I’m seeing quite a few articles around the web trying to answer the vexing question of how Donald Trump became popular enough to be a serious contender for the presidency. After all, he is supremely unqualified for the job and he not only lies consistently, but isn’t even consistent in his lies (often contradicting himself within hours).
For example, the recent article “Why Donald Trump?” in fivethirtyeight.com is a good read, but it pretty much fails to answer its own question. Yes, it points to the “frustration and anger” at our current elected politicians, and of course Trump “is not that”. But there are lots of people who are not that. Why is Donald Trump the one? Especially when he is so obviously and transparently a charlatan (“a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill; a fraud”) and a huckster (“a mercenary person eager to make a profit out of anything”)?
A slightly better answer comes from Paul Krugman in an article that points out the hypocrisy of the GOP establishment who denounce Donald Trump, asking:
In fact, you have to wonder why, exactly, the Republican establishment is really so horrified by Mr. Trump. Yes, he’s a con man, but they all are. So why is this con job different from any other?
Yes, Trump “talks complete nonsense on domestic policy”, but how is this different from the rest of the GOP who still propose budgets full of voodoo economics and tax cuts, while throwing even more money at our bloated military? Yes, Trump “believes that foreign policy can be conducted via bullying and belligerence”, but it was Cruz who wanted to “carpet bomb” the Middle Rast. Yes, Trump is racist, but the rest of the GOP is the party of Nixon’s “Southern strategy“, of “Reagan’s invocations of welfare queens” and ginning up fear of “Willie Horton“.
Can anyone ever solve this important mystery?
So I was overjoyed when I found a real answer. Indeed, it is science that came to the rescue! Here is a fascinating and must-read article that provides the best answer I’ve seen to our questions about Trump. If you are at all interested in this, I recommend you read the whole thing. But here’s a shorter version.
The answer comes from the study of people who, under the right conditions (such as destabilizing social change, stress, or danger), look for an authority figure to solve their problems. In a reverse case of Godwin’s law, this field originally tried to answer the question of how someone like Hitler came to power with such an extreme and hateful ideology. What they found was that a large number of people, when they are faced with physical threats or dramatic changes to the status quo, flock to authority figures who, through decisive action, seem to offer protection from their fears.
A big problem was that it is difficult to measure whether people seek strong authority figures in times of stress. After all, you can’t just ask people if they are like sheep ready to follow anyone who decisively promises to solve all their problems, even if that person is a racist demagog. The big breakthroughs came in the early 1990s, when the study of authoritarian tendencies was decoupled from the study of fascism. In other words, they eliminated Godwin’s law from their studies. This allowed them to measure authoritarian tendencies by asking people non-political, non-controversial questions. They came up with four seemingly straightforward questions about childrearing, in order to measure how much the person values hierarchy, order, and conformity. These questions ask if the person thinks it is more important for a child to:
- Have independence or respect for elders?
- Be obedient or self-reliant?
- Be considerate or well-behaved?
- Have curiosity or good manners?
This simple test turned out to be highly reliable. Just after Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary, a large poll was taken to measure the effect of authoritarian tendencies on the current election. What they found was dramatic. Authoritarianism was the single best predictor of support for Trump. They also found that the more someone was scared by foreign threats like ISIS, Iran, or Russia (as opposed to much more dangerous threats, like car accidents and gun violence), the more authoritarian they became and consequently the more likely they were to support Trump.
Why would the public become so scared of ISIS, Iran, or Russia? Because conservative politicians (like Trump) and media (like Fox News) have been beating into their heads that the US is under attack from these dangerous outside forces.
It seems that humans are still herd animals, and a herd wants a strong leader who promises (however vaguely) to protect the herd from outsiders. And make us great … again.
UPDATE: The NY Times just published an article that provides yet another reason for the popularity of Trump – the fact that the Republican party abandoned blue-collar workers and become completely dominated by the “donor class” (epitomized by Mitt Romney, who made his money buying struggling companies, stripping their assets and firing their workers). Their conclusion? The GOP is collapsing and if Trump hadn’t come along, someone else like him would have. It was just a matter of time.