This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.
Even though the two major presidential candidates could not be less alike, one of the unifying media narratives about Clinton and Trump is that they are similar because both have "high negatives." That is utterly misleading, and that narrative simply collapses once one looks at it carefully.
What is perhaps even more interesting, however, is how the most motivated Trump supporters react to attacks on their guy as opposed to defenses of Clinton. Because both "Trump is bad" and "Clinton is good" would seem to be equivalently unwelcome statements to Trump backers, one might think that their reaction to each kind of statement would be equally strong. In fact, however, their reactions differ in both degree and kind.
Based on readers' reactions—online comments and so on—to my own writing as well as to other authors whose work I follow, Trump's supporters seem to have an almost half-hearted attitude when it comes to negative statements about Trump. There are always extremes, of course, but the vibe is essentially one that says, "Hey, dirtbag liberal writer, you don't get it. Don't be an idiot." Not exactly charm-school levels of civil exchange, but restrained in its way.
While Trump's supporters might seem relatively restrained when it comes to defending their man, everything changes when they respond to defenses of the hated woman who is running against him. If the standard on-line response to an attack on Trump is, "Don't be an idiot," then the all-too-common response to any defense of Clinton is, "YOU'RE A DISGUSTING LIAR, YOU BARELY-HUMAN SCUM!!!!!!!" And that is the printable stuff.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that Trump's supporters seem not to take him seriously in the first place. When Slate publishes "153 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President"—a list that actually grew from 141 things when it was first published, with the additional dozen outrages coming during the week of the Republican National Convention alone (and which does not include Trump's recent attacks on the Khan family)—how do Trump's backers respond?
Of course, most of Trump's supporters do not read Slate or anything like it, but bear with me here. When they are confronted with facts that contradict things that Trump has said, and when they are shown irrefutable examples of Trump's lying, "they don't care." They actually expect him not to follow through on what he has said.
Trump is a buffoon, but his backers like him for a strange combination of other reasons. He speaks to their sense of grievance —economic displacement, racial and ethnic fears, sexist panic, religious excuses for intolerance—and his claim to be "your voice" is more than enough.
Again, the fascinating reality is that Trump supporters' response to a typical Trump-is-a-dangerous-fraud-my-God-what-can-his-supporters-be-thinking article is relatively restrained. Even though he is channeling all kinds of venom and fear-mongering (neatly encapsulated in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention), the loyalty of his followers somehow does not lead them to react with sputtering outrage to negative analyses of Trump's candidacy. It is not exactly a yawn, but it is also not generally over the top.
That is not to say that Trump's supporters are not loyal, of course. Nothing he says can dislodge them from their support. They are, instead, apparently having a good time venting their anger through him. He is their kind of guy, and if you don't get it, so much the worse for you.
The question is why, among the group of people who bother to respond to what they read online, there is such a difference between the way they express their support for Trump and the vitriol aimed toward anyone who says that Clinton is not the anti-Christ. Why, in other words, does any defense of Clinton—even one that acknowledges her flaws but tries simply to put them in context—lead Trump supporters to scream at the top of their lungs?
The answer, I think, is in the gut-level prejudices that the anti-Clinton cult has nurtured over the years. Bill Clinton was depicted as a libertine, an embodiment of the 1960s who dodged the draft (which is no longer an issue on the right, thanks not only to Bush and Cheney but now to Trump) and who, despite his eagerness to lurch the Democratic Party to the right, was also so well liked by the African-American community that he proudly accepted Toni Morrison's description of him as America's "first black president."
Interestingly, it turns out that Morrison's description was based not on Clinton's support for the political interests of black people or any affinity that he might have with African-Americans. Instead, she said that "he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp."
In other words, the Republicans who relentlessly undermined Clinton did so because they hated him, and they hated him simply because he was the wrong kind of person. He was black, Morrison said, in the sense that he was guilty without the chance of being proved innocent in the eyes of those who hated him.
Which brings us to sexism. One of Bill Clinton's sins, in the eyes of his fiercest detractors, was that he brought an uppity woman with him into the White House. She ultimately dropped Rodham from her public name, and she even went through some public humiliations involved with baking cookies. But it was never enough, because she was already guilty. Guilty of something that apparently is connected with "taking our country away from us."
Meanwhile, President Obama only made matters worse, from the standpoint of the people who fear the unstoppable changes in the country and the world. He actually is black, in both the sense of having an African father (thus certainly exceeding the "one drop of blood" idea of blackness under Jim Crow) and in the Morrison sense of being automatically guilty because of being black.
The people who lament the loss of white male supremacy, therefore, were thrilled by politicians who did everything they could to delegitimize Obama. But it was still not enough. One of the reasons most often cited for the Republican establishment's loss of support from what is now Trump's base is that the Republicans failed to bring Obama down once and for all.
Obama, in other words, had to be not only stopped but thoroughly defeated and publicly humiliated. Congressional leaders and presidential candidates, in the eyes of Trump supporters, apparently did not push hard enough on the birth certificate question, and they did not repeal the Affordable Care Act. They agreed that Obama was illegitimate, yet they betrayed the aggrieved Trump supporters by not trying even harder to undermine him.
Hillary Clinton, carrying the "blackness" of her husband, has also now firmly embraced her former rival. With her candidacy, then, we have the fusion of the sexism and racism that has been bubbling under the surface (although it does frequently come into full view) for decades. Having lost their chances to take Bill Clinton and Barack Obama down, the best way to continue to say that those two men were illegitimate is to insist ever more loudly on Hillary Clinton's illegitimacy.
The case for her illegitimacy is thus ultimately not based on facts or logic. It is not based on what she did or did not do as secretary of state, nor in any other role during her life. She is, in the eyes of those who hate her, simply the embodiment of everything that scares them about modernity.
Trump supporters, therefore, can stand it when someone says that Trump is an embarrassment, but they simply cannot tolerate any suggestion that there is something positive to say about Clinton. She represents everything that they fear.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.