One of the more perplexing riddles to those of us who spend far too much time pondering over politics is why some scandals, accusations, and missteps do damage while others seem to hardly matter at all. Donald Trump has been particularly immune to prevailing political and social norms this campaign season, surviving gaffes that would have likely felled a more conventional campaign. The miscues started almost as soon as he announced his candidacy.
- In June 2015, he criticized John McCain for his military service. “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
- In August 2015, he offered this assessment of Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”
- In September 2015, he said this about Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face!” Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
- In November 2015, he mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski who has a congenital condition.
- In February 2016, he called on his supporters at a rally to knock the crap out of protestors. “So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell - I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” (see for a complete catalogue click here)
- In July 2016, he said commented on Ghazala Khan, the mother of a U.S. Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, for her silence during her husband’s speech at the Democratic Convention. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably - maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”
- In August 2016, he made comments implying an assassination of Hillary Clinton. “If (Hillary Clinton) gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Most recently, he has become embroiled in ongoing questions about not releasing his income tax returns and lewd comments he made about women in 2005. Amidst this litany of transgressions, the lewd comments have proven—at least so far—most political costly among his political base, perhaps (as we argue below) because they run against the grain of traditional morality.
Let’s start with the tax returns. While most Americans hate taxes, nearly a consensus of Americans (86 percent) reject the idea that it is acceptable to cheat on income taxes. Moreover, 94 percent agree that it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes. Clear majorities (61 percent) also believe the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes. As evidenced by Tim Kaine’s frequent references during the Vice Presidential debate, Democrats clearly believe leaked 1995 tax returns showing Trump may have avoided income taxes for nearly two decades is exerting a toll on his political support.
Donald Trump entered the fray by bragging during the first presidential debate that he was smart to not have to pay taxes. While we do not yet know if Trump cheated, his tax returns likely prove one of three things, none of which are good for his campaign: (1) He overstated losses to avoid paying taxes OR (2) his business success (and his income) has been greatly overstated OR (3) he has given little or no money to the charitable causes he claims to support.
At least among his core voters, those authoritarian Republicans looking for a strong leader not constrained by social norms or constitutional constraints, Trump may well find a sympathetic ear. Authoritarians care less about cheating on government than other violations of traditional social norms.
Consider this data from Wave 6 of the World Values Survey (N=2,232) conducted in 2011. Respondents were asked the following set of questions regarding the justification of various behaviors:
For each of the following actions or activities, please indicate whether you think that it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between. You may use any response from 1 to 10 to reflect the strength of your feeling. (Percent Never Justified in parentheses).
- Cheating on taxes when you have a chance (67.9%)
- Someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties (74.1%)
- Homosexuality (24.0%)
- Abortion (22.4%)
- Divorce (5.1%)
- Sex before marriage (13.5%)
- For a man to beat his wife (84.6%)
- Parents beating children (74.1%)
- Violence against other people (64.5%)
Fortunately for us, the World Values Survey also includes question often used as an indicator of authoritarian attitudes; that is, whether a “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” is a good way of governing the country. As illustrated below, respondents who indicated a preference for a strong leader were less likely to say that cheating on taxes was never justified. Notably, this relationship notably holds even after we take into account effects of ideology. In fact, ideology is not a significant predictor of whether it is justifiable to cheat on taxes.
The data may also reveal why his most recent set of lewd comments may have a larger effect on his base. Respondents who are more likely to prefer a strong political leader are also less likely to say that cheating on government benefits, stealing property, taking a bribe, domestic abuse, or violence against others is “never justifiable.” At the same time, however, they are more condemning of divorce, premarital sex, abortion, and homosexuality. With the exception of premarital sex, these relationships hold even when ideology is included as a control variable.
His most recent set of comments are unlikely to play well with a prudish authoritarian base that is more willing to damn violations of traditional sexual norms than cheating on taxes. They are also distinctly different than his previous comments against women (Megan Kelly and Carly Fiorina among others) because of the explicit sexual references, condoning assault, and the disregard for marriage. It is subsequently not surprising that many Republican elected officials who endorsed Trump despite his previous gaffes, see his most recent comments as crossing a line and are calling for his withdrawal from the race and/or retracting their support.
We should note several qualifications. First, the models presented above don’t include a full range of controls. Regardless, they reveal an association between authoritarian attitudes and more lenient beliefs about cheating on taxes (as well as a range of other behaviors) and more damning beliefs about violations of traditional sexual norms. Second, the vast majority of respondents condemn cheating on taxes (as well as many of the other behaviors listed above), so it is not clear that Trump pays no penalty among his base just that the penalty would be less than among his base than the general population. Third, we lack a neat parallel to Trump’s most recent set of comments, but his comments fit with the general pattern of the data whereby respondents who score more highly on authoritarianism are also more condemning of violations of traditional sexual norms.
In closing, we should return to our beginning question. Why do some candidates survive scandals, gaffes and miscues while others falter? Part of the answer, we contend, likely resides in how the scandal fits with the candidate’s image and how it influences his or her political base.