This is shaping up to be a seminal year in American politics. What was unthinkable six months ago is emerging as a strong possibility today: Donald Trump may be on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
His ascension is causing the party establishment — congressional leaders, high-toned conservative commentators and deep-pocketed right-wing money moguls — to go, as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) put it: “bat-expletive crazy.” Except he didn’t say “expletive.”
Their meltdown, however, is secondary to Trump’s elevation to GOP front-runner and likely party standard-bearer in November.
But for goodness’ sake, please note that it is not Trump who is placing the crown on his own head.
Republican voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont, and those in primaries and caucuses yet to come, are making Trump the heart of the “party of Lincoln.”
Republicans don’t get a pass. Trump couldn’t happen without them.
Who are these voters, and why are they backing The Donald?
Vox correspondent Amanda Taub examined Trump’s emergence in an in-depth article this week, “The rise of American authoritarianism ,” that seeks to explain the strong support that the prospective GOP nominee draws across income, age, educational and religious lines.
A stipulation: It would be unfair and dishonest to paint all Trump supporters with the same brush. Nonetheless, the story warrants a closer look.
The Vox article is based upon work by various political scientists who study psychological “authoritarianism.” According to the scientists, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear.”
Does authoritarianism, the scientists asked, correlate with support for Trump? Polling data not only said yes, they concluded, but also suggested that this characteristic was more reliable a predictor than virtually any other.
Trump, according to the Vox article, embodies the leadership style most desired by these authoritarians: “simple, powerful and punitive.”
But Trump is not producing the threats and scary changes that bring out the authoritarianism in people, as Vox notes.
It isn’t Trump who is making the country more diverse. He’s not confronting white Americans with race in ways they have never faced before. He isn’t squeezing working-class whites economically. He’s not behind the demographic, economic and political forces that make the authoritarian-minded feel insecure.
Trump is, however, the embodiment of what they think is needed to suppress the dangers and halt the damage — threats and changes such as the Islamic State, Russia and Iran; the erosion of traditional gender roles; immigration; the browning and blackening of the United States; and the disruption of once well-established social hierarchies.
Trump’s authoritarian supporters believe he can “take back America” and protect them from a scary world.
Taub reported that with or without a Trump, political scientists found that authoritarians generally, and Trump voters specifically, were highly likely to support policies such as prioritizing military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States; amending the Constitution to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants; imposing extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent; and requiring all citizens to carry a national ID card to show a police officer on request.
So what sets Trump apart from his Republican rivals who are every bit of the far right as he? Simply stated, Trump can neither be out-demagogued nor out-nastied.
How can anyone top such vile Trump insults as: Saying Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists? Regaling crowds with the story of prisoners massacred with bullets dipped in pig’s blood? Claiming Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and is an illegitimate president?
Or consider Trump on Fox News’s Megyn Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” On Jews: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” On Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “He’s not a war hero. . . . I like people that weren’t captured.” On my journalist colleague Serge Kovaleski, who has limited mobility in his arms : “Now the poor guy, you’ve got to see this guy,” Trump said, before contorting his arms in an apparent impersonation.
Trump’s willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to out-groups and others that his authoritarian supporters find so threatening is, as Vox observed, a benefit rather than a liability for him.
Even if Trump is out of the picture, Vox’s Taub points out, the authoritarians “will still look for candidates who will give them the strong punitive leadership they desire.”
Thus a seminal finding: There is a sickness in our body politic that Trump’s candidacy exposes.
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Colbert I. “Colby” King writes a column — sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics — on that runs on Saturdays. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. King joined the Post’s editorial board in 1990 and served as deputy editorial page editor from 2000 to 2007. View Archive