Donald Trump, the political necromancer, has been able to manipulate the death anxieties of right-wing voters for his own political gain. Trump won the New Hampshire primary by a substantial margin. If current public opinion polls are accurate, he will also win the Republican South Carolina primary as well.
Trump’s base of white working-class authoritarians is scared of what they view as a “new” America, one in which they believe that the psychological and material wages of Whiteness will not be as great. A combination of the brain structures and cognitive processes of conservative-authoritarians, socialization by family and community, and disinformation from the right-wing “news” entertainment complex, reinforce those anxieties while also ginning up deep feelings of racial resentment toward non-whites.
Donald Trump is not necessarily the prime instigator or cause of those fears; he is just the Republican candidate who is most adept at manipulating them. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is a direct promise to restore a world where white folks are central to all things in the United States (to the degree that they are not), and their dominance, privilege and power are uncontested.
Approximately a week ago, I offered an essay here at Salon that examined Trump’s ability to manipulate his supporters’ death anxieties. In “Secrets of Donald Trump’s cult: This is why the angriest white voters will not leave his side,” I focused on the psychological concept known as “terror management theory” and its relationship to social scientist Seymour Lipset’s insights about “working-class authoritarianism."
There, I wrote:
Biology, socialization and cultural norms influence how a given person manages their fear of death. The death anxiety also interacts with one’s political values. In some ways, conservative authoritarians manage their death anxieties differently than people who possess a “liberal” or “progressive” political personality type. Conservative authoritarians display high levels of nationalism, social dominance behavior, intolerance, out-group anxiety and bigotry, racism, a need for binary “yes” or “no” answers, a yearning for epistemic closure, and higher levels of religiosity. Terror management theory suggests that conservative authoritarians are especially prone to loving “the flag, guns, god, and religion” because these symbols and institutions are fixed points that will, in theory, outlive a given person.
Neuroscientists and social psychologists have determined that the brains of conservative authoritarians are especially sensitive to feelings of fear and disgust. Research on terror management theory complements those findings by showing that when scared or under threat, conservative authoritarians are more likely to become tribal, bigoted, racist and generally more hostile to those they identify as some type of Other.
The intersection of terror management theory and contemporary American conservatism is a profile of the Republican voter en masse, and Donald Trump supporters in particular.
Public opinion research has repeatedly shown that today’s Republican voters are angry, afraid and motivated by racial animus, white racial resentment and nativism. Because he is the id of contemporary conservatism, Donald Trump’s supporters display those worrisome and ugly traits in the extreme.
I concluded with the following observation:
In many mythological traditions, the necromancer controls the dead by using a drum or playing a song. These sounds trick the “living” corpse into thinking that it has a heartbeat. When the necromancer stops hitting the drum or ceases the music, the corpse reverts back to inert matter.
The political necromancer and cult leader Donald Trump beats a drum of nativism, fear, racism and sexism to control the right-wing political zombies that follow him. The problem is, unlike the undead ghouls of myth and folklore, once Donald Trump stops beating his metaphorical drum, his followers will not return to their graves. Trump’s people are now the walking dead of American political and cultural life, a group that threatens to devour us all.
Sheldon Solomon, one of the psychologists who did some of the first work on terror management theory, has recently completed a new paper that focuses on Donald Trump and how death anxieties relate to support for his campaign.
As indicated by Solomon’s new paper (written with co-author Florette Cohen) “You’re hired! Mortality Salience Increases Americans’ Support for Donald Trump,” matters may be worse than I suggested in my earlier essay.
Solomon and Cohen frame their new research on Donald Trump and terror management theory in the following way:
The 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is occurring at a historical moment that is, from Max Weber’s perspective, ripe for the ascendance of a charismatic leader: economic uncertainty juxtaposed with environmental instability compounded by concerns about immigration magnified by ongoing threats of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. And Donald Trump has many characteristics of a (secular) charismatic leader: a powerful (i.e. rich) and self-assured public figure pledging to “Make America Great Again” and to keep U.S. citizens safe by stemming the tide of illegal immigrants from Mexico by building a wall at the border to keep out their “criminals” and “rapists,” “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and bombing “the shit out of ISIS.”
The paper’s conclusions include:
Among a sample of Americans, support for presidential candidate Donald Trump increased in response to reminders of death, consistent with previous research (Landau et al., 2004; Cohen et al., 2005) showing that MS increased support for President Bush by participants across the political spectrum. Overall, participants in the study did not have particularly favorable impressions of Mr. Trump, with mean support for him below the mid-point (5 = "somewhat" supportive) of the scale in both the control and MS conditions. However, this makes the fact that support for Mr. Trump increased in response to the MS induction particularly interesting in that existing attitudes are typically polarized following death reminders; for example, Jong, Halberstadt, & Bluemke (2012) found that following an MS induction, participants who believed in God became more confident of God's existence whereas atheists became more confident that God does not exist…
Although clearly additional research is in order to establish if the MS-induced boost in support for Donald Trump will persist closer to the 2016 presidential election (if he becomes the Republican candidate), this study adds to the burgeoning literature (reviewed by Cohen & Solomon, 2011) demonstrating that subtle alterations in psychological conditions have a pronounced effect on political preferences. This could have ominous implications for democracy in that public policy and electoral outcomes should ideally result from rational deliberations rather than defensive reactions to mortal terror.
These findings are especially worrisome given that the sample was focused on young college age students (a group not likely to support Trump) who did not have a particularly strong predisposition or orientation to support Trump’s campaign. Given what is known about death anxiety, authoritarianism, age and political values, this dynamic can only be expected to be even more extreme among Donald Trump’s base.
In all, there is a clear relationship between terror management theory, conservative-authoritarianism and an embrace of “Trumpmania.”
As another complement to Sheldon Solomon’s new research (as well as the claims I made in my earlier essay), the intoxicating and noxious power of working-class authoritarianism for Trump supporters, specifically, and for Republican voters, in general, has been further buttressed by new research from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
As featured several weeks ago at the Washington Post:
Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a poll in which Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which of two traits were more important in children:
- independence or respect for their elders;
- curiosity or good manners;
- self-reliance or obedience;
- being considerate or being well-behaved.
Psychologists use these questions to identify people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership — those who picked the second trait in each set — what experts call "authoritarianism." That many of Trump's supporters share this trait helps explain the success of his unconventional candidacy and suggests that his rivals will have a hard time winning over his adherents…
When it comes to politics, authoritarians tend to prefer clarity and unity to ambiguity and difference. They're amenable to restricting the rights of foreigners, members of a political party in the minority and anyone whose culture or lifestyle deviates from their own community's.
"For authoritarians, things are black and white," MacWilliams said.
Support for Trump is also a classic example of social dominance behavior:
Now, you might think that how a parent raises a child has little to do with how they vote. After all, roughly half of the people with authoritarian views on all four questions did not support Trump.
So MacWilliams checked to make sure that his questions about child-rearing were in fact predictive of authoritarian political attitudes. In the poll, respondents were also asked whether they thought that it is sometimes necessary to keep other groups in their place, whether opposition from the political minority sometimes needs to be circumscribed, and whether they think the minority's rights must be protected from the majority's power.
Trump's supporters were much more likely to oppose protections for the minority, while the other candidates' supporters didn't have strong opinions one way or another. For example, the chance that a Republican who agreed that other groups sometimes need to be put in place also supported Trump was about 3 in 5.
MacWilliams also found that respondents who said they felt threatened by terrorism were also significantly more likely to support Trump, and polling by The Washington Post has found that opposition to immigration is something else that unites many of his supporters. Authoritarians, given their aversion to outsiders, are more likely both to perceive threats from terrorism and to oppose immigration.
That Trump's support is based partly on personality rather than policy helps explain why his supporters are so enthusiastic about some of his most widely mocked ideas — such as banning all Muslims from entering the country, a proposal that his opponent Jeb Bush called "unhinged."
"This is in people's guts, not their brains," said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist and an expert on authoritarianism at Vanderbilt University. "This is much more primal."
The combination of Solomon’s and MacWilliams’ findings paint a picture of a right-wing political landscape where normal politics have been discarded in favor of a cult of personality that is driven by fear, anxiety, brain differences, deeply ingrained attitudes about in-group power, and a need to dominate and exclude those people who are marked as the Other.
To wit. A survey of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters that was conducted by Public Policy Polling and released on Feb. 16, 2016, revealed that 10 percent of them believe that white people are a superior race; 20 percent believe that gays and lesbians should not be allowed in the country; 60 percent believe that Muslims should be banned from the country; and 29 percent wish that the slaveholding South had won the American Civil War.
The political chattering classes and other elite opinion leaders are unable to understand Trump’s appeal because they are viewing his ascent through the lens of “normal” politics as opposed to that of authoritarian populism and political performance art.
Trump is a political Svengali, necromancer, professional wrestling-inspired performance artist, and confidence man. Ultimately, Trump’s appeal lies not in his policies, per se, but rather in how his personality is compelling to alienated, low information, white conservative voters.
The Framers of the United States Constitution—a group that American movement conservatives deify even while being quick to reject their wisdom on the mantle of political expediency and personal convenience—understood the dangers of “Trumpmania.” To that end, they issued a warning about the dangers of “factions” and mass democracy. Writing in the Federalist Paper Number Ten, James Madison cautioned us that:
It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
I am not especially prone to sentimentality or nostalgia. But the genius insights of James Madison echo across history and offer a powerful explanation for how populist zeal can run amok in an era of diminished hopes, neoliberalism, economic contraction, changing demographics and a broken democratic culture where too many in the public confuse TV ratings and supposed business acumen with the skills necessary to lead the world’s most powerful country.
The right-wing news entertainment complex and a revanchist, radical, Republican Party made the political beast known as “Trumpmania.” It is their responsibility to slay it. The question then becomes, do they have the courage and means to do so? At this point in the 2016 Republican presidential primary season, the answer is clearly “no.”