We're a 24/7 Trump republic. What percentage of the USA's population at least knows of and will probably in the next 24 hours meaningfully comprehend mention of the name Donald Trump? It's got to be more than 90% of those who're conscious. (We'll definitely cut some slack for the 6% of Americans under the age of 5.)
Donald J. Trump, 69-year-old native New Yorker, billionaire real estate magnate, and television personality, is vying—surprisingly strongly—to become the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The breadth, depth, and longevity of his support among voters surprised the vast majority of political commentators, prognosticators, and historians.
Here are samples from some recent online opinions and observations about what Trump's popularity means. I think it's safe to say that most if not all of them represent left-of-center perspectives, but some call on more data than others.
[A new wave of] authoritarian populists have been with us now for 20 years, in economically bad times as well as good, in both predominately Catholic and Protestant societies, in Nordic and Mediterranean regions, in liberal Norway and conservative Switzerland, in egalitarian welfare states as well as unequal societies, in the European Union and in several Anglo-American democracies like New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. Why?
We’re seeing a deep and strong a cultural backlash against changes in social values.
By giving voice to and amplifying fears of cultural change, the Republicans [in the USA] have opened the way for a populist leader. Trump’s support appears to be fueled by a backlash among traditionalists...faced with rising American support for issues such as gay marriage, sexual equality, and tolerance of social diversity, all lumped under the phrase “political correctness.”
"Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?" By Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver. Washington Post online. Monkey Cage. March 9, 2016:
[B]y the most commonly accepted measures, the voters who look most authoritarian are not those following Trump but those following Cruz. Not only do they score highest on the authoritarian scales, they also have that combination of populist elements correlated most strongly with authoritarianism. They are mistrustful of intellectuals and experts, highly nationalistic, yet strongly aligned with political and economic elites.
"What Are Trump Fans Really ‘Afraid’ to Say?" By Lindy West, New York Times, The Opinion Pages, March 11, 2016:
We cannot ignore the fact that the populist sensation of this election hasn’t been Bernie Sanders. It’s been a racist, nationalist demagogue-for-hire with no sincere ideology beyond his own vanity. Mr. Trump is a cipher; his voters love him because he does nothing but hold up a mirror to their basest prejudices and bask in the feedback loop of narcissism. They’re not “afraid”; they’re leading Mr. Trump as much as following him. They called him into being, not the other way around.
"Trump Supporters Aren't Stupid." By Emma Lindsay. Medium.com. March 4, 2016.
America is terrible at giving its citizens dignity and meaning. We have, with the internet, the power for more people to be appreciated than ever before, yet we use it primarily to shame each other. Shaming Trump supporters for being “ignorant bigots” is the worst thing you can do, because their entire motivation in voting for Trump is to alleviate the shame they are already carrying. If you add to their shame, they will dig in further.
"Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here's why," by Thomas Frank, Guardian online, US edition, Opinion, March 7, 2016, notes that a study of "working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January" by Working America found support for Donald Trump ran strong among even self-identified Democratic respondents
not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his “attitude”, the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, “immigration” placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: “good jobs / the economy”.
“People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America.
"The Rise of American Authoritarianism," Amanda Taub, Vox.com, March 1, 2016, notes that University of Massachusetts Amherst PhD student Matthew MacWilliams found that authoritarianism "seemed to predict support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator." And, Taub states, University of North Carolina political scientist Jonathan Weiler and Vanderbilt University professor Marc Hetherington unwittingly predicted the rise of a candidate like Trump when concluding in their 2009 book that:
Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians.... [T]he GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.
In short, authoritarianism is largely latent until triggered. Authoritarians, latent or otherwise,
are much more susceptible to messages that tell them to fear a specific "other". [They] feel threatened by people they identify as "outsiders" and by the possibility of changes to the status quo makeup of their communities..... [They more likely] will seek...a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force[, including force by the federal government], and to preserve the status quo.
Just as striking is what was missing from authoritarians' concerns. There was no clear correlation between authoritarianism and support for tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 per year, for example. And the same was true of support for international trade agreements.
But why Trump specifically, according to Taub and others?
Trump's specific policies aren't the thing that most sets him apart from the rest of the field of GOP candidates. Rather, it's his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage[, and] his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups [who] authoritarians find so threatening.... He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won't let "political correctness" hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.
So, is it about fear of outsiders, which for some Trump supporters may include even the current President of the United States? Or shame and anger at being economically left behind? Or anxiety about personal economic future? Or is it mostly just Trump's brash rhetorical style? Is it cultural backlash? Is Trump's rise a mostly regional phenomenon? Is it none of the above and something else altogether or a bit of all of the above? Is Trump a one-off or an indication of candidates to come? How key is today's media environment in his rise? It'll be interesting to hear what historians and political scientists say about it all 20 years from now.
In politics, a day can sometimes be a lifetime. A career can be made or ruined in an instant. Things can change fast. The political landscape can sometimes be radically altered by a sudden, surprising event, national or global, political or cultural, economic or military, private or public. Or not. Making predictions about the implications of Trump's current popularity is mostly a guessing game right now, and probably so are many analyses of his rise.