The terrifying truth is that Donald Trump might well win this election. Here’s why:
The strongest single predictor of Trump support is a trait called “authoritarianism.” It’s a mindset that political scientists have only recently found a way to identify and measure, but it will be the key to this election — because the army of Trump authoritarians is large — and it is growing.
At the heart of the authoritarian personality is fear:
- Authoritarians fear social change, especially if it seems to challenge their own status as superior to other groups. And on the other side of the same coin, they crave stability, order and security.
- Authoritarians fear “outsiders.” Like the followers of the ancient philosopher Manes, authoritarians see the world as a battleground between the good (people “like us”) and the bad (people who are “different from us,” don’t share our values and mean to harm us). Their fondness for “us” tends to make them jingoistic, xenophobic and sometimes racist.
- Authoritarians look to a strong leader to quell their fears — one who promises in no uncertain terms to protect them from outsiders and put a stop to the social changes they fear. This leader need not detail the plan for doing this. Authoritarians look for a strong, parental figure who will simply say, “Leave it to me.”
Donald Trump has, of course, played authoritarians’ fears like a virtuoso. It is often said that the Republican Party created Trump, and indeed, Republicans have long played the politics of resentment and fear, ever since Nixon’s ’68 campaign devised the Southern Strategy.
Trump’s evil genius has been to trade in the Republicans’ dog whistle of xenophobia for a megaphone. There’s no need for canine ears to hear Trump’s message of fear and loathing. Let’s begin with an excerpt from the famous declaration that announced his candidacy:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
Of course, that was red meat for the authoritarians, who have sorted themselves into the Republican Party, and loom large among its primary election voters. Pundits predicted that once the party’s convention began, Trump would pivot from this anger, to reach beyond his base. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Quicken Loans forum: Trump didn’t pivot away, he doubled down. And, it turns out, this is not a tactical error: there is method behind this move.
In general, Trump’s Republican convention address reads like an ad in Guns ‘n Ammo about why you need to buy a Bushmaster to protect yourself from the “alien hordes” — except that in this case, the automatic weapon you’re asked to buy is a candidate for president of the United States:
[This is] a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life…. The crime and violence that afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored. Nearly 180,000 immigrants with criminal records are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens…. I have a message for every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country. To make life safe for all our citizens, we must also address the growing threats we face from outside the country: we are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS…. We must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism. On Monday, we heard from three parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants…. We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities.
And finally, in full-throated parental mode, offering no suggestion as to how all this will be accomplished, Trump declared:
Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it…. On January 20th of 2017, the day I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced…. I am with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.
How Bad Is It?
So Trump has the authoritarian vote. But isn’t there solace in the fact that only a minority of Americans are authoritarians? Not so much.
Let’s begin with the disconcerting fact that 44 percent of white Americans score high or very high on the authoritarianism scale. Then add the fact that when non-authoritarians experience social fear — mass shootings or bombings, for example — they begin to express authoritarian tendencies.
In this, the most heavily armed nation in the world, those shootings are likely to continue. Under these environmental conditions, the authoritarian virus can quickly become an authoritarian epidemic. We see this process unfolding now, and in 2016, authoritarian fear will certainly be expressed in the voting booth.
Of course, the fear only spreads under the guidance of demagogues who assure the fearful that their atavistic impulse is the right one: that an attack by an individual Muslim, immigrant or Black person does, indeed, implicate all Muslims, immigrants or Black people. The hour of the demagogue has come round, and Donald Trump has seized the day.
How does it work? As more voters are infected by authoritarian ideology, their tendency to perceive “outsider” threats grows stronger. The stronger that threat perception is, the more marginalized groups get targeted. As we saw in Nazi Germany, the widening gyre of the authoritarian vortex begins to draw many disparate groups into the threat pool: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Communists, Slavs and so on.
In Trump’s rhetoric, we see a different (though sometimes overlapping) set of “outsider” groups being targeted (Black people, women, Mexicans, people with disabilities, Muslims, people in China), but the nature of those groups is still not as important as their perceived role in opposition to an authoritarian sense of law and order. In 2016, when mass shootings are a US norm, it’s easy to postulate that this epidemic is ready to explode.
Mass shootings are a complex phenomenon, and each new episode seems to sow more confusion than facts. The right and left can debate about mental illness, access to guns and political or religious ideology, but the fact of these shootings is that they can’t simply be boiled down to one underlying cause. They result from a disparate confluence of factors, but to the authoritarian ideology, it does indeed boil down to one thing: These are the bad guys, the guys Trump has promised to eradicate with force.
In fact, any physical attacks, or even efforts at democratic dissent, become sucked into the strange geopolitical time warp of Trump and his supporters. Trump’s rogues gallery has sucked in many disparate groups under the umbrella of “the other,” lumping mass shooters together with Black Lives Matter activists who speak up or simply hold a banner at his rallies, Mexican migrants picking our produce to provide for their own families, professional women reporters who dare to ask him a question and “the Chinese” as a sort of amalgam of both race and nation and entirely the “other”.
The Awful Truth: Trump’s Chances Are Good
To look at the polling data in the wake of recent tragedies and the trumpeting of demagoguery that follows them takes a special kind of bravery, because it hurts in many ways. According to pollster wunderkind Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight forecasts, Trump’s numbers go up when “we” hurt as a nation (more to follow on how that “we” is defined).
The mass shooting at a gay bar in Orlando happened in the early hours of June 12. Afterwards, the numbers are still comfortably pro-Clinton, who maintains 71.5 percent, with Trump at 28.5 percent. The authoritarians don’t worry so much about gay lives, because it’s not them, it’s the “other.”
On July 7, the shooting of police in Dallas, Texas, takes place during a Black Lives Matter protest in honor of Black men and women killed by police. Five police are dead at the hand of a US veteran who was killed via an explosion by a drone robot.
On July 17, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another three police officers are killed by a Black man with social media political leanings toward, as CNN writes, “the Nation of Islam (he says he was a member), Floyd Mayweather’s The Money Team (he’s wearing their hat) and terror groups like ISIS.” This is a vortex to rival any other.
In 2016, authoritarian impulses are dramatically shaping the political landscape, and the numbers prove it. Consider this: On July 7, Clinton leads Trump by 55.2 percentage points. The shootings of police officers on July 7 and July 17 dovetail, epidemically, with Trump’s spiking numbers in the polls. By July 25, enough time for polls to reflect the July 7 shootings, the gap is just 7.8 points. In fact, Nate Silver’s more aggressive now-cast for July 25 predicted a Trump win.If the election had been on that date, so close to the tragedies, authoritarianism would have won out.
Of course, these numbers include Trump’s post-convention bounce, but as CNN points out, this was a very unusual bounce, bigger than any they’ve recorded in the last 16 years. As Nate Silver writes in a FiveThirtyEight post: “It isn’t straightforward to measure Trump’s convention bounce because he was already gaining ground on Clinton heading into the conventions.” In other words, Trump’s recent surge is only marginally a convention bounce — it is mostly a chaos bounce.
An inspiring Democratic Convention recently gave Hillary Clinton her own post-party bounce, but our prediction is that her lead may hold — until the next mass shooting by a member of the growing group of those deemed as “others.” When that happens, the number of authoritarians, and the likelihood of a Trump presidency, will grow.
The left has tried to get to the causes of mass shootings, but we need to take heed of the effect: mass shootings are good for Trump’s numbers. And social disruption is good for Trump’s numbers. And complex and systemic tragedies are good for Trump’s numbers. All these maladies, to authoritarianism, are in essence the same thing: a kind of chaos that poses an existential threat to the authoritarian dream.
William S. Burroughs wrote in his 1962 novel, The Ticket that Exploded, “The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts….” He also, throughout his writing career, postulated, “Language is a virus.” In 2016, this ticket has exploded.