Up to this point, the focus has been on what Trump’s followers are angry about—or outraged by. But what’s the nature of his steadfast followers—who hardly flinch at the extreme positions he takes (say on, torturing our enemies), or the derisions and insults he’s so frequently guilty of? In terms of demographics, where do they come from? What’s their ideology? And how are they different from Republicans who find The Donald so repugnant that they’d almost rather cast their vote for a Democrat than identify themselves as one of his followers?
Reporting on Trump supporters, authors David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the Hoover Institution provide us with some valuable clues in “Who Are Trump’s Supporters? The Hard Stats” (Newsweek.com, September 18, 2015). Even though this study was undertaken almost a year ago, later writers have testified to the general accuracy of these findings. (See reference below: MSNBC.com and BBC.com.)
In Brady and Rivers’ summing up of a YouGov interview with 1,418 respondents—of whom 608 self-identified either as Republican or leaning Republican—here are some of this sample’s highlights:
In sum, the authors conclude, “His supporters are a bit older, less educated, and earn less than Republican averages in the YouGov sample.”
Moreover, in regard to general ideology:
What these statistics suggest is that it’s not ideology that’s primarily driving Trump’s supporters to embrace him. Although they’re decidedly right of center, in many ways they represent the GOP mainstream. Still, in seeking to distinguish Trump Republicans from other GOP constituents, additional studies have found more important than the percentages above, the accumulating evidence that his backers are more conservative in general (for example, in their positions on gun control, the Confederate Flag, the government’s role in supporting traditional values, and their pronounced racial bias) and most conservative (that is, antagonistic) in their nativist stance on immigrants. But at the same time, his followers are also less religious (“evangelical” or “born again”), more supportive of Social Security and Medicare, and less adamantly pro-life—that is, less likely than other Republicans to favor candidates who denounce Planned Parenthood and want further restrictions placed on abortion generally. And most of these findings are summarized, perhaps most succinctly, in Lapinski, Clinton, and Roush’s review of two NBC’s large-scale online polling of GOP voters (see above for complete citation).
Of all the abundant articles on the very intriguing subject of Trump’s supporters, unquestionably the two terms I encountered the most were anti-establishment and authoritarian. And these two descriptors capture the essence of what most closely characterizes Trump’s most ardent advocates. Viewing the majority of these followers—white, less-educated, and with a lower-income—as the “working class,” Jordan Michael Smith (in his article “Who Are Trump’s Supporters?”) quotes the late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset as stating (back in 1959): “Authoritarian predispositions and ethnic prejudice flow more naturally from the situation of the lower classes than from that of middle and upper classes,” and “in a number of nations, they have clearly been in the forefront of the struggle against equal rights for minority groups, and have sought to limit immigration or to impose racial standards in countries with open immigration.” The regrettable upshot of this comparison? Simply that Trump’s GOP would make it, ideologically, the party of “racial and religious exclusion.”
Reporting on Frank Luntz’s polling of a Trump focus group in early December, Anthony Zurcher (also, see citation below) further describes The Donald’s protesting followers as pessimistic about the country’s future, disdaining both President Obama and the mainstream media, and highly suspicious of Muslims—such that Trump’s many condemnations of these hated “objects” only renders their backing of him more resolute. Finally, quoting what Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post believes about Trump’s devoted followers, we’re offered this scathing description (parody?) of their biases: “We like people who talk big. We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t. And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.”
In this respect we might consider Trump’s key campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which appeals to his followers’ beatific vision of The American Dream—doubtless alluding to America’s supreme world dominance and the return to more traditional (that is, white supremacist) values, but perhaps conceived primarily in economic terms. His broadly hinting that he’ll restore the nation to one of equal opportunity, versus a country where only the few prosper, wins their confidence by its acute over-simplification. Note here particularly Trump’s grandiose declaration: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God has ever created” (June 16, 2015). Though he never specifies what the wages attached to such jobs will be.
One of the many other writers who addresses Trump’s authoritarianism is Matthew MacWilliams, who stresses how autocratic Trump’s base is. In his own words: “Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to make America great again . . . to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
As a last addition to these core characterizations of Trump’s backers, it should be mentioned that another significant aspect of his followers is their vehement stance against free trade, which Trump has frequently excoriated. Inasmuch as so many of them are blue-collar, it stands to reason that besides their already established tendencies toward bigotry and racism, they’re also opposed to trade agreements—which they’ve personally experienced as job-killingly disastrous. Writing for The Guardian, Thomas Frank puts it this way: “The Trump phenomenon . . . coordinates [best] with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.”
But issuing a most pointed caveat to Frank’s probably overstated economic emphasis, consider what scholar and cultural critic Henry A. Giroux has to say on the subject of Trump’s popularity. Stressing that at its base Trump’s current prominence revolves around his “appeal to fear, aggression, and violence,” Giroux warns that this indiscriminate (and non-economy-related) attraction to Trump makes us all more vulnerable to authoritarianism (“Why Are Liberal Commentators Acting as Apologists for Trump’s Racism?”).
NOTE 1: Part 1 of this 5-part post attempted to outline the “gripes and grievances” of those Republicans who decided to go “anti-establishment” and back Trump. Part 2 focused on how Trump demonstrates precisely those qualities that would lead the disaffected I’ve described to “latch onto” him. And finally, part 4 discusses the “political incorrectness” of so much of Trump’s language (particularly its sexism), and then sums up the various reasons for the unprecedented phenomenon that Trump’s campaign represents.
NOTE 2: If you related positively to this post and believe others you know might as well, please consider forwarding them this link.
NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad array of topics, many of them focusing specifically on the subjects of anger and narcissism—click here. (And at least one of them may be of particular interest: namely, “Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics.”)
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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J. Lapinski, J. Clinton, & C. Roush, “The Deep Divide: Who Supports Donald Trump,” MSNBC.com, December 03, 2015; and A. Zurcher, “Who Are Donald Trump’s Loyal Supporters?” BBC.com/news/world-us-canada, December 10, 2015
“The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter,” democraticunderground.com, January 17, 2016—and see also, H. A. Giroux, “Fascism in Donald Trump’s United States,” truthout.org, December 08, 2015; G. Lakoff, “Embedded Narratives and Cognitive Linguistics Explain Trump’s Followers,” truthout.org, March 03, 2016; and A. Taub, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” vox.com,, March 1, 2016
“Who Are Trump’s Supporters?” Democracyjournal.org, January 15, 2016
Thomas Frank, “Millions of Ordinary Americans Support Donald Trump. Here’s Why,” March 07, 2015
Henry A. Giroux “Why Are Liberal Commentators Acting as Apologists for Trump’s Racism?” Truthout.org, March 16, 2016