There’s been no shortage of theories about Donald Trump’s popularity among voters. Political pundits have vainly dissected his every word in search of the answer to his appeal. The pundits often find their answer in Trump’s politically incorrect invective, pushing the idea that Trump’s support base is white, angry, and xenophobic. While this may true of some of his supporters, the evidence suggests Trump’s support is much broader than that. Dismissing his supporters only as bigots risks ignoring something much bigger.
Matthew MacWilliams, a political scientist, suggests that of all the variables that may explain Trump’s support, authoritarianism is the most persuasive. Variables like income, gender, and race, in other words, are not as decisive as authoritarianism in predicting who will support Trump.
So what is authoritarianism? As noted in a piece from Vox, when MacWilliams uses the term authoritarianism he is not talking about tyrants or dictatorships, but rather a psychological profile of voters. Authoritarianism in this context describes voters who place high value on social order and hierarchies. These voters have a desire for order where they perceive dangerous change, and, they want a leader who will demonstrate the strength to use force and overcome the perceived dangers. Trump fulfils this desire for the voters.
Some also suggest that in a world rife with dangers and complexity Trump’s authoritarianism is seen as a refreshingly comprehensible approach to an otherwise incomprehensible world. He speaks in terms of black and white. The grey area, where all the complexity lies, is largely ignored. Something is either “good” or it is “bad”. Simple.
In an insightful articleSalon notes as much, stating it is this simplicity that provides Trump such appeal: "When Trump speaks, he tells you three things: 1) What’s wrong with the world; 2) Which stupid people (or countries) are responsible for ruining it; and 3) How he’s going to take it back."
It’s also important not to overlook voter fatigue with “establishment” politicians. For years people on either side of the aisle have seen trade deals they were told would create jobs actually lead to the offshoring of jobs, witnessed the continued destruction of the middle class, been sold on seemingly endless wars, lost their homes while obscene amounts were to bail-out Wall-Street, been convinced there is corruption at all levels, and experienced a degrading quality of life. These issues reflect a system in which people feel increasingly powerless, ignored, and mistrustful of their elected representatives. In other words, there’s a sense that people are being exploited in a rigged game.
Trump is viewed as authentic and uninfluenced by political lobbyists, an antidote to a system that's rigged against them. In the eyes of many, there’s no double-speak with Trump. He says what he believes and he believes what he says. It doesn’t matter that political fact-checking has found much of Trump’s statements either false or misleading. What matters is that Trump, with his unapologetic bravado and willingness to say the things others shrink from saying, presents as a cure to politicians who seem to have abandoned the average voter.
Trump’s relative “outsider” status in politics, his bravado and simplification of the world, appeals to the authoritarian search for order. That, it seems, is the foundation of his success.
The Dangers of a “President Trump”
The dark side of authoritarianism is, of course, not the desire for order, but rather how one responds to the sense of threats to that order. In MacWilliams estimate, diversity and an influx of outsiders can be regarded as a threat to order and therefore may be experienced as personally threatening to the order that people hold as important to their security.
In an uncertain world, Trump’s approach holds the promise of restoring order and security. This promise may be false and ultimately disappointing, but it offers immediate comfort to worried voters. His usual tack goes something like: Concerned about immigration? No problem: we’ll build a “big big wall”. Worried about terrorists? No problem: we’ll take away their wealth. It’s simple “solutions” like this that Trump offers and which alleviate the anxiety of many voters.
But it’s vital not to ignore that what he’s selling to voters may be dangerous. As reported by the BBC, a Trump presidency is regarded as one of the top risks facing the world. Despite Trump’s apparent strength as a business success, the Economist Intelligence Unit warns that Trump could “disrupt the global economy and heighten political and security risks in the U.S.”
During his campaign thus far, Trump has essentially advocated committing war crimes when he said the families of terrorists ought to be killed. Besides that, Trump has advocated an invasion of Syria to eliminate Islamic terrorists and take their oil (note: this is part of his strategy to take away their wealth).
The EIU has also noted that far from enhancing the security that likely appeals to his support base, Trump’s policy prescriptions may threaten the security of voters: “His militaristic tendencies towards the Middle East and ban on all Muslim travel to the US would be a potent recruitment tool for jihadi groups, increasing their threat both within the region and beyond.”
With his frequent revisions of his own policies, it is difficult to get a sense of Trump true policy prescriptions. In many ways he is an unknown quantity. But from what we do see, Trump simply panders to the underlying anger and disillusionment among the voting public, finding scapegoats in immigrants or Muslim air travel. In stoking the anger and fears of voters, Trump appears to be profiting from a well-worn observation made by George Eliot in the 19th Century, which states: “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.”
Trump is leading people down the road to a much more dangerous and insecure world. We would all do well not to follow him into a world so ugly.