Let's Fix This Country

Why Trump Arouses American Authoritarian Yearnings

It's looking like it can happen here

Into March, on the second Saturday of multi-state primaries, a New York Times article could still say the Donald Trump phenomenon is "a movement that still puzzles the Republican elite". Their bewilderment all along has asked why Trump's brash crudity, his juvenile bullying insults, his months-long cascade of self-contradictions, his disinterest in the truth, and now his hesitant disavowal of white supremacists have not been met with the rejection of such conduct that a civilized society prescribes. Nothing Trump says or does, no matter how offensive, has deterred the millions who have voted for him so far.

In the Detroit debate on March 3rd, Fox News' Megyn Kelly confronted Trump with video clips of typical contradictions in which Trump reversed his positions — on whether the war in Afghanistan was or was not a mistake, on whether or not we should accept Syrian refugees into the U.S., on whether George W. Bush lied us into the Iraq War. In the midst of the clips Trump said his flip-flops "wouldn't matter".

He's right, and neither Democrats or Republicans have figured out that Trump followers don't care.

Yes, they harbor pent up anger that under Obama we have lost power in the world, that the Republican party has only fought with itself and done nothing for them, and so forth, but these are not the root causes for the insurgency that has now split the party into a third faction and threatens its existence. Much more at the heart of the uprising were what Trump said upon entry into the campaign — calling the Mexican migrants rapists and murderers. And soon after declaring he would impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports.

Suddenly, someone was very loudly championing downtrodden Americans stuck in a decades-long stagnant economy with no prospects, someone was speaking for an underclass that is told of the multi-million dollar pay packages corporate CEOs pay themselves and a rigged system with all the gains going to the top 1%.

Trump had simultaneously spoken out against the globalization rip-off that had shipped millions of good-paying jobs overseas, and against the influx of millions of immigrants perceived as taking away what jobs were left. “He’s saying how the people really feel,” said one woman to a reporter. “We’re all afraid to say it.”

fear itself

Fear is key in the Trump revolt, and not just economic fear. Others interviewed at rallies are fearful of terrorism and our seeming helplessness in identifying it in our midst and preventing it. Simplistic solutions work for them: Refuse entry to all Syrian refugees, ban all Muslims from coming into the country, and of course build Trump's giant wall against Mexican interlopers. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75% of Republican voters supported the Muslim ban. Public Policy Polling found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country.

They are essentially frightened by change, disturbed by societal upheavals such as gender transformation and same-sex marriage, the rising tide of religious secularism, the foreign names and skin colors delivering news and commentary on television. What is happening to their America?, they ask.

Political scientists say these fears can act as triggers to set off a subset of people who have authoritarian tendencies, a desire for order and a return to the social norms that gave them comfort. They yearn for a strongman to restore the status quo ante. Donald Trump has come along at exactly the right moment to answer their prayers. He's tough, he's a successful businessman, they believe, who can get things done. Never mind the skeptics, the refusal to release his "very beautiful" tax returns, his vagueness, his lack of prescriptions. Months deep in the campaign, Trump has presented almost no policy statements. He seems to have no interest in learning anything of the threats compounding in the world — Syria, Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, China — and prefers to remain proudly ignorant. He spouts non-answers: About healthcare, "I am going to take care of everyone"; about foreign policy, "I'll get the best people"; about everything, "It's going to be great, believe me".

The Detroit debate provides this example among many. The subject turned to foreign policy and Marco Rubio concluded his rundown with,

"The next president of the United States is going to have eight years of a mess of a foreign policy to clean up and that's why it can't be someone who simply has not shown the intellectual curiosity or interest in learning about these very complicated issues."

Trump's answer (with an unidentified "they" and repetitions removed) was stupefying:

"When I say they'll do as I tell them, they'll do as I tell them. It's very simple…We have a depleted military… We have, by the way, our vets are treated horribly…we're going to start taking care of our vets properly like we should. We're going to build up our military and we're going to get the equipment we want, not the equipment that's sold to us by somebody who gave him and him [gesturing to others on the stage] and not the governor campaign contributions. We're going to get the equipment that the generals and the soldiers want. I will prove to be a great leader. Every single poll when it comes to ISIS, the military and the border say that Trump is the best".

No sense can be made of this incoherent ramble but the crowd in Detroit roared its approval.

bottom fishing

Trump has now peeled back yet another layer to expose in his followers the ugly substratum of bigotry. His delayed disavowal of David Duke's support, his prevarication in an interview with Jake Tapper in which he feigned ignorance of Duke and repeatedly claimed to "know nothing about white supremacists" was taken as a dog whistle call to such groups that he wanted their support. The protracted race problems of Ferguson, Missouri, the police blamed for killing blacks, the black street protests and victimhood campaigns such as "Black Lives Matter" — a proven connection is not at hand, but we may find that this constant barrage on their nightly television news has awakened in Trump's core supporters — white, less educated, in low paying jobs at best — a resentment that their difficulties have once again been ignored. Trump may be encouraging suppressed racial hatred to burst forth that could grow much worse.

Their ilk began to show up at rallies to throw out hecklers and with Trump's urging — " get him outta here, get him out, get that guy outta here, get him out, I think he should be arrested" — from the podium. This has become an expected "feature" of his rallies. A known neo-Nazi named Matthew Heimbach was one of those in a Kentucky rally that shoved a black woman to the exit and who later re-tweeted a Glenn Beck tweet that said "I believe Trump, whether he knows it or not, is grooming Brown Shirts", alluding to the paramilitary group that ran interference for Hitler, to which Heimbach added, adding "God I hope so".

What's the next vein of hatred that Trump will open? Is anti-Semitism soon to come?

role model

Was Trump really unaware that the aphorism he tweeted to his six million followers — “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep” — is attributed to Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator in the years leading into World War II? It's nonsensical
on its face, but for Trump, “It’s a very good quote,” as he said to NBC’s Chuck Todd. Trump cannot be blamed for his likeness to "Il Duce" ("the leader" in Italian) that was remarked on early in the campaign. And yet he affects an arrogant posture — chest out, head tilted up to look down on those around him — that eerily suggests he is modeling himself after Mussolini.

Europe has certainly taken note; they know something of authoritarian demigods.

"Europe knows how democracies collapse, after lost wars, in times of fear and anger and economic hardship, when the pouting demagogue appears with his pageantry and promises."

That's from Roger Cohen, the British New York Times columnist writing from London.

As ye sow…

For a few decades now the GOP has declared itself the standard bearer for traditional values and law and order. That has attracted a certain sort of person, those who prefer a simpler, structured society and would rather not see the world around them change. In this book, Vanderbilt University professor Marc Hetherington and University of North Carolina's Jonathan Weiler concluded (says this article at Vox) that the GOP "had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies". You could say that the Republican party had unwittingly been gathering tinder without attention to sparks.

In this century, the voice of the GOP became Fox News along with a number of radio hosts. Millions have been getting all their news from Fox for years, and in the past seven years, Fox has relentlessly told viewers that President Obama, deliberative and seeking to avoid wars, has degraded America's stance in the world because he is weak. He speaks of red lines, but fails to follow through. He goes on "apology tours", destinations unspecified. He leads from behind where he leads at all.

So there's some justice in seeing viewers, whom Fox has so thoroughly indoctrinated in the shameful weakness of Obama's America, turn to a strongman to make America great again. Horrified at the prospect and not even mindful that they played a significant role in the cause, Fox is backpedaling furiously to get its viewers to renounce Trump.

trumping trump?

In the general election, the Clinton campaign has no end of material to throw at Trump. They will pull together composites of his incendiary slurs against Muslims and immigrants, his desire to "open up" the libel laws to wield against a free press, his intention to introduce new torture methods that “go a lot further” than waterboarding (until the military made him walk that back), whatever they can find by digging into court and SEC records of his businesses — he is what Brit Hume on Fox called a "target-rich environment".

Like Mitt Romney's second-coming to save the country, this will only increase the anger of the Trump idolaters against the establishment telling them how to vote.

Clinton lieutenants had expected victory by a landslide, but had not accounted for the tepid response of women to Hillary this time around, and the disaffected blue-color white Democrats who have been crossing over to vote for Trump. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell assures them that, “For every one of those blue-collar Democrats he picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents" in the suburbs of Midwestern cities, "places like that”. But maybe they will only fill the gap of disillusioned Sanders Democrats who will stay home rather than vote. The dynamics should prove unique and unpredictable.

Trump in the oval

If Trump does find himself in the Oval Office — out of his depth, hemmed in by Congress and Constitution and quite unable to deliver what he has promised, when they won't "do as I tell them", when it is apparent that everything is not "going to be great" — what then? Will his legions of followers take to the streets? How then to control the angry mobs that Trump will have let loose upon the land?

2 Comments for “Why Trump Arouses American Authoritarian Yearnings”

  1. While I have been following the presidential campaigns closely, more for entertainment than enlightenment, the televised Republican panels avoid the discussion of important issues and do not qualify as debates. Where are the questions on campaign finance, climate change, infrastructure, educational policy, income inequality, etc.? Instead, we see an exchange of insults and name-calling, while the interviewers ask questions that pit the candidates against each other or ask gotcha questions to stir the pot. In the cruise business, this is called infotainment, but with an emphasis on the later suffix.

    In contrast, the Democratic debates have addressed real issues and the differences between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders on important issues are becoming more apparent as they compare their records or explain their solutions to real problems.

    Finally, the whole nominating process is flawed. How, or when, did we turn one of our most important political responsibilities over to corporate media, whose news departments are profit centers and newcasts are structured to focus on the most sensational stories, or junk news, in order to attract the more viewers? The pundits are employees of the networks and apparently, are encouraged to stir the pot in order to attract viewers and garner headlines. The advertisers scramble to promote their products and services and the public remains in the dark about important issues and serious and specific proposals to address them. Trump is their favorite tool, providing controversy without substance and spending little of his own money, a gift which keeps on giving!

    • Al Rodbell

      The corporate media has been running things for a number of elections, but only since Trump, acting in his reality show persona, has it provided a goldmine of advertising revenue with no expense for writers or paid actors. The low standards are to hold on to the viewers, most with a grade school understanding of the processes and functions of government.

      A serious probing question, if answered, would be borrrring….meaning possibly the millions watching would check out what else is on TV, or go on their facebook or twitter site. Trump has been the writer, producer and director of this “Republican Debate Show.” and he keeps it moving along. He has defined the characters, “Little Marco” “Weak Jeb” and “Lying Ted” and provided the drama, right down to playing the John Gotti part, as he grabbed his crotch.

      This is fabulous entertainment, if it weren’t that at the end we don’t have a pretend outcome, but a new President of the most powerful country in the World. Personally, I’m outraged that Cruz has not been challenged for pushing this country close enough to default to lower our bond rating. He is toying with world catastrophe of loss of confidence in the international economy remaining a “going business” if the U.S. dollar becomes a worthless piece of paper.

      And this hasn’t even been brought up.

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