Tag Archives: Niskanen Center

Politics As Identity

When the pandemic really started to hit home, Trump’s poll numbers improved–causing several commenters to this blog and friends on Facebook to express both mystification and fear.

I tend to agree with Paul Ogden’s March 28th response, analyzing this “panic bump.”  Agreement has also come from Nate Silver and from Rachel Bitecofer, writing at the Niskanen Center.  They have also  noted that Trump’s “bump” is considerably smaller than those that followed previous shocks to the political system, and that all previous examples had dissipated in fairly short order.

I worry far more about a different asset Trump enjoys–one that differs from previous situations and reflects a troubling phenomenon in American politics. As Rachel Bitecofer wrote, that “formidable asset” is today’s political polarization and hyper-partisanship, which provide Trump with a reliable (arguably unmovable) base of support, and–at least so far– has prevented a truly substantial erosion in approval ratings.

Now, the parties are largely ideologically homogenous and partisanship has evolved to become a social identity, an individual’s “ride or die,” which makes the prospect of red states breaking in favor of Biden seem unlikely, especially given the salience of white racial identity in contemporary Republican politics. In an America in which partisans are willing to inflict bodily harm on each other over politics, it seems unlikely that a mere recession, even an intense one, could move them off of their preferred presidential candidate in the ways it did prior to the polarized era, when the economic-fundamentals models, like the dinosaurs once did, ruled the Earth.

A similar analysis has made by Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, in an essay comparing Trump’s “rhetorical strategy” to that described  by Eric Hoffer in 1951, in his classic book, “The True Believer.”  Hoffer argued that demagogues need “a disaffected population” composed of  people who feel they’ve lost power and status that they previously held– “that they had been displaced either religiously, economically, culturally, or politically.”

The disaffected will follow even obviously unfit leaders who promise them a return to their former privileged status.

But to cement their loyalty, the leader had to give them someone to hate. Who that was didn’t really matter: the group simply had to be blamed for all the troubles the leader’s supporters were suffering.

What is particularly chilling is the degree of devotion this strategy inspires. In an article for Salon, Chauncey DeVega interviewed a psychiatrist about Trump and his base.

Q: As in other cults, the members are in love with the leader. Trump’s followers are very damaged people. As such, whatever Trump commands them to do they will do, even if it means getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.

A: That is correct. Such a level of mass fanaticism is very disturbing, and is something that we have not seen in the United States on such a large scale. We have seen it with Jim Jones and other cults. People follow the cult leader to their doom. Of course, there was a similar type of fanaticism in Germany with Adolf Hitler. Trump’s followers really need a strong leader to make them feel safe. It could be a strong father figure, a god, anyone who is powerful enough to make them feel loved and safe.

Trump’s followers, like other cult members, also want someone who will accept their aggression and destructiveness as being good and normal. These people are devoted to Trump. That devotion is more important than anything else.

These descriptions are certainly consistent with what I have observed over the past three years. Trump’s supporters are disproportionately people who simply couldn’t abide having an African-American President, and who are terrified of being “displaced” by uppity women and detested minorities.

They will not desert him.

That means that the only way to defeat Trump and his Republican sycophants in November is to get out the vote. We cannot waste time trying to peel off damaged people from what has been accurately described as a cult. We must fight every effort at vote suppression and electoral rigging, and work like we’ve never worked before to get the majority of Americans– people who haven’t made fear and/or hatred part of their identities– to the polls.