Authoritarianism. Ethnocentrism. Racism. Economic pain. Less education. Loss of prestige. Outsider. Government incompetence.
These have all been explored as reasons why Trump’s supporters back him. Matthew MacWilliams, in an article in Vox in February, insists that a “voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump. Neither, despite predictions to the contrary, did evangelicalism.” What did have a bearing was an inclination to authoritarian behavior. As MacWilliams describes them, “people who score high on the authoritarianism scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.” He mentions things which augment this sense of authoritarianism, including fear of terrorism, Trump’s strongman rhetoric regarding deporting illegal immigrants, anti-Muslim sentiments including banning them from entering the U.S., and tracking Muslim Americans. MacWilliams references other researchers, including Marc Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, whose book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics studies the phenomenon. They note, too, that those who are lower on the authoritarian scale can move higher if they feel under threat. The recently concluded Republican National Convention, and Trump’s speech heightening those fears, could increase this sense in voters and bring them over to Trump’s side.
Jordan Michael Smith augments while pushing back on the authoritarian angle by referencing Seymour Martin Lipset, writing in the late 1950’s. Lipset’s view was of “working class authoritarianism,” and that “authoritarian predispositions and ethnic prejudice flow more naturally from the situation of the lower classes than from that of middle and upper classes,” also quoted by Hetherington and Weiler. Are they Trump supporters because they have authoritarian traits, or are they supporters because Trump speaks to their declining fortunes as working class in America, who also happen to be authoritarian?
Cousin to authoritarianism and its interest in protecting social norms and wariness of outsiders is ethnocentrism, or more darkly, racism. Emily Flitter and Chris Kahn report that while significant numbers of both Republican and Democratic parties view blacks more negatively than whites, Trump supporters are even more likely to view blacks as “criminal, unintelligent, lazy, and violent.” They are also more likely to agree that “social policies, such as affirmative action, discriminate unfairly against white people.” Jeet Heer reinforces this, describing Trump’s comments about Mexican rapists and stirring up xenophobia towards Muslims, as a “racist pitch,” noting that such dog-whistle appeals to racism have been used heavily because the Republican party is overwhelmingly white. Matthew Yglesias believes “You can’t talk about Trump without talking about racism.” Echoing Nate Cohn, who notes that Trump’s supporters are “A Certain Kind of Democrat,” who populate “a broad swath of the country stretching from the Gulf Coast, up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, to upstate New York,” Yglesias notes that his territory of support “ corresponds to the geography of white racial resentment in the United States.”
But are Trump’s supporters really the authoritarian working class? David W. Brady and Douglas Rivers show that early in the race, in September, Trump’s supporters were more likely to be older, less educated, and earn less than the average Republican. Janell Ross, writing in December, reinforces those traits, adding that Trump supporters are more likely to be male, as well. Rubio picked up the younger voters, Cruz and Carson evangelical voters, with Carson also scoring higher among the college-educated, and Bush doing better among moderates and women. But as Aaron Blake notes, to make Trump supporters, “Take Republicans, and make them more wary of outsiders.” Or as Corinne Purtill believes, it is a stereotype that the Trump supporter is white, working class, and uneducated; he or she is those things only in comparison to others in the Republican party. She references Nate Silver, who notes that Trump supporters are more well off than the average American, and more well off than either Sanders or Clinton supporters (whose primary voters are even more well off than the average American).
The media have made note of recent research indicating that, contrary to trends over many decades, white life expectancy has declined while black life expectancy has increased. However, white life expectancy remains higher than that of blacks. Regardless, it contributes to a sense that life is getting worse for whites. This is also the story of worsening economic pain. According to Benjy Sarlin, Trump’s support started out more strongly in counties which had experienced below average growth in the years 2004 to 2014, where white labor participation was lower, and where the population had less education. As much of the country exited from the Great Recession, some areas (the article calls out counties in Appalachia, part of the geography Nate Cohn calls out as being more favorable to Trump) did not benefit from the overall national economic improvement.
Emma Lindsay believes that this is just backdrop to what animates Trump supporters. She thinks that what Trump supporters have lost and most want, is, in a word, dignity. Part of being part of life is giving and sharing, but that the country is “depriving the white working classes of their means to give. As we export manufacturing jobs internationally and as we streamline labor with technology, we start moving people to the sidelines. It’s not just that they have less money, it’s that their identity as providers is being threatened. This is why they are often so against welfare. Even if it would fix their financial situation, it would not fix their identity problems. It would hurt their dignity. While the working class is undoubtedly worried about the economy, we already know many will not vote in their economic best interests. They vote for the candidate who promises a return to dignity, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they care about their dignity more than they care about their finances.”
Others put it less charitably. Jeet Heer thinks “Trump is appealing to the aggrieved privilege of well-to-do white Republicans who feel threatened by America’s changing demographics and challenges to the traditional racial hierarchy in the age of Obama.” Jamelle Bouie delineates many of the ideas expressed here, but asks why the Trump phenomenon now. He answers that the election of Barack Obama was a shock which made the cultural and political change unignorable. And Linda Wertheimer asks Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” if it’s just that “Trump Supporters [Are] Nostalgic For A Fading White, Christian America?”
Either way, what’s driving Trump supporters is a sense of loss. Lindsay notes that her progressive friends think Republicans, particularly those who have become Trump supporters, must be ignorant having continued to vote against their own best interests. Many have noted that the Republican party, it of big business and small government favoring the well-off, has managed to keep the Tea Party element and the angry base inside its tent. But the base has come to recognize its feeling of powerlessness. Trump, however, has tapped into that feeling. As Derek Thompson notes, “But voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.”
When you have little say in your government, your government doesn’t reflect your interests. Benjy Sarlin talks about what Trump supporters say when asked at rallies. Money in politics leads to incompetent and corrupt government. But Trump “can’t be bought.” While the Republican leadership kept backing the loosening of campaign finance restrictions, those who ultimately would become Trump supporters recognized that this money was the source of government incompetence.
Aggrieved. Disrespected. Economically left behind. Having lost faith in government. Responding to a leader strong in proclaiming nationalism. Turning their backs on democracy?
During the Bush-Cheney administration, I remember telling my father-in-law that I suspected about 40% of Americans would approve of abolishing democracy in favor of a strong leader who promoted their interests. Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have come to a similar conclusion. In articles at the New York Times in September and at Vox in December, they have delineated this dissatisfaction with Democracy. Trust in Congress has plummeted since 1980, from more than 40% to less than 10%. When asked if it would be a good thing to have Army rule, the percentage of Americans who agree has gone from 6% to 16% in the last 20 years. Increasingly, wealthy Americans see their fate less entwined with that of the middle class, and in increasing numbers support authoritarian rule (from 20% to 45% since 1995; for Americans in the bottom half of the income scale it has stayed roughly at 30%). And this turn away from democracy is seen in other countries across the globe, as well.
Is the Trump phenomenon one with this distancing from democracy? Trump supporters tend to be older, and older Americans are still more supportive of democracy than younger Americans, so maybe not. But the same distrust in government and loss of optimism about the future which drives anti-democracy views also animates Trump support. Congress doesn’t work; big money is corrupting the system. Maybe a strong leader is the solution.
Foa and Mounk would disagree. Reflecting the views of a different set of disaffected Americans, those feeling the Bern, Foa and Mounk argue that more democracy is the solution. They cite Lawrence Lessig’s presidential campaign focused on reforming the electoral process; curbing the power of the rich; limiting campaign finance contributions; stopping the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street; and redistributive polices which improve the standard of living of all citizens.
“I support Trump.” Now that the conventions are over and the campaign has started in earnest, it will be interesting to see how our politics realigns itself.