American Thinker on the percentage of undocumented immigrants in federal prisons. However, as the Washington Post points out, the vast majority of those cases are immigration related, as opposed to other crimes. Several studies show that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are less likely to commit violent crimes or go to prison than US-born citizens.
And while Robinson disagrees with Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from the US, he does not condemn the Republican nominee for the comments. He claims, again without solid evidence, that Islam is a particularly political religion. (In an email, he wrote that “nothing in the Christian canon compares” to Quran writing on infidels, though there are in fact similar instructions in the Bible.)
Robinson is also strident in his criticism of Hillary Clinton, citing her political ties, her role in Benghazi (specifically her failure to acknowledge it was a terrorist attack from the outset), and her use of a private server.
“This really is sensitive information and damn it to hell, she knew it,” he says. “I can’t vote for somebody like that. It matters. If it doesn’t, then nothing matters. Pick the one whose eyeglasses you like.”
Robinson did not convince me that voting for Trump is a good idea, or that the Republican nominee’s offensive behavior can be reasonably dismissed. But although I was apprehensive about our interview—I found him angry and abrasive over email, and was worried I was opening myself up to extensive trolling—he was polite and amiable throughout our conversation. Robinson spent an hour patiently answering all my questions, and took the time to respond to follow-up emails afterwards. Though I strongly disagree with many of his political views, Robinson’s support for Trump is not based entirely on ill-informed diatribes. His complaints against the existing political system, in particular, are worth taking seriously.
It’s easy to dismiss those who disagree with us as either ignorant or malevolent. Oxford moral philosophy professor Robinson is neither. And nor, ultimately, is each and every one of the millions of people who’ve chosen to support Trump. Anyone who hopes to understand and address the concerns of those backing the Republican candidate will need to set aside such simplistic preconceptions.