It was recently reported that Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, referred to Donald Trump as a ‘f*****g moron’ in a meeting of national security advisors, while ranking Republican Senator Bob Coker contended that the White House had become an ‘adult day care centre.’ At the same time, the proceedings of a conference hosted by Harvard several months ago that sought to assess Trump’s mental health status has been published under the title The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. And as Trump has ratcheted up his sabre rattling with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, there are growing concerns internationally about whether the world might be heading towards a nuclear showdown, the consequence of two disturbing world leaders. It is therefore not surprising that as large sectors of the American citizenry come to believe that Trump is psychologically unfit, questions have been raised about using the heretofore never invoked 25th amendment to the Constitution, which establishes procedures to remove a President from office should it be concluded that the individual is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.’ How did this happen in the world’s largest democracy?
In The Trump Phenomenon, I offered an account of last November’s election outcome, examining narratives about Trump that took shape during the campaign from the voting public with an eye to identifying what made Trump supporters different from others, and finally what I called the failures of institutional filters—including the media, the Republican Party, and the Christian right—to prevent the nomination of someone who, at the very least, seemed intent on smashing a democratic culture of civility. The narrative Trump supporters embraced was that of a successful businessman who would be a strong leader capable of shaking things up in order to ‘make America great again.’ In making the case, Trump and his allies offered vague and often demonstrably false claims about the candidate, doing so in a manner rooted in a very American version of business hucksterism. In stark contrast, I identified three robust negative narratives that had emerged, articulated by journalists, academics, media pundits, and public intellectuals from across the political mainstream.
The anti-Trump narratives revolved around three topics: Trump’s character, his business career, and his political worldview. Each of these narratives was grounded in evidence from Trump’s very public career, for since the 1970s he has craved and received media attention. The first, simply put, contends that there is something psychologically amiss with the man, with the most widely found lay diagnosis being that he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. Add to that the fact that he is remarkably ignorant and uninquisitive, and has an extremely short attention span, and critics contend he is psychologically unfit to be President. The business narrative, which began to take hold in the 1990s when Trump made a series of rash and ultimately unsuccessful business ventures leading to a series of spectacular bankruptcies, has since raised serious questions about his actually level of wealth, his propensity to work with dodgy associates, including members of organized crime, and his long history of legal and ethical violations.
In contrast, the political narrative was slower to emerge since over the years Trump seemed to be all over the place in terms of his view on many issues and, quite frankly, because the media didn’t take his candidacy seriously until late into the campaign. When they finally did, the portrait that came into view was one of an authoritarian with deeply rooted antagonisms to perceived enemies and with a decided hostility to African Americans and other racial minorities. As I sifted through the data in writing the book, I came to the conclusion that the first of these was actually the master narrative, for Trump’s incessant need for attention and adulation, his desire to portray himself as a winner, combined with his vindictiveness, scapegoating, and contempt for those he perceives to be losers can go far in explaining both his business career and his political views. This is a conclusion that David Frum, former speech writer to George W. Bush and currently the editor of The Atlantic magazine also arrived at. When asked recently if his understanding of Trump had changed since he took office, Frum said that whereas earlier he had assumed that Trump was greedy and authoritarian, he now understands that he is needy first and then greedy and authoritarian.
While these negative narratives, grounded in abundant evidence, were readily available during the election campaign and no doubt contributed to the fact that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 8% (factoring in not only Clinton’s vote, which exceeded his by 3 million, but also the votes that went to the Libertarian and Green Party candidates), they did not prevent 61 million people from voting for Trump. This has perplexed many commentators because at the very least Trump’s bullying nastiness, vulgarity, incoherence, and racism were there for all to see. Thus, the question becomes what did his supporters actually see that led them to vote for him? No doubt, there was considerable variation among Trump voters, ranging from the Hail Trump chants of white supremacists to the “I held my nose and voted for him” type. While the former embraced him precisely because of these traits, the latter were prepared to overlook them. What they shared was a willingness to support an individual who persistently undermined the civility and respect for the law so essential for the functioning of pluralist democracies.
Many Trump voters despised Hillary Clinton, either because she was a Clinton or because she was a woman. Others were life-long Republicans who could not bear to vote for an alternative candidate. Still others focused on the policy agendas dearest to them, such as tax cuts for the rich, the elimination of regulations intended to prevent another global economic meltdown, and a ratcheting up of attempts to roll back the welfare state—one of Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan’s goals. If there was one group that overwhelmingly voted for Trump it was the Christian evangelicals. As Yale sociologist Philip Gorski has recently pointed out, many of them did so because of their single-minded preoccupation with issues related to abortion and same-sex marriage. Major evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., argued that Trump was, in fact, a deeply committed believer. Others were content to contend that God works in mysterious ways, sometime doing good things through bad people. But there is something more disturbing about these voters, who Gorski accurately describes as white Christian nationalists drawn to Trump’s ‘racialized, apocalyptic, and blood-drenched rhetoric.’
Theirs is a worldview that has been aggressively promoted in religious terms by the religious institutions they belong to, along with a more secularized version that emanates from Fox News and right-wing talk radio. This is a population not tethered to the world of reason. It is the world of creationists, climate change deniers, and conspiracy theorists. Theirs is a reactionary worldview concerning the role of women in society and regarding race relations. In terms of the latter, Trump began his run for the Presidency by pushing the birther conspiracy for several years, the result being that 1 in 5 Americans thought Barack Obama had not been born in the US—and was in fact a closet Muslim. And since then it appears that his one great aim in office, endorsed by his supporters, is to undo—to whitewash—the legacy of the nation’s first black President. For this reason, it is clear that the Trump election was very much about race and very much reflected the extent to which racism persists a half century after the Civil Rights movement.
However, to conclude that the problem with Trump voters is that they are racist does not manage to capture the core of the problem. Evidence suggests that they are authoritarian in personality type. There has been a resurgence of interest in the authoritarian personality in academic circles due to the rise of right-wing populism in most liberal democracies, and Trump’s white Christian nationalist supporters are nothing if they are not authoritarian in disposition. It is for this reason that those who practice a politics of responsibility on both the centre-left and centre-right continue to raise alarm bells about the democratic prospect.
Goldberg, Jeffrey. 2017. ‘The Autocratic Element’ The Atlantic, October: 8.
Gorski, Philip. 2017. ‘Why Evangelicals Voted for Trump: A Critical Cultural Sociology.’ American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 5(3): 338-354.
Kivisto, Peter. 2017. The Trump Phenomenon: How the Politics of Populism Won in 2016. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing.
Lee, Brandy X. and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. 2017. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Peter Kivisto is the Richard A. Swanson Professor of Social Thought at Augustana College, USA and Co-Director of the Laboratory on Transnationalism and Migration Processes at St. Petersburg State University, Russia.