Introduction: An almost willful ignorance on the Left about Donald Trump’s supporters
As I peruse social media, it is evident that there is a lack of understanding and, indeed, a lack of interest in understanding Donald Trump’s base. I can do little about the latter, though I’ve certainly tried. The man is president, and for the time being, his party controls both houses of Congress. Sickening as it is, we have to deal with that reality and the products of that reality.
Which means that understanding the animus that Trump’s base holds for the rest of us is important. At the same time, as all this proceeds, I am gaining a richer understanding of authoritarian populism.
Trump’s base, it must be understood, is principally authoritarian populist. It is also paleoconservative; this latter tendency includes the so-called “alt right,” neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, and yes, these are specifically the groups that caused so much trouble recently in Charlottesville. But paleoconservatives are much smaller in number; for any politician to court them, especially openly, especially as a candidate, would carry a cost far greater than any possible gain.
By contrast, authoritarian populists might be the most numerous conservative tendency (to my knowledge, reliable numbers do not exist, but the most numerous tendency would either be authoritarian populism or social conservatism, both of which now appear to mostly support Trump). Conservative politicians may choose to discount this base or to take it for granted, but they accept certain losses in doing so.
In my dissertation, I found little difference between the two tendencies of authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism on the specific topic of unauthorized migration, which is an issue largely because of various forms of xenophobia (this is most explicit with defenses of borders as “good” things). And with racism so visible in our society today, thanks in large part to Trump’s election, it’s easy to overlook the differences between the two, including a likely muted paleoconservative opposition to war and a contrasting likelihood of support for war from authoritarian populists. Trump is, of course, oblivious to all of this. His picture of “Americans” is authoritarian populist:
[T]he Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics . . . makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.
Kim Messick wrote that in 2013 as a quick summation of at least some of his earlier writings for Salon, I used a portion of this quotation in my dissertation to describe authoritarian populists, and a year into Trump’s term, his description seems especially applicable—actually, my jaw dropped as I re-read it—to Trump and many of his supporters. The one modification I would offer is that while there are indeed many such folks in the South, similar such folks can be found all over the country and in large enough numbers that they could sway the 2016 electoral college tally. Otherwise, the description of authoritarian populism I relied on in my dissertation seems to me to remain apt.
De facto, even when not de jure, disenfranchisement of ideological minorities
As an issue, the Electoral College mostly only comes up once every four years in electing the president and vice president. One elector is allocated for each seat each state holds in Congress (a number based on U.S. Census results each decade for the House of Representatives plus—here’s the “fix”—two senators). These electors are generally selected on a “winner take all” basis, so no matter how close the election in that state may have been, the winning candidate claims all the electors. As a result, the College mildly but importantly offers (often rural) states with smaller populations a bit of a edge against (often more urban) states with larger populations. The process—and in fact the mentality behind that process—ensures that candidates for national office cannot ignore the many more numerous rural states in their campaigns and, much to the Left’s annoyance, acts to diminish the power of urban states.
Numerous observers have pointed to the divide between urban and rural areas as being at the core of political polarization in the United States. I agree. It’s huge. I mostly remember Utah from my childhood, in ways that won’t have changed much since, but may not account for some tensions within the Latter-Day Saints over ‘cultural’ (with a certainly ugly enough racist background) issues that have posed fissures I am not personally witness too.
Utah was a profoundly conservative place when we traveled to visit my grandparents on my father’s side, who were Mormon. (For folks keeping score, purely from childhood memories, I would characterize my understanding of the state’s population at that time as hegemonically socially, functionalist, and traditionalist conservative and as unusually homogenous.) So I was in for a shock when I visited Salt Lake City in 2016, maybe a little bit more than a couple months before Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. I found a city with a diverse (especially around the University of Utah, where my conference was) population, a mostly pretty-damned-well-developed light rail system, a pervasive Leftist presence to be found in messages everywhere, and some vegan restaurants I can’t praise highly enough. The dissonance between the Salt Lake City I found that year and the Utah I remember is one, frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
In the Electoral College, however, Salt Lake City progressives effectively have had, at least until very recently, no voice; the rest of the state is significantly Mormon, almost entirely conservative, and still has enough of a population to outvote Salt Lake City in elections for statewide office and in presidential elections. Hence my dissonance: Salt Lake City progressives are essentially tilting at windmills in their quest for a more just society in Utah. For me, it would only make sense for them to move, en masse, to places where they might actually have a voice. (And conversely, I must extend to them my profound respect for the progress they have made right where they fucking are, against what surely must have seemed insurmountable odds.)
I live in California where the situation is reversed. Here, it seems like there always some folks somewhere in the state grumbling about secession (and, in general, I support them). The tilt between urban and rural areas is the opposite of Utah and to be a Republican in California is, it is widely reported, to admit a certain degree of despair along with an unyielding determination. Democrats now seem to have a lock on state government. Presidential candidates mostly come here to raise money (significantly from Silicon Valley and, I understand, Hollywood).
Secession from the Union
Probably the most prominent secession movement in California right now is ‘Calexit,’ so named to evoke the ‘Brexit’ effort to extract Britain from the European Union. California would become its own country.
For some on the Left and for me, a California secession from the Union would be eminently sensible and ethical: Neoconservative and neoliberal ideology remain beyond challenge in Washington, D.C.; here, in stark contrast, regulation reigns supreme, politicians generally seek to shore up a nationally-decimated social safety net, and they promise to defend a number of state and local policies, including those on marijuana, the environment, and migration, against the federal government’s generally presumed supremacy. I simply do not see how California’s interests are served in this conflict and any claim to benefit from the scale of the United States ultimately rests on imperial claims, which territorially include the numberless graves of displaced, sickened, and murdered American Indians. All that said, this effort to form a new country will not be the secession I’m talking about following this paragraph and I make no presumption that any such secession would in any way address the many grievances American Indians have against against genocidal European conquerors.
But what about the secession movements on the Right?
I’m seeing the Leftist effort at secession of the Union as one (certainly not the only) feedback to authoritarian populist and religious (social and traditionalist) conservative achievements. Similarly, I think authoritarian populists would profess that they are reacting to progressive changes on topics including sexuality, gender, the environment, and race that they see as coming at their expense. If we understand these movements as feedbacks, then why, instead of counteracting each other, have they served to intensify each other? Why is it only now that polarization seems intractable?
On the right, an effective disenfranchisement of conservatives by that Democratic lock on state politics also means diminished representation at the national level. For decades, both of California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein (still incumbent) and Barbara Boxer (now retired), and the current House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, all joined the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoconservative and neoliberal policies, including but by no means limited to the party’s support for the war in Iraq, even after having been elected to control of both houses of Congress in 2006 with a mandate to get us the fuck out of Iraq. It would seem that California Republicans’ only hope for power lies in leaving California, whether by moving or through secession. Accordingly, a number of secession movements have appeared that would each split California, adding at least one new state within the Union.
But more significantly, the very notion that secession might be necessary suggests a growing sense of isolation among people who feel they have little or no voice in their government. For the Left, it seems like so-called “blue” states are too often being made to submit to “red” rule, just as for the Right, the reverse often seems so. On the right, Messick describes an authoritarian populist perspective that does not merely deny the legitimacy of alternative perspectives but cannot even imagine that there is a wellspring from which such perspectives might legitimately arise. But increasingly, too, we are seeing a dogmatism on the Left, that not only asserts its own universal truths, but lumps any who might dissent, even merely in emphasis, with the racists, misogynists, anti-scientists, and other similarly despicable creatures it vilifies. Just as Emma Goldman saw an inversion of the class system in the authoritarian socialist system in Russia, we now see an inversion in who may speak, where those who, through their social location, were privileged to be able to speak to different audiences from those they were speaking for, and could do so righteously by carefully working with the folks they were speaking for and who may indeed have needed or still need to be spoken for. Such folks are now silenced entirely, as ‘allies.’ Which is to admit that the Left is now talking only to itself just as surely as the Right talks only to itself, largely within the Faux News bubble.
Briefly back to systems theory
Systems can be understood as having reinforcing and destabilizing feedbacks. A stable system forms and sustains itself through autopoiesis—self-organization, which sounds like it requires cognition, but is more really a function of an organism finding and, through mutual causation, to some degree, creating a niche for itself in its ecosystem. This interaction largely appears in feedbacks which may reinforce or destabilize the system. This is pretty much what life is about, how it forms, and how it ends. In addition, because these characteristics can be found even in a universe where life is not nearly so common as the vacuum of space, there is some question, as with the Gaia hypothesis, as to what degree we can extend our understanding of a living system to encompass the entire earth, and by implication, perhaps even the entire solar system or even an entire universe.
What we find along the way is that linear cause and effect is the exception rather than the rule, that much more commonly, even as A ‘causes’ B to do C, B ‘causes’ A to do D. So when above, I see a synergistic destabilizing effect, I realize that maybe the Left and the Right are not feedbacks at all but rather at least to some degree mutually causative. Certainly at the very least, they locate themselves in opposition to each other, which necessarily involves the identification of a distinction. Why, after all, should I align with (and vote for) A? Why should I instead align with (and vote for) B? That these questions exist points to an ‘othering’ based on political ideology, but otherwise entirely as Simone de Beauvoir might predict. She thought, and I think quite worryingly, that humans naturally and seemingly inevitably find distinctions to discriminate between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Political polarization as one possible culmination of othering
So what we find in a situation of intensifying political polarization may be the culmination of that tendency to ‘other’ people. I have seen somewhere a notion that such ‘othering’ begins on a scale as an infant learns to distinguish itself from its environment and from other people; to whom we identify as “us” at various levels of family, community, and nation; and finally, to whom we identify as “them” and place ourselves in opposition to, perhaps even violently.
Different forms of othering
Authoritarian populists do implicitly what paleoconservatives do explicitly. That is, both are racist, but when, for example, Donald Trump repeatedly claims he is the least racist person, he exhibits a defining authoritarian populist trait: He denies, or at the very least, minimizes his racism—a racism, by the way, which is obvious to nearly everyone else.
By contrast, paleoconservatives are very clear in their claims that the white race is under attack from “black and brown” people and that peoples of varying ethnicities and races can only live peaceably by living apart. When the Left seeks to silence white males (as ‘allies,’ of course) or diminishes their economic pleas, it lends credence to these paleoconservative claims. Which is why I am astonished, indeed truly gobsmacked, that the Left does this.
Demystifying the authoritarian populist
It is easy to see what authoritarian populists are against. Thomas Frank does a superb job not only in describing them (he labels as ‘cons’ the same folks I label as authoritarian populist) as lashing back against ‘liberal’ and urban elites but in decrying the Democrats’ abandonment of labor in favor of Wall Street. Indeed, I associate Frank’s ‘cons’ with Colin Woodard’s Greater Appalachians people; they have always understood that elites have never had their interests at heart, but are nonetheless dependent upon and subject to manipulation by functionalist conservatives who exploit their fears, leaving social scientists to ponder why they seem to vote against their own interests.
In significant measure, authoritarian populists exemplify the mostly neoconservative National Review‘s mission to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” They do so without saying so, but when they oppose change, it is not always obvious what they are seeking to preserve.
The authoritarian populist ideal
I am about to describe something that is not real, that you should think of much as you might Plato’s Ideals, as a notion of a Form which is ideal and which physical manifestations strive to emulate. These manifestations always, in reality, fall short and are thus inferior to the Ideal. Because they are inferior, they are given less credence.
This way of thinking is common across most or all tendencies of conservatism. Its consequence is that conservatives will often act based on how they think things should be rather than how, in fact, things actually are. But because even if you believe Plato, reality is often less than ideal, conservatives may fail to respond even to dire situations.
This substitution of what allegedly should be for what actually is, the naturalistic fallacy, takes on an ontological function for fundamentalists of all stripes, including, I would add, authoritarian populists. A common ideological feature imagines a mythologized past to which adherents posit we must return in order to lead good lives. This is paired with a corollary belief that contemporary social dysfunction is a consequence of our corruption and our alleged turning away from the ways of our hallowed past.
So what is this mythologized past for authoritarian populists?
Funny because, well, it’s true. George W. Bush is and was a more decent man, personally, than Donald Trump. But he did a staggering amount of damage to the US and the world — and is arguably why we have Trump today at all. https://t.co/bj8B0GWC8w
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) January 28, 2018
No, don’t blame Bush for Trump. Blame a cultural and economic divide between rural and urban parts of the country and neoliberal policy that left far too many people behind.
— David Benfell, Ph.D. (@n4rky) January 28, 2018
“Cultural divide” is the white America’s euphemism for bigotry. Call it what it is.
— LesaPR (@LesaPR) January 28, 2018
Not just racism, although that’s a part of it. Some of it is generational, which scares the shit out of these folks. Think about everything your great grandparents probably wouldn’t have been ready for. That includes sexuality, gender, their associated roles, and more.
— David Benfell, Ph.D. (@n4rky) January 28, 2018
As I said above, I am describing not reality but an image of the world as it is ‘supposed’ to work. Principally, it is a view of the world that has something in common with the order my father sought to impose on our family; this helps me to understand what it is that authoritarian populists actually advocate behind their backlash. Finally, I should emphasize that the ‘reality’ of the ideal world here described depends significantly on your social location. In general, the likelihood it will seem real depends on the extent to which you are wealthy or at least well-off, are white, are male, are heterosexual, can comfortably identify your gender with your biological sex, and are able-bodied. And you must suppress any cognitive dissonance with that ‘reality’ in expressing the virtues of humility, reverence, loyalty, and conformity to the archetype of “a regular, down-home working stiff.” And finally, while I distinguish between authoritarian populists, social conservatives, and traditionalist conservatives, these tendencies frequently overlap, with evangelical Protestant or conservative Catholic moralities being uncritically if more often hypocritically embraced.
This is an old-fashioned ‘world,’ not far advanced from the ‘world’ in which sex did not occur until marriage, but if it did, and if a pregnancy resulted, the young man could be compelled to marry the woman he impregnated. Even when not considered sinful, contraception was often distrusted and not used. It was a world where men married women, and only women, for life. Divorce might have been more acceptable than in the past but it still carried the whiff of scandal. Sex was largely for procreation and only covertly for pleasure, and procreation was just short of a moral obligation. Men were men and they were to tally their sexual conquests while women were women and they were to embrace their roles as sexual gatekeepers as a means by which to secure husbands and become housewives.
This is a largely white ‘world,’ in which whites can more readily identify with the images they see on mass media than can their counterparts of color and in which racism is, by common consent, a problem of the past. But of course lots of folks have ‘Black’ friends to prove that they are not racists. Not that they have any need to prove they are not racists and no, they are not even the slightest bit bit defensive about that fact.
This is a small ‘world.’ Urban elites leave “true” “Americans,” the people who possess the virtues of humility, reverence, loyalty, and conformity to the archetype of “a regular, down-home working stiff” the fuck alone. Business creates jobs and is therefore good, and when it takes those jobs away, that’s “just business.” Blame instead accrues to government, taxes, regulations, and members of subaltern groups as authoritarian populists embrace some of the economic (but not social) aspects of capitalist libertarianism and as they understand difference as hostility.
The reality behind authoritarian populist dogma is, of course, quite different. Comprehensive sexuality education, not abstinence education, reduces teen pregnancy rates. To the extent that queer theorists are correct (and I’m inclined to accept that they have at least something of a point), gender is not a binary but a fluid construct with gradations. A woman’s freedom to divorce is essential (but not necessarily sufficient) in her quest to escape an abusive husband. And the most reliable means to authoritarian populist fury is even a suggestion that they might be racist.
Finally, this ‘world’ is not a ‘world’ that many people who are not authoritarian populists, social conservatives, traditionalist conservatives, or neoconservative Catholics would want to embrace. Younger folks are especially less likely to embrace this ‘world,’ and this terrifies authoritarian populists because, for them, their idealized ‘world’ is the only conceivable alternative to a Hell on earth they sincerely believe they are already enduring.
Indeed the Left often believes that authoritarian populists are losing influence as predicted demographic changes allegedly favor progressive candidates. This has yet to actually work but the fear among social conservatives and authoritarian populists is real: Evangelical protestants might be expected to despise Donald Trump’s immorality; instead, their leaders frequently embrace him in a desperate effort to retard progress. This fear has precedent; it’s hard not to notice the coincidence between the appearance of the ‘revival’ movement during the Industrial Revolution and 1) an increase in middle- and upper-class white women’s efforts to control their own reproduction; 2) Reconstruction era constitutional amendments that ended slavery, that gave all men, including Blacks, the vote, and that were intended to guarantee Blacks equal protection and due process; 3) a wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought darker-skinned, often Catholic, and often non-English speaking migrants to the U.S.; 4) an uptick in white rhetoric alleging ‘race suicide’ reflecting fears that white men might lose their hegemony; and 5) the first serious efforts to crack down on abortion, which as a medical procedure, was indistinguishable from treatments to restore menstrual flow.
An unhappy prognosis
It is one thing to diagnose a problem and another to offer a prescription. The tale of authoritarian populism is tied to the supplantation of family farms by big agriculture and the only partial replacement of well-paying manufacturing jobs with poorly-paying service jobs. It often appears in decaying and abandoned towns that are no longer economically viable. It appears in an epidemic of “deaths of despair,” including those from suicides and drug overdoses (including alcohol and opioids), especially among whites.
If, as I suggest above, the contest between authoritarian populists and the Left is synergistically destabilizing, and if it may have become so as a consequence of population size, in which elites are, just as Robert Michels suggested in his Iron Law of Oligarchy, inherently detached from working reality, but even more so as organizations have grown larger and more complex, removing these same elites ever farther from that reality, then it seems at least a partial solution lies in decentralization. This is why I support secession efforts; I think government can be least evil only when it is least distant from those it governs. Similarly, the claimed advantages of scale in large corporations principally benefit investors, often at the expense of workers.
To say all this is to suggest that the United States is unlikely to survive as anything like a functioning republic. Much authoritarian populist energy goes into social ‘wedge’ issues, but these may divert attention from economic causes that reinforce a sense that distant elites do not care about ordinary “Americans.” I am not sure what can be done about those wedge issues; the conflict is between those who think we should progress faster, those who think we should not move at all, and those who think we should regress. But authoritarian populist fury is also only one symptom of a dysfunctional economy. We need to do something about that in any event. I see no sign that we will.