As a political philosopher, I am interested in understanding the political perspectives of others, both because it generally helps me to dialogue with them more effectively and because it helps me understand my own perspective better.
Data is of course very helpful in this endeavor, because much of philosophy is inductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning is only as useful as the evidence for the premises. And so when I found someone who had data to support their claims about Trump’s supporters, I was quite interested. Somewhat to my surprise given Trump’s stances on a border wall and a registry for Muslims, race wasn’t a predictor of whether a voter was likely to support Trump.
The stronger correlation was being an authoritarian, followed a ways behind by being afraid of terrorists. These two are related, as Matthew MacWilliams points out in the article explaining his data. The evidence shows that we humans are prone to become more authoritarian as we grow more fearful, and so Trump’s support could well grow if there are more successful acts of terrorism in the U.S. and abroad that stoke those fears.
And because there are significant numbers of independents (39%) and Democrats (17%) who are authoritarians, Trump’s appeal is not limited to far-right racist groups by any means, although those groups do seem to support him. The common hypotheses I hear (from the left) are that Trump’s supporters are driven by racism and (from the right) that Trump’s supporters are driven by legitimate grievances against the Republican “establishment”.
These hypotheses are not without merit; it’s pretty clear that there are plenty of racists supporting Trump and plenty of people fed up with the “establishment” supporting Trump. I’ve run into them myself, so I don’t doubt that those are part of the tapestry of motivations. To be clear, I don’t think that being fed up with the “establishment” is a good argument for supporting Trump, as I’ve written about before. And while being a racist might be a good argument for supporting Trump, there’s no good argument for being a racist.
But if the primary motivation for increasing authoritarianism in the U.S. is fear of terrorism (which at least seems plausible), then debating Trump supporters on the merits of his lackluster credentials, vicious egomaniacal character, and policy flip-flops isn’t going to change their support for Trump. Fear is a visceral thing, and we human beings generally respond to it viscerally rather than rationally.
Given the way our brains work, it is a perfectly natural and normal thing to look for the strongest, boldest leader around when we are afraid, someone who promises safety and seems willing to do anything to deliver on their promises, someone willing to decisively lash out at anyone who disagrees with them. Trump fits the profile well, and our hominid brains are picking up on the myriad cues that Trump is the kind of pack leader we need when our survival is threatened.
There may be other options for persuading Trump supporters to switch their loyalties. If someone makes him look weak and cowardly, or he turns on one of his key supporters and thereby alienates a lot of them, then they will likely abandon him. Or if another candidate effectively appeals to their need to feel safe under bold leadership, they might switch their support to that candidate.
Trump supporters seem to stand at a 3-way intersection; they are walking down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, afraid and trying to figure out exactly which way to go, some of them walking down Nationalism Parkway, others walking down Authoritarianism Avenue, and many more trying to find the best path between them.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for them is to show them that they are strong enough to stand without a powerful President in office, that they can be fearless without a bombastic billionaire sheltering them under his wings, and that America’s greatness lies is in liberty for all rather than a border wall.