Sanders, Trump, and the problem with populist ‘anti-elitism’.

Sorry for the delay in posting – have had technical issues since Thursday. This entry continues a theme from my previous post. Anyone interested in the relationship between consciousness, democracy and freedom would be wise to tune into discussions currently being had around threats to both democracy and freedom, posed by the collective consciousness of deviant and/or harmful political movements.

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Last week, Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver published this article titled ‘Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?’ on the Washington Post’s political science research blog.

Rahn and Oliver assert that there is “no evidence” that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than Ted Cruz or even Marco Rubio supporters; rather, Trump supporters are distinctly populist. They include these useful definitions of authoritarianism and populism:

Authoritarianism, as understood by political psychologists, refers to a set of personality traits that seek order, clarity and stability. Authoritarians have little tolerance for deviance. They’re highly obedient to strong leaders. They scapegoat outsiders and demand conformity to traditional norms.

Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:

  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity

The authors acknowledge, though, that “authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism”; and that populists tend to “see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds”. This contrasts with  authoritarians, who “see themselves as aligned with those in charge.”

I appreciate the distinction, but I think populists easily morph into authoritarians when their populist candidate of choice wins power – or in support of their populist candidates of choice, when said candidate is trying to attain power. Over at RedState.com, this piece highlights how the authoritarian impulse is expressing itself quite clearly at Trump rallies – both by the crowds, by security, by Trump himself, and by police.

(Side note: a number of observers have described Trump’s supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ and ‘American Authoritarians’ – see end of this post for links).

But back to Rahn and Oliver’s post. 1044 adult U.S citizens were polled for it; Rahn and Oliver explain how they collated the data informing their assertion here. I was particularly interested in the chart below. It shows how supporters of the candidates compared on four key psychological traits: Authoritarianism; Anti-Elitism; Mistrust of Experts; and American identity.

Note that the supporters of Democrat Hilary Clinton and Republican John Kasich have varying degrees of the same traits: anti-authoritarianism; elitism; reasonable trust of experts; and a sense of American identity.  Furthermore, the differences – and common ground – between Sanders and Trump supporters are significant:

Psych traits of supporters of candidates 2016

As a Bernie fan (I am not a U.S resident, but became familiar with his politics in 2007) I was unsurprised by the psychological traits of his supporters as revealed here. But Sanders supporters and Trump supporters share one important psychological trait, one that supporters of the other candidates do not have: a significant degree of anti-elitism. This is how Rahn and Oliver define it:

Anti-elitism. What separates populists from authoritarians is their alienation from political elites. We measure this with statements like “It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties,” “Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”

THE PRO-TRUMP SANDERS SUPPORTERS: FINE LINE BETWEEN ANTI-ELITISM AND MASS DESTRUCTION.

A small percentage of Sanders supporters will be doing something utterly reckless if Sanders does not pick up the nomination: they will vote for Trump. Data journalist Mona Chilabi and journalist Ed Pilkington – from The Guardian – this week published the results of a call-out to Sanders fans, asking whether they will switch allegiance to Trump if Hilary Clinton secures the Democratic Party’s nomination.

[Side note: This kind of switching, it should be noted, is not without precedent – for example, I vividly recall a subset of Hilary fans – including PUMA and racist Democrats in rural areas – who swore they would vote Republican after Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008.]

Chilabi and Pilkington’s surveys uncovered 500 pro-Trump Sanders supporters (out of 700 who responded). The reasons for their planned vote switch varied; as the Guardian article says, the 500 offered “a variety of passionately held views on their shared commitment for protecting workers and against new wars, on their zeal for an alternative to the establishment, and on their desire to support anyone but Hillary Clinton.” [emphasis mine]

I bolded the text “zeal for an alternative to the establishment,” as it correlates with the data published by the Washington Post above – data that confirms Sanders and Trump attract voters who are staunchly anti-elitist.  So it makes sense that anti-elitist Sanders supporters would elect Trump as their “fuck the establishment” second choice. Chilabi and Pilkington report that controlled surveys by polling companies have also identified this “small but not insignificant” percentage of the Sanders crowd.

This quote from one male Sanders supporter was striking to me: “Trump is an obnoxious vulgar blowhard who says foolish things. However, unlike Clinton – but like Sanders – at least he is an outsider who understands that the government and the economy are broken.” The article also highlights the shared motivations of Sanders and Trump fans: a belief that their favourite candidates understand their concerns; opposition to free trade; and negative feelings towards Hilary Clinton.

In terms of ethnicity, both Trump and Sanders supporters are overwhelmingly white and lower income; non-white voters from either party are more likely to vote for one of the rival candidates than Trump or Sanders. Those who responded to The Guardian’s callout were also from lower income groups. The main demographic differences between Trump and Sanders fans seem to relate to age (Trump’s tend to be older, Sanders’ younger); and location (Trump’s more likely to be rural, Sanders’ urban).

So what does this all mean? It means that there is a percentage of the population who are understandably frustrated with the political class and the status quo – so much so that they will vote for ANY candidate who is seemingly not a part of it. Unfortunately, as is always the case, these anti-elitists are useful to extremists on both the far left and, more pertinent to this U.S. election cycle, the far right.

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FURTHER READING

Whilst I appreciate Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver’s distinction between Authoritarianism and Populism above, a number of political scientists and political reporters have been describing Trump’s most troubling supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ or ‘American  Authoritarians’. Here are a couple of articles discussing this:

Donald Trump 2016: The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter

American authoritarianism: the political science theory that explains Trump rally violence

This is an excellent article in Democracy Journal that links Trump supporters to what Seymour Martin Lipset called “working class authoritarianism” (definitions discussed):

Who Are Trump’s Supporters?

This article in Pacific Standard is a primer on the authoritarian personality and what it responds to:

Donald Trump’s Appeal to the Authoritarian Personality

This article discusses the current rise of authoritarian populism across the western world:

It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why

Conservatives who view authoritarianism positively and resent it being linked to Trump (whom they hate) or who believe left-wing authoritarianism to be equally toxic, may appreciate this piece in The American Conservative:

Are Trump Supporters Authoritarians?

And this was Nick Gillespie’s (Reason.com) write up on Rahn and Oliver’s article – it is flawed, but an interesting take:

Donald Trump Supporters Are Less Authoritarian Than Ted Cruz Voters

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How Donald Trump reflects his voters.

A transcendental meditation teacher once told me that in her belief system, the leaders that emerge and are chosen to lead a particular collective of people, are the direct product of the collective consciousness of that group of people. So what are we to make of Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination? And what does it say about the consciousness of the people who gravitate towards him?

I must admit that I am not in the least bit surprised by his popularity in the race for that party’s nomination. Any level-headed observer of the tone and “quality” of politics on the U.S right – both in the lead up to the 2008 election of moderate President Barack Obama and after that historically significant win – will remember, that when Obama moved into The White House, the right wing moved into the nut house (to paraphrase one comedian).

We remember John McCain, the 2008 nominee (who sold out so many of his own long-held principles to maintain the support of hardliners within his party) trying to calm down the enraged crowds who attended his rallies, whilst simultaneously trying to harness their energy and stoke the fires of opposition to the prospect of the “foreign” named man becoming President. One incident, described in this Politico article, is stuck in my memory: when a middle-aged white woman was given a microphone and told McCain she didn’t want “Arab” Obama in the White House. On that particular day, McCain wasn’t prepared to let the factually wrong statement go uncorrected. He told the woman:

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

The statement appeared to be a moment of decency, McCain stepping away from the “red meat” script, and yet, the insinuation of the correction was that to be an Arab (which of course, Obama isn’t) also means to not be a decent man or citizen of the U.S. Still, McCain was booed relentlessly by the Republican rally attendees that day, every time he pleaded for reason and calm, in the face of outlandish or slanderous statements regarding Obama being a terrorist, a socialist, and so forth. Politico documented the dynamic between him and the crowd:

McCain promised the audience he wouldn’t back down — but again sought to tamp down emotions.

“We want to fight, and I will fight,” McCain said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”

At which point he was booed again. [emphasis mine]

“I don’t mean that has to reduce your ferocity,” he added over the jeers. “I just mean to say you have to be respectful.”

Gone are the days when a Republican front-runner called for civility and respect from their own flock. But where do people think the mob booing – and the seething xenophobia and reactionary impulse that inspired the booing – went? Those people, and their energy, obviously did not disappear; and going by their reaction to McCain during that campaign, they were already pining for a new, more extreme, less civil leader. Meanwhile, outside of that arena, Donald Trump was becoming as angry about Obama’s ascendency as the woman who used “Arab” as a pejorative. Trump emerged as a serious ‘birther‘ – one of the conspiracy theorists who wrongly believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States – in 2011.

In April 2011, NPR published this post on its politics blog, ‘Donald Trump, Birther In Chief? Poll Has Him Leading GOP Field With 26 Percent’. It says: “This poll […] indicates there’s a hardcore birther segment in the Republican Party that will reject any candidate who says unequivocally that Obama was born in the U.S. And those birthers are rewarding Trump, who has become something of the birther in chief with very strong support.” It also provides this excerpt of the poll findings:

“23% of these voters say they would not be willing to vote for a candidate who stated clearly that Obama was born in the U.S. 38% say they would, and a 39% plurality are not sure. Among the hardcore birthers, Trump leads with 37%, almost three times as much support as anyone else. He comes in only third at 17% with those who are fine with a candidate that thinks the President was born in the country. Romney, who recently stated he believes Obama is a citizen, leads with 23% with that group but gets only 10% with birthers.”

I took articles like this seriously at the time, and hence have not been surprised by Trump’s popularity amongst Republican voters over the past year. Back in 2011 NPR also published this piece, ‘The Nation: Confronting Trump’s Coded Racism’, which identifies the historical context and racist nature of the accusations that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and provides links to several excellent pieces (by people of various political stripes) that directly take on Trump’s race-baiting. It also contains this assertion:

“Still, racial dog whistles only work when a lot of people play along. Otherwise a coded attack — aimed at the racists but clinging to deniability — curdles into public, blatant racism. (That’s bad in politics and business, so it would restrain even a business candidate like Trump.)” [emphasis mine]

It would only restrain someone who knew they did not have the support of a large group of xenophobic nationalists and racists; at this point Trump does have their support. And right now, much like the meditation teacher asserted, he is a conduit for their frustrations, resentment, hatreds, fears, and (this is crucial) their egoic aspirations for grandeur. Furthermore, it is not unusual for uncivil language and extreme statements like the ones Trump produces regularly to be rewarded by right wing voters. Anyone who has ever watched a Republican debate that did not include Trump would have still witnessed extreme, violence-endorsing statements being cheered by the audience.

And yes, that audience isn’t only “white”. Much was made this week about the fact that a good percentage of Latinos in Nevada voted for Trump; it is wise to remember these voters were Republicans when processing that information. There are of course other people who are not traditional partisans, who consider themselves to be reasonable people, and who find Trump appealing for one position or another. One Latino man who plans to vote for Trump told The Daily Beast this, when asked what could possibly turn him off Trump – his naiveté is telling: “if he came out and used the ‘N’ word or something like that, I probably would not vote for him. But what is one racist thing that he said? The guy’s never said anything racist.”

Trump recently levelled a ‘birther’ accusation against his Republican rival, Marco Rubio. It has followed a distinct pattern that has characterised his other ‘birther’ accusations. The Atlantic published this piece recently, titled ‘Trump’s Birther Libel’, which makes the case that he is attempting to make American citizenship a matter of “race and blood”. It is important to note that Trump has the endorsement of people for whom race and blood are an obsession: white supremacists. Including a former KKK leader. The reason for this is obvious to all but the most naive.

John Oliver’s show ‘Last Week Tonight’ just aired an excellent, well-informed segment addressing Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, the reasons for his popularity amongst right wing voters, the gulf between the image/brand he has cultivated and his many failures as a business man, his pathological lying, and his unwillingness to outright condemn and distance himself from white nationalists (in essence, his base). Oliver makes an important assertion: that both being a racist nationalist and pretending to be a racist nationalist in order to win votes makes a candidate contemptible. Trump is guilty of one of those.

You can read Vox’s article on the segment HERE.

WATCH the segment below. Or if you live outside the U.S, you should be able to watch it HERE.