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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 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:

  1. Have independence or respect for elders?
  2. Be obedient or self-reliant?
  3. Be considerate or well-behaved?
  4. 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.



  1. ebdoug wrote:

    I think Cruz is the carpet bomber, not Rubio.

    Three ways of raising children:

    1) Authoritarian

    2) reasoning

    3) ignoring them.

    2 is the best, 1 is the second best, 3 is the worst

    Monday, March 28, 2016 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    Eva, oops about Rubio. I fixed it.

    The post isn’t about how to raise children. But there is a very strong correlation between how people think children should be raised and their desire for authority figures when they feel threatened.

    Monday, March 28, 2016 at 6:15 am | Permalink
  3. ThatGuy wrote:

    Trump was only a matter of time, as the NYT article says. You can only gut education, redistribute wealth (upwards), nurture racial animus, and push the might-makes-right worldview for so long before someone like Mr. Dear Leader Trump shows up and plays the most desperate and/or unintelligent among us for chumps. It is very much a Frankenstein’s Monster situation for the GOP, and I find it hard to believe they’re actually as surprised as they claim to be that Trump is doing so well. To refer back to an old Daily Show bit: if their surprise is in fact sincere, it tips them more toward Team Stupid than Team Evil.

    Monday, March 28, 2016 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  4. Joe Blow wrote:

    Scott Adam’s (Dilber cartoonist) explanation of Trump hinges on the premise that people are basically irrational – he might be right.

    Monday, March 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Carter Shmeckle wrote:

    “how Donald Trump became popular enough to be a serious contender for the presidency”

    The answer is simple. Most American men above, say, 32, are sexually impotent. This can be confirmed by counting the number of ED medicine commercials that accompany any NFL game. The drug companies wouldn’t be paying millions for those ads without a market. Cuts into their lobbying budgets, you know.

    It is these multitudes of rigidity-challenged men who provide most of the support for Trump, according to all of the polls.

    Simply put, these guys want to be like Donald. 69 years old, yet able to satisfy a hot model wife who is nearly 25 years his junior.

    That, or maybe a lot of people are just sick of politicians controlled by moneyed interests, but can’t bring themselves to support an avowed socialist like Bernie.

    Monday, March 28, 2016 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Ralph wrote:

    Joe – always loved the Dilbert strip, but I have to wonder if Scott Adams is mistaking resentment and anger for irrationality. I can’t for a minute buy into his prediction of Trump winning the whole shebang, let alone in a landslide. I suspect exactly the opposite is more likely. From the original 17 candidates, it seems no accident the two effectively left standing (Kasich is really the token spoiler at this point) are the ones that have gone most off the GOP reservation and are least beholden to the moneyed establishment – the Gingriches, Ryans, McConnells and Romneys of the party – who have been feeding their largely older and white middle-class base the same empty, unfulfilled trickle-down promises since the Reagan Administration, and they’re simply, at long last, no longer buying into it. Trump, if crude and rude, has become their bullhorn and the embodiment of true conservatism because, you know, the alternative of switching over to the tax-and-spenders is unthinkable (especially since the black Kenyan Muslim incident and now Hillary or – gasp! – the Socialist).

    Trump rallies are like the Tea Party equivalent of those cheesy Girls Gone Wild videos advertised on late night TV. Lots of shouting, empty us vs. them rhetoric, and mindless naked gestures that paint them as generally less educated and rational than the average voter, but remember this is a rather thin slice of the general electorate. Trump’s large and growing negatives among any group other than these disenfranchised older white voters are setting up the GOP, should he stand for national election, for the biggest landslide defeat since Barry Goldwater in ’64, when he lost to LBJ by 31/68% and captured only 52 electoral college votes. Trump will be lucky to win any but a handful of states in the South, where his brand of racist and xenophobic claptrap still sells. All, of course, IMHO.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Ralph, I agree with you except for one point. I don’t think the Dems should underestimate Trump the way the GOP did. Scott Adams may be raising the specter of Trump as president in order to energize voters who are unenthusiastic about Clinton. Which is a good thing.

    Consider a fairly plausible scenario. You may not hear about this much on the news, but ISIS is currently losing the fight in the middle east. They know that the only reason they even exist is because the US invaded Iraq and tortured Muslims. Their most potent recruiting tool is to stir up hatred of Muslims in the west.

    They have already ramped up terrorist attacks in Europe (and every Republican candidate fell for it). From their viewpoint, the best thing that could happen is if Trump got elected president of the US. Imagine that ISIS attacks the US, in something that makes 9/11 look like a picnic. (For example, think nuclear weapons). Would that be enough to get Trump elected? It is easy to imagine. It would also be a disaster of biblical proportions.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  8. Ralph wrote:

    IK – I highly doubt the democratic nominee would underestimate him, the stakes are simply too high, and suspect the Clinton campaign is amassing a wealth of slings and arrows as we speak, many of which are readily available online being uttered by the man himself. He is liable to be hoisted on his own petard, to use an old colloquialism, as he contradicts, hedges and retracts his own statements practically from one speech or interview to another. Some of these are already starting to air and the national campaigns haven’t even started yet, when the majority of voters actually start to pay attention. Wait until they drag out the Howard Stern and WWE tapes, among others, some tracks are enough to make a drunken sailor blush. Of course, Trump will respond in kind, if not before, as he fights best from the muck and below the belt. Not that there’s any shortage of material on the Clinton side either. If you think it’s ugly now, we ain’t seen nuttin’ yet! I can hear Michael Buffer warming up already…Let’s get ready to Rumbuuuuuuuule!

    Yes, there’s always a wild card that may spring from the shadows. A dirty bomb, say, going off in DC or Manhattan may make the crazies crazier and the hawks hawkier, but it’s hard to see how that would reflexively send otherwise sane and rational people flocking over in large numbers to either Cruz or Trump that aren’t already there. Hillary is not perceived as some shrinking violet either, as you know, and at that point may even be seen as someone more trustworthy and level-headed at the helm than a hotel and casino mogul cum political hack, let alone a rogue Senator despised by his own party. Again, the numbers just aren’t there for either guy, regardless of the circumstances.

    Of course, I could be wrong. In which case, as they say on Game of Thrones, please provide me Milk of the Poppy. Make it a Venti. Better yet, make it a Trenti, why take chances!

    Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink