Donald Trump’s supporters have particularly intense brand of loyalty. No matter what his rivals throw at him, from substantive policy issues, party loyalty, questions of honesty and more, it doesn’t work. Time and again his supporters reply: they just don’t care.
"Primary exit polls find that Trump supporters are especially committed to their candidate," Vox wrote, quoting one who said "'nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren' would stop her from voting for him."
“They remain unswayed or think more favorably of Trump” after attack ads.
“Trump,” summarized Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, “has found a way to break all the norms of American politics at no political cost to himself.”
What can be said to turn the tide against a man whose supporters love him more in the face of criticism?
One way might be sports.
American partisans treat political identity like they do fandom, said University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller. For them, arguments only reinforce the us vs. them mentality that drives their voting in the first place.
“For as much criticism as there has been about him [Trump], I very strongly believe that he is not the problem as much as a symptom of a lot of underlying social trends that polite society would like to pretend doesn’t exist. He’s just coming along as the salesperson and taking advantage of that.”
What Miller suggests is that partisanship often has little to do with actual issues. Support for a candidate like Trump comes much more from group identity, sometimes held for life.
“In the background of our research is that a lot of interparty conflict is about us vs. them symbolism that’s detached from ideology. It is detached from issues. It’s about ‘our side is the good side, their side is the bad side and we have to win.’”
“We have to win” might sound a little familiar to anyone who has followed the campaign. It’s an emotional bond much like choosing a favorite team. For true fans, a losing season only drives them to cheer harder.
“Devotion and conviction are generally admirable traits,” he said, “and both sports fans and political loyalists have them in spades. But one of the downsides, obviously, is a lack of objectivity. In sports, it can be annoying, but pretty harmless: Fans of the Yankees and Red Sox don’t need to work together. Republicans and Democrats eventually must.”
Trump supporters, as Miller’s research suggests, generally start from the heart. The trouble is, emotional rivalries are often outside the reach of debate.
“For many fans, their teams are part of their very identity, so it goes down to the bone,” Bacon said. “[But] as obnoxious as sports fans can be, they can at least agree on the facts, including the score, the team’s record, its national rank, and the like.”
It’s an area where the sports analogy falls apart, and policy loses.
“Honestly, you just about can’t discuss politics anymore with anyone who doesn’t already share your basic outlook," said Bacon. "A Wolverine is not going to convert a Buckeye, or vice versa. But it’s not hard at all for them to sit down over a few beers and discuss the rivalry’s greatest games, greatest players. The reason this works is the data: It’s hard to argue about the final score.”
Meanwhile, Americans increasingly cannot agree on even the most basic facts of policy, from how taxes work to global warming. But policy matters less in a world where your team winning is the satisfying outcome, not specific governance goals.
Like with sports fandom, "rationality appears not to be a big factor here," said Professor Craig LaMay with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. What is more a factor is Trump's cult of personality.
"There's a powerful attraction to authoritarianism in the world," LaMay said. Studies back that up, showing that one of the few consistent trends among Trump supporters is a preference towards authoritarianism.
It's easy to mock the screaming sports fan, drunk on love of team, but "when it comes to civil discourse, they’re way ahead of party loyalists,” Bacon said. “Alabama and Auburn fans can converse far more civilly and rationally about their favorite teams than average Americans can about even the most basic facts of everyday life -- including the temperature. It does not bode well for political discourse.”