Historian Rick Shenkman on Donald Trump: "All the worst things in American history piled together"

Bestselling history author says that sooner or later, Donald Trump will make his supporters "feel like chumps"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 23, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Rick Shenkman (Basic Books)
Rick Shenkman (Basic Books)

One possible explanation for Donald Trump’s cult-like allure lies in the realm of political socialization: Trump and the Republican Party have created an alternate reality for their public where empirical reality and facts do not exist. Moreover, in that bizarre universe, commonsense rules of human decency and virtue have also been rewritten to serve grotesque goals.

Another clue to the power of Trump’s allure lies in the fact that human political behavior is a function of both nature and nurture. Pundits and other members of the commentariat have done a much better job of addressing the latter. Until recently, few have seriously grappled with the role of ingrained genetic or biological factors in shaping elections and other political outcomes.

How much can social psychology help explain Donald Trump’s political success? What shared values are most important to Trump and his supporters? Is authoritarianism hardwired into the brains of conservatives? What would it take for Trump’s most loyal supporters to abandon him, if we conclude that they installed him in the White House as a means of hurting others?

In an effort to explore these questions, I recently spoke with Rick Shenkman, a historian and former investigative reporter. Shenkman is the founder of the History News Network and is a regular guest commentator on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. He is the bestselling author of six previous books, but his latest was the impetus for our conversation. It is called “Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How was Donald Trump able to become president?

There are ultimate causes and proximate causes. As for the first, once the Democratic Party became committed to civil rights that inevitably meant there was going to be a revolution in our politics. The Democratic Party for a century had been composed of people in the South and urban parts of the North and elsewhere. There was tension between those two elements, but party elites kept things unified, more or less.

But when Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights laws, Southerners bailed wholesale from the Democratic Party. The Republican Party saw all these Southern voters now up for grabs and they gravitated toward them. So now you've got the two political parties, one striking out in favor strongly of civil rights and the other party increasingly uncomfortable with its own past as a civil rights pioneer under Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party decided to use racial grievances, and in some instances outright racism, to win over the voters who abandoned the Democrats over civil rights.

Considering that the United States has only been a full democracy (under the law) for approximately 50 years, since the civil rights movement, is the white backlash that Trump represents in many ways just a return to the norm in America?

I am more impressed with the similarities in Donald Trump's politics than I am with the differences when we look back over the long arc of American history. But of course I do see very real differences between Donald Trump and all previous presidents.

He's like having elected Joe McCarthy as president. Trump is not only using racist tropes in his rhetoric but he's just a pure demagogue, and we've just never had that kind of a combination in the presidency before. Trump is wrong for this country in so many different ways such as his egotism, his self-aggrandizement, his gross ignorance, his unwillingness to learn basic facts about the issues that he's talking about.

READ MORE: Donald Trump's startling global agenda: Taking white supremacy worldwide

Donald Trump is a contemporary version of George Wallace in many ways.

George Wallace is constantly in my mind when I think about Donald Trump. After the ’68 campaign, George Wallace said that Nixon had stolen all of his themes such as “law and order” and other appeals to white racism and racial resentment. The Republican Party learned many unfortunate lessons from George Wallace.

Definitions are very important: Do you consider Donald Trump to be a fascist?

I have reservations about using the term “fascist” because there are parallels with Trump, but fascism was a particular moment in history. For example, Mussolini was a fascist and that word alludes to very specific cultural arrangements. As a professional historian, everything has to do with context.

Fascism was a word that best fits the period of the 1930s. They didn't have Facebook, they didn't have social media, they didn't have television. So I am not sure if suggesting that Trump is a ”fascist” is helpful or not. What I'm most comfortable with is how historians of the Holocaust have said what they see going on daily -- particularly after the separation of parents and children on the Mexican border and elsewhere -- has stunning parallels that make this a frightening moment. I don't need the “fascist” label to see that parallel and to draw inferences from it.  

Donald Trump has little to no respect for or understanding of America’s democratic norms and traditions. He appears to lack basic human decency and seems to relish embarrassing the United States globally. His personal and moral failings also include his racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, cruelty and willful ignorance. Yet, Trump has an almost unbreakable hold over his followers. How do you explain this?

My explanation is informed by social psychology. That framework provides the best explanation, which is that politics is about group cohesion and group identification. Trump’s supporters have a shared sense of resentment which for many of them is not economic: It is social and cultural. Donald Trump is addressing that. Moreover, politics is all about making voters feel smart and Donald Trump did that for his public. Politicians on both the left and the right haven't been able to accomplish that goal for decades. Trump’s voters also feel smart because he's rich and powerful.

He also validated the instinctive feelings of his voters and made them feel that their resentments are permissible and legitimate.

Now consider what Barack Obama did in a much more positive way. Obama succeeded in winning a lot of white votes because he made people feel good about voting for a black man. He did not try to make white voters feel guilty or discuss topics which were negative in terms of race relations.

Then Donald Trump comes along and he has figured out another way to make those white voters feel smart and that's by playing on racial resentments.

When Trump makes these racist appeals, he's deploying insights from social psychology. He's appealing to people such that they feel they are members of a group and feel strongly united as a result.

So the more he gets attacked by others, the more united his followers feel. In a way, this makes him more powerful. There is a way out of this cycle. We feel anxious if there is a widening gap between our view of the way the world works and the way the world is actually working. When that gap becomes so large that we can't deny it anymore, our brains are triggered to re-evaluate our commitments. We then change our commitments when the burden of hanging onto existing beliefs becomes greater than changing them.

Even with all the horrible things that have come out about [with] Donald Trump, his voters are not getting anxious. Several things have to happen for this to change. Really important voices in the Republican Party have to come out against Trump. An indictment by Robert Mueller would also be something concrete that would change some of his supporters’ minds too.

Let’s entertain a scenario where Mueller presents irrefutable, obvious, watertight evidence that Trump and his allies colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. Furthermore, let’s also assume that subsequently more and more prominent Republicans begin to publicly condemn Donald Trump. Trump will say he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and that it's all “fake news.” Given that he leads a political cult, won’t his followers just become even more devoted?  

The key turning point will be when people feel that supporting Donald Trump is a bad reflection of who they are. Suppose Trump is indicted and his tax returns show that he is worth much less than he claims. Well, that's the kind of thing that's going to make people feel like chumps and will drive a huge wedge between the supporters and the cult leader.  

There will be dead-enders of course. Even Nixon at the time he resigned was at 23 percent in the polls. You're never going to be able to change those people's minds.

But for the great bulk of the population, particularly the people who don't follow politics all that closely, they'll be more willing to shift their commitments . . . but hard evidence is going to have to come out. It can't just be a headline in The New York Times. It's going to have to be something really explosive that moves the needle. We're not there yet.

Donald Trump and the Republicans keep gutting the social safety net — which actually hurts Trump’s most loyal “white working class” voters — yet he remains popular by ginning up anti-black and anti-brown racism and prejudice. 

This is an old story in America. Divide and conquer. Southern whites and Southern blacks, almost all of whom were poor, should have been a natural alliance before and after the Civil War, but race was used to divide them. This is where race is a powerful stripe that runs through all of American history. What is the difference between the Scandinavian countries that embrace social democracy as compared to the United States?

When you go to Scandinavia and you look around, all you see for the most part is white people. America is much more diverse. There is a powerful racial dimension to our politics where people think, “It's not white people like me who are on welfare.” Instead, it's "those people over there” and that's a powerful lesson of American history.

In terms of mass psychology, do Trump’s voters back him as a way of hurting other people? On a base level they seem to be enjoying the pain Donald Trump is inflicting on his and their “enemies.”

There is a strong streak of authoritarianism that runs through Trump voters. In terms of that set of political attitudes and values, there is likely some genetic component that we have not quite been able to tease out yet. But the science is going in that direction. Do Trump’s voters and other supporters want to be cruel? I would suggest that they want to be cruel to the extent that Hispanics, Latinos, black people, nonwhites and other people are abstractions to them. My guess is actually when confronted with a situation where a mother and child were being ripped from one another, not all of them would respond in the same way that they do when they are part of a mob listening to Donald Trump carry on in his demagogic manner. Human beings are complicated.

History teaches us that the same person who can be an authoritarian in one situation can be empathetic in another situation. Is behavior a function of the person or the situation? It's a social science question: Is it the person or is it the situation? Consider the voters who are loyal to Donald Trump that just four or eight years ago may have voted for Barack Obama. Authoritarianism is very helpful in explaining who they are in certain circumstances, but it doesn't explain everything about them. If that were the case, then we wouldn't find any white voters who voted for Obama and then for Trump, yet we do.

What advice would you give to the Democratic Party about how your research on social psychology could help them organize and win?

I come back to a point I made earlier in our conversation. People vote for candidates who make them feel smart rather than dumb, energetic rather than nostalgic. It's all about the voter. It doesn't matter how the candidate looks, whether the candidate looks smart or dumb or whether the candidate has combed their hair properly and put on a tie. What matters is how the voter feels in that candidate’s presence. That's my most important insight. Give me $100 million and I'm still going to tell you that in 30 seconds. If you want to run a winning race, make the voters who you are going after feel good about themselves.

If Hillary Clinton reached out to you for an explanation about why she lost, what would you say?

Well, the summer before the election I actually got in touch with Sid Blumenthal because he and I correspond about history subjects. We never would talk about politics, and I went to him and said, “Look, it's very clear to me what a voter who pulls the lever for Donald Trump is pulling the lever for. It is very unclear at this stage what a Hillary Clinton voter is supposed to feel when they pull that lever. This is a huge issue. She's got to get this figured out.” That was in August [of 2016] and I was beside myself with concern.

What gives you hope in this moment? What gives you the most cause for worry or alarm?

I want to have hope because I understand how the human brain works. That ultimately makes me an optimist because we will confront reality at some point, regardless of our personal commitments. As a society, we will confront reality. The question is, does it take five years, 10 years, 20 years? In that period an awful lot of horrible things can happen.

What makes me frightened is that Donald Trump has now been president for more than a year-and-a-half. It's like all the worst things in American history have been piled together and shoved into one presidency. It can get much worse. 

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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