So, this happened.
The first question might well be: Why should this be a big deal for a non-American? After all, it was only a presidential election of a foreign country, which is not supposed to be the business of non-Americans anyway. The president of the United States is not almighty, will be as bound by the realities of domestic and international politics as anyone else, and certainly cannot make the country and its political system bow to his personal will. It is surprising, considering what the polls seemed to indicate, and more than a little weird, but so what?
I feel the need bring some considerations together and justify why it seems like a big deal. Why care so much about who won the United States presidential election?
First, maybe this should have not been surprising. If Trump’s victory came as a surprise, maybe that is just an indication that something important about these times has escaped our attention.
It has been repeatedly pointed out that Trump’s success has much to do with the anger and disillusionment of American lower middle and working classes. These people are often by default suspicious of the federal government, and they have been hit hard by economic trends, loss of jobs due to globalization, and the polarization of income that shrinks the middle class. These elections channeled much repressed anger. (Meanwhile, 370 economists, including some of the best in the world, assert that Trump’s economic promises are based on fallacies and misinformation.) For people who do not expect anything good from the established political factions, any radical change may appear desirable.
However, that does not explain at all how Donald Trump, of all people, came to win as the Republican nominee. Why on earth Trump? Just how do people think he is going to be the solution of the problems mentioned above, to such an extent that he managed to win despite almost non-existent support from the Republican Party luminaries? And moreover, why do so many people on this side of the Atlantic, people who have nothing significant to gain from changes in the United States’ political direction, seem to be cheering for Trump?
The Republican Party is generally thought as the party of unrestricted free market, extreme individualism, and social conservatism. But as the party’s agonizing over Trump’s candidacy showed, he was not appealing to the traditional Republican principles as such. Most clearly, Trump did not gain his support because he was conservative -- he is not. He was supported because he was radical. Something else is involved than just a tipping of the scales between the two established American political powers.
The Republicans have been the party of law, order and security from the 1960’s. At a time when racial riots and unrest caused by the social rights struggles provoked fear and uncertainty, the party employed the message of hard-handed security measures and aversion to social change. Where Democrats became the party more accommodating to social reform, Republicans came to champion reluctance about extending the civil rights of minorities, even though this was not inherently part and parcel with their other key doctrines.
Thus, today’s Republican party has come to encompass mindsets that do not necessarily have much to do with each other. Karen Stenner’s detailed analysis shows that what gets grouped together as the American “political right” consists of three distinct dispositions: laissez-faire capitalism, social conservatism, and an important third feature, authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism, in the sense meant here, is the preference to uniformity and conformity in one’s surroundings, favoring hierarchy, loyalty, and strong leadership. Since the early 1990’s, there has been an ingenious measurement device for the authoritarian psychological profile, which sidesteps the methodological problems of asking people directly about their political preferences. It consists of asking them about something universally human, present in every culture, having prima facie nothing to do with politics: child-rearing practices.
Questionnaires ask about the most desirable kinds of upbringing for children. The respondents are asked what features they see as most important for their children to have. They are asked if it is most important to teach children independence or respect for elders; self-reliance or obedience; being considerate or being well-behaved; and curiosity or good manners. Picking the second preference in each pair has proven to be a reliable indicator of authoritarian preferences.
What is interesting is that Trump’s success has been driven by his appealing to people with authoritarian preferences. He did not only gather the votes of social conservatives or disgruntled poor people: he gathered the votes of authoritarians, who are many, and not by any means confined to the political right.
It is important to note that authoritarianism differs from conservatism. What Stenner calls “status quo conservatism” may often support the same causes as authoritarianism, but it is importantly different. According to Stenner’s analysis, conservatism prefers stability and security in society, resisting change and preferring established practices over reforms. Conservatism is disposed to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo includes many divisions and diversity in society. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is disposed to enforce uniformity, homogeneity and strict social hierarchies in society, even when this means drastic measures and a radical upheaval of the status quo. Neither of the two is inherently connected with laissez-faire capitalism.
Trump’s success starts to make more sense when one considers the possibility that his message reached a large class of people with authoritarian tendencies. With his self-assured and outrageous demeanor, he portrayed himself as the kind of strongman leader who will force radical change upon the country, and disregards all kinds of typical political correctness which might stand in his way.
Another interesting hypothesis, also put forward by Stenner, could explain why the political force of authoritarianism has not been more evident before. The hypothesis is that authoritarian tendencies are often latent until “activated”, and they are activated by perceived threats to social order and personal security. The hypothesis makes a lot of sense, thinking about the effectiveness of the standard political manoeuvre: underpinning the support of the ruling regime by turning people’s attention to an outside threat. According to Hetherington and Suhay's study on Americans, it is not only those with pre-existing authoritarian tendencies who are susceptible to the effect. Also people without those tendencies may respond to real or imagined threats by becoming more authoritarian. That is, by turning to strong leadership, traditional values, and unity of the group.
When people experience uncertainty and fear, it seems to be a natural reaction to turn to one’s community for safety, and become less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion in that community. People feeling threatened, either by physical dangers by rapid changes in social norms, they tend to seek safety, consciously or unconsciously, from forceful leaders and from uniformity, strict norms and structure. Racism that arises from activated authoritarianism is not so much racism as such; it is, to use Stenner’s term, more general “difference-ism”. This may explain the otherwise completely baffling phenomenon where hostile attitudes, once they have become prominent against some minorities, seem to target also evidently harmless groups, such as disabled people.
If it is true that (to simplify) scared people are more prone to attach to authoritarian leaders, this may tell something illuminating about totalitarian societies and dictatorships. It is easy enough to understand that people can be scared into submission in a dictatorship. But the result of living under a constant threat may be deeper than simple reluctant submission. It might be that people can be scared into actually supporting authoritarian regimes – the regime is a self-feeding machine which constantly provides the impetus for its own support.
According to Stenner, the authoritarian psychological profile favors
“ ... structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs, and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of stances all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference.” (Stenner, "Three Kinds of Conservatism", Psychological Inquiry, 20, p. 143)
So, authoritarianism seems to be the preference of homogeneity and strength in unity, and distaste of diversity and difference. It is certainly a widespread trait, although one rarely encounters it in a completely outspoken or unqualified form in politics or social life – at least until now. But there seems to be a less radical preference, which is closely related to the authoritarian mindset, but even more humanly universal and comprehensive: the preference of order and hierarchy. What I have in mind is a mindset that does not oppose diversity as such, but demands that any existing diversity is made sense of by classifying it in clear and permanent ways. It demands that things, phenomena, and people have labels, and that they wear those labels on their sleeve.
Very many people who could be described as conservative or authoritarian seem content to accept the existence of various kinds of diversity, if that diversity is made clear-cut and intelligible by labels and classifying concepts. Let there be blacks in the neighborhood, as long as they keep to themselves and do not try to become one of “us”; let there be equal rights for women, as long as women do not try to become men and take over “men’s jobs”; let there be equal rights for homosexual couples, as long as homosexual partnerships do not constitute “marriage”. Nobody likes to find out that their long-lasting ways to make sense of the world have gone obsolete, and that their concepts no longer mean what they used to mean. Sticking to traditional meanings of concepts and inherited world-views is, like authoritarianism, an expression of the tendency to seek safety in order and tradition when the world outside seems to change too rapidly. It is probably no accident that populists like Trump use name-calling so extensively. Sticking easily remembered, emotionally loaded labels to everyone and everything speaks directly to his target audience. It feeds the audience’s urge to classify, simplify, and know what is what.
Finally, there might be an explanation as to why these preferences seem so deeply alien to some. On the face of it, preference for order and homogeneity over ambiguity and diversity is a perfectly intelligible need, and certainly not in any obvious way irrational. Why is it so baffling and repulsive to many that well-educated people struggle to even understand where authoritarian tendencies come from?
Maybe somewhere on the bottom of all this lies a fundamental difference of world-views. On the one hand, there are people who see order as the basic, “default” feature of the world. There is a pre-determined natural order for things to be, and undesirable things are conceived as resulting from the order’s being disturbed in one way or another. Order is the default state of human race and society. Whenever there is deviation from the order, this is attributable to some external agent, malicious or delusional, who must be stopped before it breaks the world’s rightful structure apart. On the other hand, there are people who see change as the basic, “default” feature of the world. The only permanent thing is that everything changes. History, the story of the human race, or the fates of societies do not follow any pre-determined path, and much of the developments that shape our lives are attributable just to random change. People are fellow travelers in a chaotic and unpredictable world that is not in any way inherently hospitable to them. The way to survive is to build unity where there once was none, adapt, and develop. Circumstances change, and societies change with them, whether we like it or not. The only relevant choice is between controlled change as opposed to chaotic and unpredictable change.
Something like the first world-view may be an unspoken and non-reflected part of the authoritarian disposition, as well as those more moderate mindsets that share features with it. Inability to understand or relate to the first world-view, on the other hand, could be part of the reason why the needs of authoritarians and their means of responding to threats seem so alien to many. If something along these lines is right, it is no wonder if authoritarians tend to be climate change deniers, because it goes against a basic building block of their worldview – the conviction that if things are just left to run their course, things will fall back into their rightful order.
Why is the election of Donald Trump a big deal? Because he cannot be dismissed as a singular accident, a mere charismatic snake-oil salesman, or a very-probably-one-term president brought about by a critical amount of protest voters. He awakened politically a subset of people that is permanently there, and can be mobilized to support ruthless and radical leaders, especially when there are high levels of fear and uncertainty in the society. His success is part of the same nationalist, isolationist and disunifying trend that is growing in European politics, in Brexit and elsewhere. Now, when Trump’s themes, his campaigning style, and his surely conscious choice to rather appear vigorous than worthy of respect, have won him the White House, it is hard to believe that the same methods would not be copied in European politics sooner or later. The European Trumps are probably already on their way.