It's a party driven by loyalty not "to an ideal, a vision or a legislative programme" but to President Trump "and to the prejudice and rage which consume the voter base.... In America that is unprecedented and it is dangerous."
The article notes that the heart of Trump's loyalty-based system of governance is really a "contempt for the truth." It's deeply troubling that so many millions of Americans and the vast majority of Republican voters find this tolerable.
This cult of loyalty to Trump and his base affects government in three ways, the article continues. By:
- Replacing coherent policymaking with government by "impulse—anger, nativism, mercantilism—beyond the reach of empirical argument."
- Eroding norms and conventions of America's democracy, in particular the presidency.
Citing David Frum, the article outlines Trump's disregard for norms: hiding his tax returns (a norm in place since Gerald Ford), ignoring conflict-of-interest rules (since Richard Nixon), running a business for profit (since Lyndon Johnson), appointing relatives to senior posts in the administration (since John F. Kennedy), and enriching his family by patronage (since Ulysses S. Grant).
- Treating opponents as wicked or traitorous.
How did this happen? In "How the elephant got its Trump," The Economist warns that Trump’s takeover of his party was not a one-off, is nearly total, and will not easily be undone.
Trump has an 85% approval rating among Republicans. Apparently, they like what he offers: "a set of feelings—about patriotism, about who is a proper American and who is not, about foreigners, about elites, about sovereignty and about power."
Who are these pro-Trump Americans? The work of Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, suggests that many of them
are united by cultural issues rather than narrowly political ones. They tend to share respect for the flag and the English language, and negative feelings towards Muslims, immigrants, atheists, and gays and lesbians.
According to Andrea Volkens of the Berlin Social Science Centre, already by 2013 the Republican Party was more similar to "France’s National Front than to the Conservatives in Britain or Canada," based on a comparison of manifestos (a.k.a. platforms) of various political parties.
The strongest correlation to the transformation of the Republican Party, the article explains, is a shift by white voters without a college education to the Republican Party between 2009 and 2015.
The article stresses that neither the great recession (economics) or the presidency of Barack Obama (racism) are wholly satisfactory explanations for this.
However, in an April 23, 2018, article in The Atlantic, "People Voted for Trump Because They Were Anxious, Not Poor," by Olga Khazan, the findings of University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz point to anxiety as a cause of the shift by white voters without a college education.
Trump supporters were also more likely than Clinton voters to feel that “the American way of life is threatened,” and that high-status groups, like men, Christians, and whites, are discriminated against.
Khazan says that studies such as Mutz's "dispel the fiction...that the majority of Trump supporters are disenfranchised victims of capitalism’s cruelties," sometimes called the "left-behind" theory. The article notes that Hillary Clinton decisively beat Trump in the 2016 General Election among Americans making less than $50,000 a year.
That cultural anxiety and fear in general were strong motivators for many Trump votes is not new news. Khazan's colleague Molly Ball in her article for The Atlantic in September 2016 "Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear" highlights some data from the Public Religion Research Institute:
65 percent of Trump supporters feared being victims of terrorism, versus 51 percent of all Americans. Three-fourths of Trump supporters feared being victims of crime, versus 63 percent overall. Trump supporters also disproportionately feared foreign influence: 83 percent said the American way of life needed to be protected from it, versus 55 percent overall.... Economic anxiety, while widespread in America today, is not a distinguishing characteristic of Trump supporters; other anxieties are.
Ball turns to David Bennett, a historian and the author of the 1995 book The Party of Fear: The American Far Right From Nativism to the Militia Movement, for additional comment.
Nativism, [Bennett] notes, was relatively low during the Great Depression, and rises in nativist sentiment haven’t generally correlated with periods of economic strain. Rather, they have correlated with large-scale increases in foreign immigration, which natives tend to view as a threat to the nation’s safety and culture.
Bennett believes that Trump has combined the fear of foreign ideology with fear of foreign immigration in a novel way, with his twin emphases on Islamist terror and Mexican migrants.
These findings hew closely to those covered by Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel in the March 14, 2018, article in The Nation entitled "Fear of Diversity Made People More Likely to Vote for Trump." In one representative study neither "the trade-policy baseline question nor a scale of questions about trade policy predicted Trump support." What is more, "respondents who agreed that the system benefited powerful elites were more likely to reject Trump."
McElwee and McDaniel conclude that the "2016 election was really a battle about having an open society" and, more sweepingly, that
throughout history, divides within the working class have been more salient than divides between the working class and the rich. Race, gender, immigration status, and religious status have served as such wedges.
(Also see the PRRI/The Atlantic survey analysis reported in May 2017, "Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump." It identified "five significant independent predictors of support for Trump" among white working-class voters specifically.)
The Economist article also considers another factor in Trump's rise: social media. Trump, as well as Fox News, appreciated
how new unfettered and often fact-free discourse worked. Mr Trump could, and did, speak the language of vulgar resentment like a pro. For many of his supporters, the more this was disapproved of, the more valid and admirable it seemed.
In closing, The Economist article notes that "because the party was becoming Trumpian long before Mr Trump took over....the attitudes he has ridden to office will still outlive him."
(Also see the September 2016 "Our Politics, Our Parenting" edition of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, in which George Lakoff's "strict father" and "nurturant parent" models for predicting political differences are discussed.)