Last night, debate viewers may have seen the end of the Summer of Trump, as the Donald floundered about the Reagan Library. I am not one of those who are inclined to read profundities into the Trump phenomenon. Many of his supporters don’t follow politics closely, and often seem to enjoy him as an entertainer more than they see him in the Oval Office. He has benefited from grossly disproportionate media attention, so inattentive voters hear about him far more than the other candidates. His support among Republicans doesn’t follow ideological lines, defying easy categorization. But I can tease out at least a few hypotheses about his backers:
Authoritarianism. Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have found that a new divide, based on fundamental worldviews, has become increasingly important in American politics. “Authoritarian” voters are less tolerant of minority groups, more fearful of threats to order, and more likely to see morality in black-and-white terms. They have become more likely to vote Republican over the past two decades. But they are not especially conservative on either cultural or economic issues. As the living embodiment of “white male privilege,” Trump can appeal to those fearful of changing racial and gender mores. By separating the world into “winners” and “losers,” Trump exalts strength and shows contempt for weakness, and that language constantly frames every issue, every policy, every disagreement as in-group vs. outgroup/us vs. them.
Ethnocentrism. Authoritarians fear the “other.” No issue defines Trump’s campaign more than immigration—and, more so than any other candidate, he has been willing to use racially charged language in support of his positions. He also talks tough on trade and “law and order,” using polarizing language reminiscent of Patrick Buchanan or George Wallace. Trump seems to consistently appeal to ethnocentrism – favoring one’s own racial or ethnic group above others. Both in person and on-line, he attracts an alarming level of support from white supremacists. On the other hand, he vehemently backs “earned” entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, whose beneficiaries are disproportionately white. (This sets him apart from other Republicans like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who are more willing to back entitlement reform). Ethnocentric voters tend to display this combination of attitudes, judging policies based more on whether they apparently benefit their group rather than on more abstract criteria. European politics is now filled with extreme-right parties who back a welfare state—but only for our people.
Lack of ideological thinking. Ideology has been described as the system that tells voters “what goes with what.” Opposing abortion goes with supporting lower taxes. Wanting stricter environmental regulation goes with backing universal health care. By that standard, Trump has been a remarkably non-ideological candidate. Outside of his pet issue of immigration, his views don’t fall into liberal or conservative camps. In that, he fits with the attitudes of the less-informed citizens who seem to be backing him. As a rule, more highly educated and more politically aware people are more likely to understand “what goes with what.” Less informed voters are more likely to have a grab bag of contradictory and incoherent attitudes. Many may fall back on “group affect.” They may not know what they think, but they know whom they like. They feel warmly about the military, but not about big business. They like union members, but they don’t like people on welfare. Trump is all “group affect.”
Distrust. Donald Trump is a perfect candidate for distrustful times. Americans expressed high levels of trust in government for most of the 1950s and 1960s. But during the era of Vietnam and Watergate, they became much more skeptical of their leaders. Trust rebounded during periods of prosperity in the 1980s and 1990s, although never to the levels of the New Frontier era. But an unpopular war and a painful recession turned the American public more distrustful than ever. In a partisan era, with a controversial Democrat in the White House, trust in government has fallen sharply among Republicans. According to Why Trust Matters by Marc Hetherington, distrustful voters are not ideologically conservative. They are quite willing to hold on to the government programs that benefit themselves. But they resist initiatives that might help others—hence, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” Trump’s staunch defense of middle-class entitlements, while opposing Obamacare (but not for ideological reasons), fits the attitudes of the distrustful. His rhetoric, with its constant baiting of other politicians (and groups in the electorate), and its dark view of the current state of American life, matches the attitudes of those with sour opinions of the political system.
Negative Partisanship: Alan Abramowitz and Stephen Webster have found that the past couple of decades have seen the rise of “negative partisanship.” Voters are more likely to dislike strongly the opposite party. With racial, cultural, and ideological divisions now matching up with the partisan divide, Democrats and Republicans now see their opposites not just as mistaken, but as alien. Donald Trump’s credentials as a Republican, let alone as a conservative, are very weak. But his credentials as an anti-Democrat – and especially as an anti-Obaman—are much stronger. After all, he began his transformation from apolitical celebrity to right-wing hero, by engaging in the nastiest possible attacks on Obama: that he is a secret Muslim, that he was not actually born in the United States. To some Republicans, if Donald Trump is saying bad things about That Kenyan in the White House, he can’t be all bad.&
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