Americans are resisting Trump's authoritarianism

Support for Trump's agenda of xenophobia, racism and contempt for civil liberties continues to plummet

Published June 18, 2017 11:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (AP/Susan Walsh)
Donald Trump (AP/Susan Walsh)

It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s election campaign and presidency have been characterized by an authoritarian style of politics — one that endangers democracy and the rule of law. Numerous intellectuals, scholars and other public figures reacted in shock and horror to his election, predicting he would seek to institutionalize fascistic policies, while engaging in an all-out assault on basic freedoms, as protected by the Bill of Rights.

Such concerns were not surprising considering Trump’s campaign behavior, which included supporting physical attacks on protesters, contempt for the First Amendment and journalistic freedom, calls for bombing the families of alleged terrorists, the demonization of minorities and immigrants, and blatant misogyny that manifested itself in bragging about possible sexual assault.

Despite Trump’s ascendance to the White House, it is worth addressing the ways he has failed to implement his reactionary agenda. The president’s authoritarianism, as expressed via xenophobia, racism and contempt for civil liberties, is increasingly being rejected by a large majority of Americans. And opposition to his radical agenda is growing. The failure of the Trump agenda is apparent on numerous fronts, particularly when looking at public attitudes toward Muslims, at opinions about the immigration ban and of the wall with Mexico, and the public reaction to his support for suppressing freedom of speech.

Support for the Mexico separation wall may have helped mobilize conservatives to vote for Trump, but most Americans do not see value in building this wall. Quinnipiac University has tracked public attitudes on the wall over the last year and found that support is falling significantly. Support for the wall never reached higher than 42 percent, as seen in November 2016. And support has fallen off since then. By February, 37 percent of the Americans surveyed supported the wall, and by March the level of support was at just 33 percent.

Trump hasn’t softened his anti-immigrant rhetoric since taking office; nonetheless, Americans are independently mobilizing against the president’s xenophobia through public protests and growing opposition as seen in polls. According to CNN’s polling, while 63 percent of the Americans surveyed  in November 2015 said they believed that the U.S. “should not” try to “deport all people currently living in the country illegally,” 71 percent of those polled this past March opposed mass deportation.

On the issue of Islam, Americans have been moving away from Trump’s bigotry, while distancing themselves from his banning the U.S. entry of travelers from Muslim-majority countries. The receding reach of Islamophobia is apparent when examining the University of Maryland’s time series polling, extending from late 2015 through late 2016. While 53 percent of the Americans surveyed in November 2015 said they held “somewhat” or “very favorable” views of Muslims, 62 percent of those polled in June 2016 felt this way and 70 percent by October.

Similarly, while just 37 percent of the Americans polled in November 2015 held a “somewhat” or “very favorable” opinion of Islam, 60 percent of those surveyed in October 2016 held such views. Policy-wise, most Americans oppose Trump’s travel ban. Quinnipiac polling found that nearly 60 percent of the public this past March approved of the courts striking down the ban. Furthermore, opposition to the ban increased by 8 percentage points from November 2016 to March 2017.

The public’s shift away from Islamophobia was hardly a foregone conclusion. Animosity toward Muslims and Islam could very well could have grown due to the increased media attention allotted to Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals, and considering that much of right-wing commentary seeks to depict Islam as a national security threat following the December 2015 San Bernardino, California, shooting and the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Instead of embracing discrimination and hate, Trump and the right-wing media’s attacks have humanized Muslims and encouraged members of the public to mobilize against authoritarian social policies.

Despite White House chief of staff Reince Priebus' admitting that the Trump administration has considered proposing changes to the First Amendment to limit the freedom of journalists, the president has made little progress in cultivating mass support for cracking down on the press. Public opinion on limiting freedom of the press is heavily opposed. As the Pew Research Center found in its October 2016 monthly survey, 87 percent of the Americans polled agreed it was either “somewhat” or “very important” “that news organizations are free to criticize political leaders,” while just 13 percent felt that this freedom was “not too important” or “not at all important.” Although Trump expresses strong contempt for reporters’ criticisms of his presidency, this sentiment is not shared by the masses.

Trump’s election victory was one of the most controversial in U.S. history, with large numbers of Americans opposed to his polarizing, authoritarian rhetoric and proposals. And opposition to this president has only grown since November. Quinnipiac’s polling finds that the president’s job approval rating has already fallen from a high of 42 percent in early February to 34 percent in early June, just four months later. Similarly, Gallup reported that, while his job approval rating reached a high of 46 percent in late January, it had fallen to 36 percent in the first two weeks of June.

It is naive and dangerous to deny that Trump holds authoritarian political tendencies. But ultimately, American politics is not only about a president or a sympathetic Congress. The courts have increasingly asserted themselves in rebuking Trump due to the blatant unconstitutionality of his travel ban, demonstrating that not all political actors are willing to lie down for the president.

Furthermore, much of Trump’s political agenda, particularly the repressive policies discussed above, are unpopular with a large majority of Americans. Whether the courts and the public can restrict Trump’s authoritarian impulses through the end of his first term remains to be seen. One can imagine scenarios, such as the occurrence of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, emboldening the president to intensify his assault on the rule of law.

One thing, however, is clear. Trump’s attacks on democracy will not be implemented without a fight. His draconian agenda has alienated much of the public. Most Americans simply don’t want to be associated with blatant bigotry, racism, attacks on free speech and religious intolerance and have made that abundantly clear throughout Trump’s rise to power.

By Anthony DiMaggio

Anthony DiMaggio is associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. He is the author of "Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here," just published by Routledge, as well as "Rebellion in America" and "Unequal America." He can be reached at A digital copy of "Rebellion in America" can be read free here.

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