Researchers discover a clear connection between Donald Trump’s political success and the fears of white America.
Like most sane people, I’ve been scratching my head over Trump’s popularity. At first, there was an easy explanation: Trump followers are uneducated white males, full of testosterone and bravado. I assumed there weren’t that many of them and his candidacy would fizzle out with a few late night jokes. But Trump supporters began to grow.
As a former Evangelical Christian, I was shocked to see high profile evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, and even Franklin Graham, proudly supporting Trump. The fundamentalist message of repentance and clean living had always taken center stage among Evangelical Christians. Trump brings none of that. So what gives?
A group of researchers, it turns out, have been quietly watching a trend toward Trump’s kind of demagoguery over the last few years. Clearly, his popularity doesn’t decline because of outrageous, racist, misogynist, offensive statements. It doesn’t even flinch when he refuses to disavow the KKK. In fact, all of those things only seem to empower Trump’s campaign and his followers.
The Republican Party has gradually been splitting into two parties, according to these researchers, as reported by VOX: the GOP establishment and the GOP authoritarians. Authoritarians love Trump’s take-no-prisoner approach to politics. They love that he is not politically correct and they adore that he says what they are thinking. More than their disgust with the gridlocked political establishment, they are afraid. Very afraid. They’ve been afraid for a long time and they are ecstatic that someone is going to finally stand up and take control of what they feel is a very out of control country.
Authoritarianism is not a new concept. In fact, it’s been studied since Hitler’s regime. That’s when researchers wanted to know what made people want to follow him. Hitler’s unthinkable rise to power came at a time when Germany was facing economic collapse. The middle-class felt democracy had failed them and they wanted a strong government. Unemployment was at 6 million and political parties were not working together.
In America, we are divided along party lines, racial lines, religious differences and political gridlock. But there’s more. For the last several years conservative media, speaking mostly to its conservative audiences, has pandered to their fears. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, Republicans are about 89% white.
It really started in 1964 when congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, forcing the states to provide equal rights to people of color. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this is when Republican Barry Goldwater, a former supporter of civil rights before running for president, took the position that states should decide for themselves. Consequently, the Republican Party saw a mass exodus of blacks and an influx of Southern whites. The fear, in 1964, was that if black people got rights, white people would lose theirs. It would change the status quo. It was threatening. To make matters worse, Goldwater’s strategist, Paul Weyrich, devised a plan to bring in religious conservatives and strengthen the party’s platform with moral positioning.
In 1972, as religion began to mix with politics, the fears went deeper. Abortion was a threat to the nation because of God’s wrath. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was the “homosexual lifestyle” that would bring God’s wrath, and it was preached from pulpits across the country. In the 2000s, terrorism became a threat and the Democratic Party (Obama) wasn’t doing enough to stop it. Additionally, media outlets began touting, “Christians are under attack!” despite the fact that 78% of the American population identifies as Christian.
Researcher Cass Sunstein points out that when ideological groups are separated, the right tends to go further right and the left tends to go further left, particularly when there are outside influences to raise questions. Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted in his book, The Righteous Mind, that when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house in 1995, he shortened the work week so members of congress could fly home to be with their families, ultimately separating party members completely, reducing interaction primarily to business contact only.
It is important to note that not all authoritarians are Republicans, however. According to the researchers, 65% of people who scored the highest as authoritarians affiliated themselves with the GOP. On the flip side, 75% of those who scored as non-authoritarian self-identified as Democrats.
Authoritarians have become a significant group in American politics. They exist independently of Donald Trump, but believe that a leader like Trump is needed to build a wall, stop Muslims from coming into the country and keep out refugees who could also be terrorists. Order, for them, is more important than civil rights. Uniformity breeds stability. It’s a message many stand behind, including former KKK leader, David Duke, who said that voting against Trump is “treason to your heritage.”
Authoritarianism has been an essential position of the Christian Right all along. Trump supporter, Franklin Graham, recently called for a cease-fire on his Facebook page, stating, “Don’t fuel the fires of hostility and incivility.” Yet, Graham has taken a no-holds-barred offensive against the LGBT community. Just this week he expressed his disgust for a Utah-based Girl Scout troop for reaching out to the transgender community. “‘I don’t know about you, but I won’t be buying any Girl Scout cookies this year,” he sneered.
Russell Moore, with the Southern Baptist Convention stated on NPR, “The Scriptures tell us we are to engage with people who disagree with us with kindness…As we’ve seen over the centuries, Christianity has been a vibrant force against racism, for instance.” A quick look at history proves this not to be true.
With the Civil Rights Act approaching, the influential fundamentalist Bob Jones preached a 1960s sermon entitled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” saying, “…now a world outside agitation has been started, and people are coming in the name of piety, but it is false piety, and are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order; and we are having turmoil all over America. This disturbing movement is not of God. It is not in line with the Bible. It is Satanic.”
Historian Julie Kirk Blackwelder noted, “During the 1950s the Southern Presbyterian Church faced a critical struggle over denominational desegregation with fundamentalists leading the segregation forces.”
100 years earlier, historian John R. McKivigan said in his book, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches 1830-1865, “All but a few small denominations balked at a commitment to uncompromised abolitionist principles and programs.”
Authoritarianism is the result of people who feel the status quo is being challenged and they fear their world, as they know it, is about to end. A religious component may even make the changes feel more catastrophic, as they fear their way of life is divinely ordered and the wrath of an angry God will surely bring the world’s demise. When a strong personality like Donald Trump, or Adolph Hitler, or Mussolini, or Vladimir Putin challenge the establishment, authoritarians believe they are getting what they really want, say the researchers, “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”
Photo – Flickr/Will Hastings