How Donald Trump captured the Republican Party

Update, July 12, 2018: A study of public opinion (I have not chased down the survey response rate in the original surveys[1]) concludes that much of Trump’s support derives from white fears of displacement, consistent with Hunter S. Thompson’s thesis as reviewed by Susan McWilliams.[2] The author of this study, Diana C. Mutz, denies that personal hardship is a factor even as she notes that “Americans increasingly feel that they are not getting their fair share” of jobs in a globalized economy and that status threat “is borne of a sense that the outgroup is doing too well and thus, is a viable threat to one’s own dominant group status.” Mutz also does not (and cannot, given her research design) control for voters who earlier voted for Barack Obama and subsequently for Donald Trump—a portion of the electorate she considers unimportant[3] but which would presumably be less racist and thus less likely to fear social displacement but which might well remain susceptible to fears of economic displacement.


Early last month (on June 6, 2018), I wrote that

I have thought that by August of this year, Republicans would be so alarmed by their prospects in the midterm elections that they would find a way to get Trump out. But a couple months ago, Eric Levitz pointed out, first, that Trump seems less restrained than ever and, second, that events have been moving in the opposite direction from my forecast as a Republican-controlled Congress shows little inclination to assert those checks and balances and as he replaces “adults in the room” with ideologues.[4] Jennifer Rubin, who has been fairly consistent in criticizing this same Congress for its negligence, repeated her condemnation just the other day.[5][6]


I was speaking to a friend of this the other day, saying one thing I didn’t see coming was Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party. He replied, “How could you?” and reminded me of my own dissertation in which I had developed a non-monolithic view of conservatism.[7] And indeed, we see occasional instances where conservatives continue to be non-monolithic. In one example, I cite Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who is probably a functionalist conservative, in the above. We see Jeff Flake pushing back against Donald Trump’s trade war[8] in another. But the overall picture of the Republican Party right now is, well, quite depressingly monolithic.

The trade war is instructive. “Despite widespread concern among Republicans that Trump’s escalating trade war could roil the economy before the midterm elections, party leaders are wary of picking a fight that could prompt a backlash from Trump’s fervent base.”[9] I’ve been seeing this terror of Trump’s base for a while; my error has been to think that Republicans would realize that that base does not form a majority of the general electorate. But there’s no way for me to have any confidence that that’s the case: With a typical nine percent response rate, I think it folly to rely on polls.[10]

And a whole bunch of folks, including me at the end, were surprised when Trump won in 2016, albeit against an appallingly weak Democratic nominee. Understanding Trump’s authoritarian populist base in a way that goes beyond my dissertation work is important:

[Hunter S.] Thompson’s [Hell’s] Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation—the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.[11]

Even as Trump’s trade war may cost some of Harley Davidson’s workers their jobs, they continue to support him:

The workers gathered outside the factory gate could end up as collateral damage, but most are sticking by their man regardless. Wearing earphones draped around their necks and safety blinders on their glasses, most happily volunteer that they voted for Mr Trump and would do so again — tariffs or no tariffs.

“He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman,” said one Harley employee whose name is embroidered on his work shirt — though he asks not to be quoted by name.

“I think he’s playing poker: I’ll hit you with this, you’ll hit us with that, I think this will bring them to the table — unless he’s completely crazy,” chimed in another, who also declined to be quoted on the grounds that he could get into trouble with the company for speaking out.

Asked whether they blame the president or the EU for causing Harley’s offshoring decision, most say emphatically that they blame only the Europeans. “The president was just trying to save the US aluminium and steel industry”, said one approvingly.[12]

Which is to say that they think Trump is a smarter businessman than their employer,[13] which has been losing market share in the U.S. and chooses not to bear the cost of European Union tariffs.[14] There are a couple reasons not to be surprised by this. First, they have direct personal experience with their employer and to know a manager is to see her or his shortcomings, of which, as Christopher Hayes has explained, there are likely to be many.[15] Second,

[Hell’s Angels] were clunky and outclassed and scorned, just like the Harley-Davidsons they chose to drive. Harleys had been the kings of the American motorcycle market until the early 1960s, when European and Japanese imports came onto the scene. Those imports were sleeker, faster, more efficient, and cheaper. Almost overnight, Harleys went from being in high demand to being the least appealing, most underpowered, and hard to handle motorcycles out there. It’s not hard to see why the Angels insisted on Harleys and identified strongly with their bikes.[16]

Assuming Harley-Davidson workers share the Hell’s Angels’ identification with their motorcycles, we see something of a paradox. But it’s only a paradox, not a contradiction. Their employer is making a product whose justification lies not in that product’s merits but rather in a resentment at being scorned.

It’s a resentment I can relate to. I, too, feel that, even with a Ph.D., I have been left on the side of the road with the trash or, as Susan McWilliams phrased it above, “relegated to the sewer of American society”[17] by employers who refuse to even consider me, and have been doing so for seventeen very long years, while my real world social isolation has intensified in faux liberal and pseudo-Buddhist Sebastopol. The differences between me and the Hell Angels are three: 1) I’m not a motorcycle rider inclined toward alcohol abuse and violence, 2) during those seventeen years, I returned to school and earned degrees from a Bachelor’s all the way up through that Ph.D., and 3) I never became an authoritarian populist but instead plunged into critical theory—pretty close to, if not exactly, its opposite. Nonetheless, despite my education, I have a lot in common with a group that is literally self-destructing from despair.[18]

That resentment is a defining feature of authoritarian populism, the tendency of conservatism that makes up the larger part of Donald Trump’s base:

After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.

What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter. For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.[19]

The difference with authoritarian populists is that it isn’t just about being economically or technologically left behind. It is, and here is one place where my identification with them partly fails, also about being left behind socially.[20] It’s only a partial failure because the Left has increasingly interpreted my demand for a ‘real’ job and the similar demands of people like me as a demand for the reaffirmation of white male privilege (sorry, but it’s actually a human right[21]). As Michael Lerner explained the way that the Left has cleaved me away,

It was sad and shocking when people struggling for peace found that some of their allies were racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic or anti-Christian or held hateful views about all religious people or about all secular people or about all white people or about all men.  Sometimes that would lead oppressed people to give up in despair not just about the difficulties of overcoming the obstacles that the powerful set in place, but out of disillusionment with groups that rightly should have been their allies. We cannot tolerate any more a politics that labels all people of any identity group as somehow evil or as responsible for the suffering of all others in this world. When we do so, we push those people into the Trumpist camp.[22]

In doing this, the Left has fallen into the very trap that social theorists have repeatedly warned of, of enabling the powerful to remain in power by fostering divisions in what should be a unified movement to overthrow the political and economic elite.[23] As we see with the Hell’s Angels:

Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.[24]

Which is why, come Hell or high water, Trump’s supporters continue to support him. And other conservative politicians can only envy that support.
 

  1. [1]See my skepticism about this type of research in David Benfell, “On a nine percent response rate,” May 28, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2017/05/28/nine-percent-response-rate
  2. [2]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/
  3. [3]Diana C. Mutz, “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 23, 2018, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1718155115
  4. [4]Eric Levitz, “Donald Trump Has Never Been More Dangerous Than He Is Now,” New York, March 21, 2018, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/donald-trump-has-never-been-more-dangerous-than-he-is-now.html
  5. [5]Jennifer Rubin, “What GOP cowering has gotten us: Talk of self-pardon and absolute power,” Washington Post, June 4, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2018/06/04/what-gop-cowering-has-gotten-us-talk-of-self-pardon-and-absolute-power/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “I, Donald,” Not Housebroken, June 9, 2018, https://disunitedstates.org/2018/06/06/i-donald/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  8. [8]Jordain Carney, “Appeals court nominees languish in Senate as Flake demands tariff vote,” Hill, June 30, 2018, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/394921-appeals-courtinees-languish-in-senate-as-flake-demands-tariff-vote
  9. [9]Jordain Carney, “Appeals court nominees languish in Senate as Flake demands tariff vote,” Hill, June 30, 2018, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/394921-appeals-courtinees-languish-in-senate-as-flake-demands-tariff-vote
  10. [10]David Benfell, “On a nine percent response rate,” May 28, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2017/05/28/nine-percent-response-rate
  11. [11]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/
  12. [12]Patti Waldmeir, “Harley-Davidson workers back Trump despite jobs shift,” CNBC, June 27, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/27/harley-davidson-workers-back-trump-despite-jobs-shift.html
  13. [13]Patti Waldmeir, “Harley-Davidson workers back Trump despite jobs shift,” CNBC, June 27, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/27/harley-davidson-workers-back-trump-despite-jobs-shift.html
  14. [14]Bob Tita, “Harley-Davidson to Shift Production Overseas to Offset EU Tariffs,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/harley-davidson-to-shift-production-overseas-to-offset-eu-tariffs-1529927301
  15. [15]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  16. [16]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/
  17. [17]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/
  18. [18]Julia Belluz, “Why the white middle class is dying faster, explained in 6 charts,” Vox, March 23, 2017, http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/23/14988084/white-middle-class-dying-faster-explained-case-deaton; Laura Bliss, “The Pessimism of White, Working-Class America,” CityLab, November 17, 2015, http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/11/the-pessimism-of-white-working-class-america/416379/; Gina Kolata, “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds,” New York Times, November 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html; Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen, “Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites,” New York Times, January 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/science/drug-overdoses-propel-rise-in-mortality-rates-of-young-whites.html; Paul Krugman, “Heartland of Darkness,” New York Times, November 4, 2015, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/heartland-of-darkness/; Paul Krugman, “Despair, American Style,” New York Times, November 9, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/opinion/despair-american-style.html; Alana Semuels, “Is Economic Despair What’s Killing Middle-Aged White Americans?” CityLab, March 23, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/politics/2017/03/economic-despair-killing-middle-aged-white-americans/520554/
  19. [19]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/
  20. [20]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  21. [21]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm
  22. [22]Michael Lerner, “Celebrating July 4th in the Trump Years,” Tikkun, July 3, 2017, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/celebrating-july-4th-in-the-trump-years
  23. [23]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,'” March 15,2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/03/15/we-need-know-how-it-works
  24. [24]Susan McWilliams, “This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson,” review of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson, Nation, December 15, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-political-theorist-predicted-the-rise-of-trumpism-his-name-was-hunter-s-thompson/

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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