Looking upon American politics this election cycle, one may feel disturbed and exhausted. As if the surprising rise of Bernie Sanders against the presumptive Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was not enough, we have also witnessed the even more shocking and seemingly paradoxical rise of Donald Trump.
The US presidential election is not important just because the presidency is on the line. It is also a time for the parties to recalibrate: devise their platforms, reevaluate priorities, seek new voters while dropping dead weight, get a glimpse at the upcoming congressional elections, and get a sense of where the general public leans on issues.
This campaign season, both parties experienced significant upsets and still remain undecided, an uncommon occurrence. Of course liberals are puzzled over the rise of Trump, but there may no one more shocked by his endurance and popularity than the Republican establishment itself.
Trump is not just an upset, he demonstrates the need for a wholesale reexamining of the Republican Party, otherwise known as the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP). The political landscape looks very different from what GOP candidates Rubio, Bush and Cruz imagined at the beginning of the campaign. They had, like Democrats, originally written Trump off as a publicity stunt popular among “drive by” voters who do not normally show up to the voting booth.
Now that it looks as if Trump could possibly win the nomination, media, political strategists and academics are grappling with new questions – just who exactly are these Trump voters and what do they mean for the GOP?
At first, many wrote them off as just white, racist, less educated males. Trump does claim 44% of republican males, does best among those without college degrees, and does well in areas correlated with racist behaviors (CBS’ April polls and NYT’s Nate Cohn’s work). Consider the large swaths of Republicans who did not vote for him but said they would not mind a Trump nomination in primary exit polls, and then one starts to see just how much of Trump support is unaccounted for.
His support crosses almost every divide: he polls better than opponents with republican women and youths; strong with less educated voters but also does well with college-degrees; religiously inactive Christians but also active Christians; anti-GOP establishment Republicans but also archconservatives.
The dominant narrative behind Trump’s coalition is that they are a collection of “marginal republicans”, republicans in various demographic groups that have strong atypical attributes. This is why he does well in almost every breakdown and therefore why it has been so hard to predict Trump supporters.
However, recent attention has focused on the work of a PhD student at UMass Amherst and a book published by political science professors in 2009. Both have done remarkably well in predicting and explaining the rise of Trump support.
Amherst student Matthew MacWilliams found that voters with authoritarian profiles – desire for order, fear of outsiders, protective of social norms and favor aggressive leaders and policy – strongly correlated with Trump support. Authoritarianism turned out to be more statistically significant in predicting Trump support than any other indicator out there. MacWilliams also found that authoritarianism combined with a hybrid-variable for fear of terrorism, managed to capture many voters lower on the authoritarian scale.
Trump’s call for a wall on the US-Mexico border, barring Muslims from the US, closing down mosques, and other hate-promoting rhetoric against “others”, however defined, would definitely appeal to an authoritarian leaning voter. The term, however, feels alien to American politics. Are there really millions of authoritarian Americans out there?
In 2009, Professors Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler published a book that basically laid out the roadmap of Trump’s ascent. They argued that since the GOP turned itself into the party of traditional values, tough on crime and hawkish foreign policy, it attracted what was previously a bipartisan authoritarian electoral group. As voters on the authoritarian scale coalesced into the GOP, and grew in number, they would eventually be a strong faction within the GOP and force a divide between traditional republicans and less orthodox republicans, aka marginal republicans. Hetherington and Weiler’s predictions were spot on, and yes, authoritarianism is not new to the US.
Since the events of 9/11, several signposts demonstrate a growth of authoritarian voters. The Tea-Party’s unyielding platform of “tradition” and conservative readings of the US Constitution. The rise of the “Birthers”, in which Trump was a leader, stoked a fear of outsiders so much as to doubt the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. The polarization of US politics, the widening economic gap, the diversification of American demographics and the relentless fear-mongering of conservative media explain why voters might shift further along the scale of authoritarianism.
Trump comes along in 2016 and seems to hit a chord within the Republican Party, a popularity we are struggling to understand. Trump’s charisma is not enough to explain why so many Americans are “suddenly” adopting such politically and socially extreme stances. Authoritarian scholars explain that these actually are not sudden movements, and so far, MacWilliams’ work has strong predictive power, better than any of the typical indicators.
That is because we are witnessing the rise of a powerful group within the GOP that has the power to raise someone like Trump up through the ranks of the Republican establishment. The message these political scientists are telling us is that this group is not going to go away.
They made Trump happen, not the other way around. Trump was a registered Democrat, then a Republican, then a Reform Party candidate, then back to being a Democrat, now a Republican. He has no political experience. He takes stances that are not in line with the GOP but gain him media attention. He is happy at the margins, an atypical candidate. In true form, he is a power broker and much like many of his supporters, not necessarily tied to party affiliation, yet a slave to power.
A common characteristic of Trump supporters is that they say they feel voiceless, powerless. They also, at least many of them, appear to be authoritarian in their worldview. This seems paradoxical, feeling voiceless yet voting for a candidate whose voice drowns out everyone else; voting for an ideology that expects submission and prizes order over freedom.
One answer to this contradiction may be Alexis De Tocqueville’s warning almost two-centuries ago. American democracy, he said, is a close neighbor of tyranny, “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
Their love of radical equality, in which no one is smarter than oneself, when married to an egoistic individualism that says one need not care for anyone but oneself, invites new forms of despotism. He spoke of it as, “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends…he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
If there is one man in this election who fits De Tocqueville’s description of Americans at the extremes of its socio-political principles, that would be Trump. A man birthed out of a radical equality and individualism, Trump listens to no one but himself, cares for no one but himself, is a slave to his own genius and power, concerned only with maintaining his comforts and a status quo that serves him and his kin.
He is praised by supporters for being authentic. Perhaps that is why many who stand on a “traditionalist” platform yet feel powerless vote for him, they see themselves in him. “A vote for Trump is a vote for me.”
Giving voice to Trump is giving power to a dangerous and uniquely American democratic tradition and psyche, one that looks, well, very authoritarian.