The political psychology of Trumpism

Nearly 1 in 2 American voters gave Donald Trump a thumbs-up.

That’s a big news story of the 2020 election, even as Joe Biden has become the 46th president of the United States. Close to 50 percent of voters walked proudly, ambivalently or even reluctantly across the moral shards he hurled on democracy’s floor and said they didn’t care.

Over the course of President Trump’s term, norms have been shattered with the same impunity that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan smashed things in a fictional region of Long Island not far from the area Trump actually grew up. As a multitude of journalists have chronicled, Trump eviscerated the sacred norms of democracy, including denouncing legitimate government investigations, using his office to try to force a foreign nation to tarnish his opponents, imperiling the independence of different government branches, vitriolically upbraiding opponents, and repeatedly making outrageously false claims about electoral malfeasance that undermined the legitimacy of a presidential election.

The question is why so many voters, particularly the White working class who put him over the top in 2016, cast their ballots for him. Some reasons can be readily understood. Trump tangibly addressed the powerlessness, social alienation, and economic wounds many white working-class Americans experienced, a function of globalization, automation and a raft of sociological problems from marital stress to opioid addiction. By promising to end punishing pro-global policies of previous administrations (another misleading claim, given some of the gains achieved by NAFTA under Clinton, as well as Bush’s and Obama’s salvaging auto plants), Trump could reasonably expect to be rewarded by blue collar voters in 2020. But he didn’t create many infrastructure jobs, manufacturing wages did not rise significantly, and the empirical effects of tariffs in reviving old industries or increasing Rust Belt unemployment is decidedly underwhelming. So, on economic grounds, it wasn’t rational for working class Whites to reward Trump with a 2020 vote.

Thus, we must look to venerable symbolic politics research, which takes us to a richly empirically-documented root of Trump’s support, explaining why so many White working class voters turned again to him in 2020. Political science research shows his support had deep roots in White anxiety — in his promise to offer a symbolic return to the cultural preeminence Whites experienced during the 20th century; his harvesting a sentiment– not founded in economic facts or his own statements, some of which denigrated his supporters, in the manner of an out-of-touch cult leader, that their traditions were under siege and would be preserved; and a racial, ethnic animus against immigrants and people of color that he embraced and repeatedly primed, enabling his supporters to bask in the feeling that their president would preserve, protect, and defend them, even as the best investigative journalism in the land showed the ones he protected, preserved, and defended were himself and his family.

Indeed, there is evidence that even though his voters knew his claims were false, they continued to support him anyway, so angry were they at the elite establishment. When populist sentiments have reached a point that many voters are willing to believe the political leadership “does not appear to govern on its behalf,” they become resentful, convinced the system has no legitimacy. As Hahl et al argue, those who feel aggrieved and morally entitled are willing to take their symbolic protest to the point of favoring candidates who they know are “lying demagogues,” to assert a voice they believe has been stifled. In this way reducing the concept of a good citizen to an angry, resentful voter.

Alas, political psychology is a complex construct, voters are complicated, and it looks as if some, though perhaps not most, blue collar workers in Rust Belt states may well have completed their ballots with a slightly leftward slant when it came to the presidential election, in line with the political science concept that elections act as thermostats that reset the temperature of the country. Polling research shows that union members voted more strongly for Biden, feeling that he identified more with their plight, as he channeled their anger at the system into hope for change rather than demonization of the non-white other.

2020, for all its turbulent complexity, has set a self-correcting mechanism in motion. The nation has shifted course before, famously in 1860. As Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward is quoted as saying during this period, with optimistic implications for today, “There was always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare”.