The high-information low-information voters


It’s easy to mock low-information Trump voters who are getting what they deserve, if not necessarily what they asked for. See, for instance, this remarkable article about Roberto Beristain, an upstanding resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, who lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, raised four children with his wife of 17 years, and ran his own small business. He also happens to be an illegal immigrant. His wife, an American citizen, voted for Trump, explaining “I don’t think ICE is out there to detain anyone and break families, no.” and “Like [Trump] said, the good people have a chance to become citizens of the United States.”

Well, guess what happened? Roberto Beristain was deported a few days ago to Juarez, Mexico, and even many of the Republican residents of Mishawaka were angered. (Probably not enough to stop voting for the Republicans, though.) The article about Helen Beristain’s reaction to the incident is almost unbelievable:

“I wish I didn’t vote at all,” Helen Berestain said Friday. “I did it for the economy. We needed a change.”

She recalls that Roberto had complained, “He’s going to get rid of the Mexicans.”

But she countered with Trump’s words, that he would deport only the “bad hombres.”

The Beristains, she said, were all for deporting illegal immigrants who were criminals, bringing drugs or abusing the system, “but not to get rid of all the people. This is not what America is, the land of the free.”

“It’s regular people,” she said of who’s being deported. “It doesn’t mean they are bad. They need to draw a line.”

She also revealed that she, like her husband, had once been an illegal immigrant, though now she is a U.S. citizen. She is originally from Greece.

Holy fuck, folks. Aren’t these people are too stupid to live, let alone to vote? (To paraphrase Martin Niemoller, “First they came for the illegal immigrants, and I said nothing, not because I wasn’t an illegal immigrant, but because I was a moron…”)

Let’s recap what Trump actually said on immigration. He promised a “deportation force”. Ann Coulter, the woman who wrote a book called “Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole”, voted for Trump because of his stance on illegal immigration (tweeting, “I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump’s immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given”). In that speech, Trump explained,

In a Trump administration all immigration laws will be enforced, will be enforced. As with any law enforcement activity, we will set priorities. But unlike this administration, no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement. And ICE and Border Patrol officers will be allowed to do their jobs the way their jobs are supposed to be done.

Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country.

Trump even obliquely made a reference to President Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback, which involved rounding up and deporting over a million illegal immigrants. This was never about “bad hombres” or “sanctuary cities” or the “rapists”. They were always a pretext to get rid of all 11 million illegal immigrants, and most of the legal ones too (unless they were married to Trump, of course). Anyone who saw the people Trump surrounded himself with – Stephen Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, Kris Kobach, and various and sundry white nationalism sympathizers – and thought otherwise is a stupid idiot, of the John McCain variety.

But, let’s also be fair. Few people have the time or inclination to keep up with U.S. politics the way I do, and Helen Beristain is certainly not one of them. Politics is often so confusing and petty and byzantine and sanctimonious and boring and, most importantly, downright irrelevant to our quotidian existence, that I don’t blame the salt of the earth for giving up. After the moral preening surrounding the “nuclear option”/Gorsuch debate, a (libertarian-ish) friend of mine remarked that “[It] reminds me of why I hated following politics until about a year or two ago.”

I think there are two comments to be made about this complaint. One is that politics really does matter to ordinary people, especially now. I tried to elaborate on this point in my inaugural post, right after the Trump election. Whether it’s the money in your wallet, whether you can buy affordable health insurance, whether you or a woman in your life can get an abortion if she needs it, whether your kids will have access to quality public education, whether your internet browsing history will be sold to a private corporation, whether you will be targeted because of your race or your religion, or whether the planet as we know it will still exist in a century, the Trump administration will make an impact on something you care about, and that impact will likely be negative. So even if the prospect of becoming politically active doesn’t get you enthusiastic, politics itself should at least get you angry and motivated.

But the other important follow-up is that many people do have the time and resources and intelligence to follow politics closely, and even they get it wrong. These people are the high-information low-information voters. They are the people Thomas Jefferson forgot about when he proposed that “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”. These people are indeed well-informed, but so much of what they know is not true.

Here’s an example. Robert Mercer is one of the most influential men in Republican politics, if not American politics. He is a multi-billionaire who made his riches running Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that has averaged returns of over 70% per year by using algorithmic trading strategies. He is an utterly brilliant computer scientist who developed deep knowledge within his narrow domain of expertise. Outside of that domain, he is a truly toxic and almost lunatic individual, as revealed by Jane Mayer in her engrossing profile of him in The New Yorker.

In decades past, Mercer would have been a political non-entity. However, as campaign finance expert and Stephen Colbert’s former lawyer, Trevor Potter, explains: “[Now] suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

Let’s take a look at those views, and let’s follow the money. Mercer has “put ten million dollars into Breitbart News, which was conceived as a conservative counterweight to the Huffington Post.” He also funded Cambridge Analytica, which purports to “use secret psychological methods to pinpoint which messages are the most persuasive to individual online viewers.” Cambridge Analytica was credited (perhaps somewhat dubiously) with helping Trump win the election. Mercer was also responsible for the rise of Stephen Bannon. Mayer reports that “Years before he started supporting Trump, he began funding several conservative activists, including Steve Bannon; as far back as 2012, Bannon was the Mercers’ de-facto political adviser. Some people who have observed the Mercers’ political evolution worry that Bannon has become a Svengali to the whole family, exploiting its political inexperience and tapping its fortune to further his own ambitions.” Mercer and his daughter has gotten their tentacles into every aspect of the far right movement, from attacking the “Ground Zero Mosque”, to funding the Citizens United campaign, to setting up a shop to “expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media”, to supporting Jeff Sessions. (Mercer believes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a mistake and that there are no white racists in America today.)

Mercer is so smart yet so stupid, like many of the academics I’ve met. They believe their brilliance allows them to parachute into any debate, no matter how far afield from their own expertise. Take, for instance, Mercer’s bizarre views on nuclear weapons:

Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier. The National Academy of Sciences has found no evidence to support this notion. Nevertheless, according to the onetime employee, Mercer, who is a proponent of nuclear power, “was very excited about the idea, and felt that it meant nuclear accidents weren’t such a big deal.

But, once again, let’s be scrupulously fair. Mercer is an old white billionaire who doesn’t really care if Japanese people are irradiated or if the government is dysfunctional (A former colleague explained, “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the President’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it to all fall down.”) What about the high-information voters who should care? The immigrants, the brown people, the ones who have gay sons or disabled daughters or who believe in science or saving the planet?

Well, many of them happen to be low-information too. I’m reminded of the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan. (He’s pictured at the top of this post.) He doesn’t look like a Trump voter, but he was one. He was interviewed after Trump’s first Muslim Ban:

Mr. Khan said it was “kind of a sobering time for somebody like me,” in part because he had expected Mr. Trump to moderate his views on immigrants and Muslims once in office. But Mr. Khan said he hoped the courts would provide a bulwark against the president’s actions against immigrants.

I find myself so frustrated at these people that I could scream. Their side has atrocious old right-wing billionaires like Robert Mercer, who are crazy but also crazily effective at advancing their ideological goals. Our side has billionaires like Shahid Khan who are the exact opposite: feckless at best and self-defeating at worst. Robert Mercer gave his vote to Trump expecting that he would follow through on his promises to wreck America. Shahid Khan gave his vote to Trump expected that he wouldn’t, or perhaps that, even if he did, Khan and the people he cared about wouldn’t be the targets. Who was right and who was wrong?

Helen Beristain believed that the world could be cleanly cleaved into bad hombres and good ones, and that Trump would know and care about the difference. Khan believed that Trump could be cleanly cleaved into a bad hombre and a good one, and that the bad one would “moderate” itself upon assuming power. But there is no good Trump and bad Trump; Trump is an empty vessel, too simplistic and venal to have a political ideology. There is only bad Robert Mercer, bad Ann Coulter, bad Stephen Bannon, bad Kris Kobach, bad Jeff Sessions, bad Betsy Devos, and the rest of the awful bastards. And as long as Trump keeps their company, people like Helen Beristain and Shahid Khan are going to continue to be disappointed by his poor judgment.


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