This weekend Gawker spoofed Donald Trump into re-tweeting a saying of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini (Il Duce–The Leader) to illustrate their view that Trump is a fascist. Fascist or not, Trump certainly demonstrates the political draw of the “strong man.”
On the eve of Super-Tuesday, Trump looks like a prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination. His success has befuddled the Republican establishment, the political pundits, and the social scientists (me, too). But it now appears that the most coherent explanation of Trumpism is that he satisfies a widespread desire for a “strong man”–that he has tapped an authoritarian strain in the American public.
Trump’s message is: I am strong and a winner; everyone else is weak and a loser (“low energy,” a “baby,” a “pussy,” a friendless liar, a perspirer, a woman who has to pee sitting down, etc.). Through my personal strength, he says, the country–and you personally–will be strong and be a winner, too. Even the traits that horrify so many observers–Trump’s preening, boasting, insulting, bald lies, obscenities, calls to attack hecklers, over-the-top claims, and so on–only reinforce the line: “I am the alpha male.”
(Disclaimer: I am not a political scientist, much less an expert on presidential elections. Discount this essay accordingly.)
That so many Americans would be attracted to such a figure has surprised the world. This is the land of individualism and of hostility to government power. Yet Trump promises to exercise an extremely strong hand from oval office; he will “win” whatever it takes. In post-defeat and Depression-era Italy and Germany, the strong-man appeal was perhaps understandable; in Spain and Latin America, for cultural reasons, perhaps also understandable. But in the United States? Can it happen here? Now?
The Authoritarian Strain
After World War II scholars tried to explain how such a “cultured” people, the Germans, could succumb to Hitlerism. One answer was that Germans were disproportionately likely to have “authoritarian personalities”–that is, to be psychologically disposed, perhaps by the nature of their child-rearing, to surrender their independence to strong leaders. Over the years, later scholars have modified, critiqued, and just dismissed this argument.
However, empirical work keeps showing correlations between individuals’ broad world-views and their support for authoritarian politics. For example, adhering to moral strictness–believing in absolute right and wrong rather than in shades of gray–and endorsing firmness in child-rearing–saying that it is more important to instill obedience and manners than to teach independence and curiosity–and fear of change–reporting feeling threatened–tend to all come as a package. Moreover, people who think these ways tend to also favor strong, domineering political leadership.
Some research suggests an authoritarian world view–rather than, say, libertarian conservatism–predicts well support for the Tea Party (e.g., Hetherington and Weiler’s chapter here) and for Donald Trump (here).
His strong man appeal explains as well why Trump’s incoherent forays into policy are irrelevant. Some observers have pointed to his support for social security and his attacks on some elements of Wall Street as evidence of his political moderation (e.g., here). In general, however, his policies do not matter. Trump does reassure his elderly fans that he will protect Social Security, tells workers that he will ensure their jobs, promises almost everyone that he will reduce their taxes–oh, and he will build that wall. But this is just decoration. The key is his assertion that he will, by the brute force and brilliance of who he is as a person, make everything great (again). It’s not at all clear Trump supporters know or care much about the particulars or the policies; that is not his appeal.
Some have argued that the key distinctive appeal of Trump is to racism and xenophobia (e.g., here). Ethnocentric opinions are also consistent correlates of authoritarian world views, so much so that some would consider prejudice part of authoritarianism itself. People who are different are seen as threatening. In Trump’s case, although he certainly plays racism to his advantage, the strong man theme is more important. Even as Trump has scapegoated Mexicans, he has argued that he “loves” Hispanics–that is the “good” ones– and that they love him, something that, say, a white supremacist would probably never assert.
Some commentators talk about unprecedented popular anger as an explanation of Trumpism. It is true that survey respondents have increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the federal government (see Gallup polls here and here). But there has been no lurch upward in such opinions to distinguish this cycle from 2012, from 2008 when the banks collapsed, or earlier.
In America? Why Not?
Such a strong-man movement seems foreign to the United States. For various institutional and cultural reasons, an authoritarian appeal is probably harder here than in most nations. But that does not mean it is unprecedented. Indeed, the Founding Fathers were quite concerned that popular adulation of General Washington would swell into a demand that he become America’s king; he did wear the halo of a savior for many. Thanks to the constitution and to Washington’s own forbearance, the Republic was not still-born.
There have been other close moments. Perhaps, as one commentator suggested, Andrew Jackson’s appeal was as a strong, even brutal, man of the people. FDR, some feared, could become a strong man, but he did not run on a such a platform and, after a few years, was hemmed in by political opponents. Huey Long, a Louisiana demagogue, could have been another parallel (as George Will has noted). He was gearing up to challenge FDR, but was assassinated by a personal enemy. In 1968, strong segregationist governor George Wallace ran a third-party presidential campaign that carried five states (four more than the leftish Democrat–and war hero–George McGovern was able to carry four years later). And Americans certainly entertain celebrity candidates. Notably, Arnold Schwartzneger and Jesse Ventura became big-state governors largely on the basis of their tough-man screen personas. (The Left got a comedian, Senator Franken.)
So, there have been hints that “it” could happen here. Trump seems to bring together many of the elements in the brashest way. As others have noted, the groundwork has been set by changes in the Republican party, which may explain why he chose to run as a Republican rather than as a Democrat: The GOP has accepted an increasingly apocalyptic discourse–e.g., the US Army is coming to get your guns; has opened up the process to more grassroots participation which was eagerly grasped by the Tea Party; and has been willing to use the racial resentment provoked by the election of a black president–as in tolerance for the birther and Muslim charges against Obama. Trump’s bombast would have been a startling departure from Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan, but it is not that big a step away from Palin and right-wing radio. The celebrity he brings adds a critical dimension: Name recognition and familiarity with grabbing the limelight. It is obvious that the media cannot resist focusing on him; the tv ratings and web clicks are just too compelling.
So, Trump received the legitimacy, the platform, and the media attention for his message. That message has not been, as it has been for others, say, specific programs, deep experience, an uplifting personal story, or a sacred calling. The Trump message is that he is the one man who is tough enough to tell unvarnished truth and do unvarnished acts. He is the Deliverer. Have faith in the Leader.
So far, Trump has revealed that this authoritarian streak among Americans is significant and deep. Whether it is broad enough to take him to the White House, most experts would doubt. But so far, “most experts” have been embarrassed.
March 1, 2016: A few hours after I posted this column, a long treatment of authoritarianism and Trump appeared on Vox: here.
March 9, 2016: Here is a critique of the authoritarian explanation, at Monkey Cage.