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MICHAEL A. COHEN

Welcome to the ‘nothing matters’ election

Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Fresno on Friday.
Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Fresno on Friday.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump gave a major policy speech on energy Thursday, and it was as incoherent as one might expect from a candidate who is not exactly a policy wonk.

Trump offered few thoughts on climate change, which he implied was a “phony issue.” He said the Paris climate agreement would allow foreign bureaucrats to control how much energy Americans use (not true) and that he would “cancel” the deal (he can’t actually do that). He said he would save the coal industry and restore jobs for coal workers, which not even people who work in the coal industry believe is possible. He said Hillary Clinton had “declared war on the American worker” and that Barack Obama’s “stated intent is to eliminate oil and natural gas production in America” (Obama has stated no such thing). He also used the phrase “very, very pure, sweet, beautiful oil,” which should give you some sense of where his energy policy preferences lie.

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That Trump’s policy statements don’t exactly demonstrate the keenest grasp of substantive issues is not surprising. After all, his top campaign strategist, Paul Manafort, said recently that Trump saw his role as president to be more as a chairman of the board than CEO or COO. Manafort also said Trump would looking for an experienced vice president who could “do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do.” Welcome to the nothing matters election.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has shown repeatedly that he knows virtually nothing about the issues that he would actually confront if he becomes president. He substitutes hoary slogans like “Build the Wall” for actual policy statements, pledges to ban all Muslims, deport all illegal immigrants, be “the greatest job creator God ever created,” all the while making America great again. That he’s offered not a single realistic proposal for how he would do these things doesn’t seem to bother his supporters. Trump’s views on social issues — like funding Planned Parenthood and transgender bathrooms — run counter to the dominant views of Republican voters. Trump’s persona, his three divorces, his ostentatious wealth, and his vulgarity stand in sharp contrast to the GOP’s base of socially conservative, evangelical voters — and yet none of it matters. They have been among his strongest supporters.

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Indeed, it’s hard even to figure why Trump — or Clinton, for that matter — bothers to give any policy speeches at all. Earlier this month, Clinton unveiled an ambitious new proposal for improving American child care. It barely caused a ripple in the vast media political apparatus whose purported job it is inform voters about the policy positions of the presidential candidates. Why talk about child care when Trump is getting in twitter fights with Elizabeth Warren?

The lack of interest in actual policy issues seems more acute this campaign year, but it’s nothing new. As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, two political scientists, pointed out recently in The New York Times, “decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities, and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.”

This will certainly ring true to anyone who has spoken to Trump voters at campaign rallies this year (or for that matter supporters of the other candidates). Getting them to talk about policy issues that matter to them is like pulling teeth. They hem and haw; they strain to think of something and usually just mouth platitudes. It’s abundantly clear that issues are not what are driving their allegiances.

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This is not just a phenomenon on the right. Bartels and Achen found that while supporters of Bernie Sanders are “more pessimistic than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters about ‘opportunity in America’ and more likely to say that economic inequality had increased,” they were less likely than Clinton’s backers to favor a higher minimum wage, more government spending on health care, or “an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes.” These, of course, are all positions held by Sanders.

Indeed, the greatest indicator of support for Sanders is not ideology, but rather being young, male, and nonwhite, and an independent rather than a registered Democrat. On the Republican side, Trump’s support has been built on a foundation of noncollege-educated, poorer GOP voters who are overwhelmingly white. As for the polls that at one point showed a large number of Republicans who would never vote for Trump — today he’s getting more than 80 percent of GOP support.

Of course, journalists have a responsibility to cover policy issues and push the candidates on the substance of their proposals . . . or the lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean that voters are carefully weighing the health care proposals of the two presumptive nominees or debating the nuances of their positions on trade or the environment or child care. After all, it’s a bit hard to compare and contrast when only one candidate has any actual proposals.

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In modern American politics, partisanship and tribe don’t just count more than policy — they count for practically everything. In a polarized political environment, where the number of persuadable voters has shrunk to a tiny segment of the electorate, presidential politics has become a zero sum game of mobilizing your base, getting your voters to the polls, and spending more time pointing out why the other candidate is worse rather than why yours is better.

On a more positive note, we’ve only got about five more months of campaigning to go.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.