Understanding Trump: It's Still The Authoritarianism, Stupid

Last September, I argued that the-then seemingly mysterious rise of Donald Trump to front-runner status in the race for the GOP nomination for president wasn't all that mysterious. It seemed clear then, and has only been confirmed since, that "his appeals are crafted -- intentionally or not -- to appeal to a bulwark of the contemporary Republican Party. That constituency is authoritarians."

I wrote at the time:


As Marc Hetherington and I explained in our 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, one of the key dynamics underlying the growing political chasm in the United States over the past generation has been the sorting of people with very different worldviews -- anchored in polar personality types - into the two major political camps in America. As recently as 1992, when Bill Clinton first won the presidency, authoritarian-minded voters were about as likely to vote Democratic as they were to vote Republican. That is no longer the case. By 2004, white voters with an authoritarian bent had stampeded to the exits of the Democratic Party and joined the GOP. Conversely, the once large number of non-authoritarians who formerly supported Republicans had largely shifted their support to Team Blue. Those trends have only intensified since then, particularly in the age of Barack Obama. This development, the product in significant part of a decades-long shift in party appeals and changing demographics has fueled a bitterly acrimonious political divide characterized by fundamental and irreconcilable differences in worldview between the average Republican and the average Democrat.

The basis of Trump's appeal -- and its limits -- remains vitally important to understand. Many conservatives, especially conservative intellectuals, are now apoplectic over his candidacy. Some, one presumes, feel so strongly for principled reasons. They abhor his tone and his blatant disregard for civil discourse. They deplore his heretical views on the size and scope of government. They think he's both dangerously isolationist and a reckless buffoon likely to lead-foot America into a head on collision with global adversaries.

But try as they might, conservatives are deluding themselves if they fail to recognize that Trumpism is, indeed, the reductio ad absurdum of the thrust of the Republican Party over a long generation. From Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush to Mitt Romney (remember his answer to the issue of illegal immigration -- we'll make their lives so miserable they'll "self-deport?"), Republicans have engaged in none-to-subtle dog-whistles and other means of demonization of the "other." Whether gays, African Americans, the "wrong" kind of immigrant (read Hispanic), or Muslims, the GOP has played a game of what Rick Perlstein calls demonization "whack-a-mole." There are countless such examples, both in policy and the rhetoric spewing forth from the highest ranks of the party over decades now, making it impossible to deny credibly what party leaders have wrought. In other words, they've created the conditions in which a Frankenstein monster has been able to emerge. And emerge he has.

I wrote last summer, that in some important respects:

Authoritarians [are] less reliably conservative on [some] key issues associated with the GOP. For example, the conservative economic agenda resonated less well with authoritarians than with other conservatives, quite consistent with how Trump is positioning himself. And though he's now pro-life, it's evident that Trump's newly minted views on that issue are half-hearted. As it happens, those scoring high in authoritarianism were themselves not especially distinguished in their support for the pro-life position. Those are two critical planks of the modern conservative platform and on neither are authoritarians particularly adamant, as a group.

What most fundamentally distinguishes authoritarians, as we explained in detail in our book, are three inter-related sets of attitudes about which they are, collectively, adamant: 1) an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and a concomitant intolerance of outgroups perceived as threats to America's existing social fabric; 2) projecting strength in the most straightforward, uncompromising way possible; and 3) the related perils following from the breakdown of law and order.

That, in a nutshell, is Trump's campaign.

That has remained the blueprint of Trumpism for more than a year now. It has also been core to the ideology and practice of American conservatism for far longer.

There has also been some confusion about the working class nature of support for Trump. Identifying who comprises the working class is harder than is generally acknowledged. Is it income, educational attainment or occupation that distinguishes this much-discussed segment of America? The answer -- it depends on who you talk to. There is no doubt that Trump has polled well with white men who don't have college degrees (indeed, that may be the only significant chunk of the American electorate with which he's outperforming Mitt Romney). But he's still drawing plenty of support from whites with college degrees, and the evidence from the primary season is that many Trump supporters then had pretty good incomes.

In other words, pinning Trumpism on the backs of the so-called white working class is a little more complicated than some have suggested. What has been clear, however, is the extent to which psychological make-up has explained support for Trump. Whether one identifies voters by their level of authoritarianism, or racial resentment or other markers of cultural defensiveness, it is from these precincts that Trump has substantially built his base. And the reason he so easily beat back the crowded Republican field this year is because that base has become so critical to the make-up of Republican Party more broadly.

The GOP recognized this, in some respects, in 2013, when the RNC wrote its so-called autopsy report following a second loss at the hands of Barack Obama. The report identified the party's lack of appeal to younger voters and to minorities, especially Hispanics and Blacks. While it offered little in the way of concrete approaches to attract such voters, the report's drafters understood they had a problem on their hands. They still do. As bizarre, erratic and dangerous as Trump is, he did not, contrary to the self-comforting tales of many, come from out of nowhere. His provenance is all too clear.

I co-wrote a book about divorce last year with my former wife. It's called Divorce: A Love Story, and you can check it out here.