Donald Trump is a political cult leader. In that role, he is also a political necromancer, beating a drum of nativism and fear to control the right-wing political zombies that follow him.
The Republican Party’s base of voters is rapidly shrinking. Contemporary conservatism is a throwback ideology that is unpopular with a large and growing segment of the American public. The result of these two factors is a Republican Party and American conservative establishment that is under threat, obsolescent and in a deep existential crisis.
These are the conditions that have catapulted Donald Trump to the forefront of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Trump’s most strident supporters are found among the alienated, disaffected, fearful, white working class. This is a cohort whose members are facing greatly diminished life chances in an age of globalization, extreme wealth inequality, neoliberalism and a reduction in the unearned material advantages that come as a result of white privilege. As recent research by public health experts, sociologists, economists and others has detailed, the white American working class and poor are, quite literally, dying off. They are killing themselves with pills and alcohol, committing suicide with guns, and dying of despair.
For many decades, if not centuries, racism (and sexism for white men) artificially buoyed the life prospects of the white working class in American society. With those palliatives and aids removed, the white working class and poor are left exposed and vulnerable to the realities of the American neoliberal nightmare and the culture of cruelty. They are ill-equipped for life in this new world.
Donald Trump knows that a crisis is an opportunity: he is transforming the fear and anxiety of the white American working class into political capital and energy.
To that end, Trump is leveraging what social psychologists have termed “terror management theory.” If “Trumpmania” is a puzzle, then terror management theory is a decoder ring or cipher. In many ways, the logic of terror management explains almost all of Trump’s popularity.
Human beings are not immortal. To compensate for the knowledge that one’s life will at some point come to an end, the human psyche has developed a range of coping mechanisms. Terror management theory seeks to explain those dynamics:
Terror management theory assumes that humans have developed a suite of defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the existential anxiety they experience when they are cognizant of their mortality. Existential anxiety arises because individuals experience a profound motive, derived from evolutionary forces, to preserve their life. Therefore, an awareness of mortality could evoke existential anxiety, corresponding to a sense of futility, unless humans invoke a set of mechanisms that are intended to curb this awareness. Some of these mechanisms include a tendency to believe in an after life, to feel connected to a broader, enduring entity, or to distract attention from their mortality, reflecting a form of denial
Biology, socialization and cultural norms influence how a given person manages their fear of death. The death anxiety also interacts with one’s political values. In some ways, conservative authoritarians manage their death anxieties differently than people who possess a “liberal” or “progressive” political personality type. Conservative authoritarians display high levels of nationalism, social dominance behavior, intolerance, out-group anxiety and bigotry, racism, a need for binary “yes” or “no” answers, a yearning for epistemic closure, and higher levels of religiosity. Terror management theory suggests that conservative authoritarians are especially prone to loving “the flag, guns, god, and religion” because these symbols and institutions are fixed points that will, in theory, outlive a given person.
Neuroscientists and social psychologists have determined that the brains of conservative authoritarians are especially sensitive to feelings of fear and disgust. Research on terror management theory complements those findings by showing that when scared or under threat, conservative authoritarians are more likely to becometribal, bigoted, racist and generally more hostile to those they identify as some type of Other.
The intersection of terror management theory and contemporary American conservatism is a profile of the Republican voter en masse, and Donald Trump supporters in particular.
Public opinion research has repeatedly shown that today’s Republican voters are angry, afraid and motivated by racial animus, white racial resentment and nativism. Because he is the id of contemporary conservatism, Donald Trump’s supporters display those worrisome and ugly traits in the extreme.
For example, CNN recently conducted a series of interviews at Donald Trump rallies where his supporters explained their attraction to him:
For many Trump fans, the candidate’s once prominent role in the so-called Obama “birther” movement has left a lasting impression.
The skeptics, dispersed throughout Trump rallies, have serious misgivings about the President’s U.S. citizenship and Christian faith more than four years after Obama publicly released his birth certificate.
“Islam is traced patrilineally. I am a Muslim if my father is Muslim. In that sense, it is undeniable that Barack Obama was born a Muslim,” Michael Rooney said at a Trump event in Worcester, Massachusetts, in November. (Obama is a Christian. He has said his father was born a Muslim and later became an atheist.) …
At another rally in Manassas, Virginia, on December 2, Robin Reif, 54, yelled into the crowd that the President was from Kenya. He told CNN afterward that Obama was “too much of a Muslim” and an “Islamist sympathizer.”
“In our Constitution, it says that the president has to be an American citizen,” Reif said. “I’m still wondering where is he really from. What is this man’s background?”
The CNN interviews with Trump supporters also reveal how unrepentant white victimology and white racial resentment drive his popularity:
Energizing the Trump movement are voters who call themselves the “silent majority.” These individuals feel strongly that white people, too, face discrimination in this country, and that they are often wrongly accused of being racist. This is stirring anger at the Black Lives Movement.
Fueled by a series of deadly police shootings perpetrated by white officers against blacks, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a powerful symbol of the racial tensions that run deep in the United States. …
At Trump’s campaign rallies, a similar frustration is palpable — among white voters.
Taking their cue from Trump, these individuals are calling themselves the “silent majority.” Some say they suffer from “reverse discrimination.”
Rhett Benhoff, a middle-aged white man at a December Trump campaign event in Raleigh, North Carolina, said discrimination against whites is “absolutely” real.
“I mean, it seems like we really go overboard to make sure all these other nationalities nowadays and colors have their fair shake of it, but no one’s looking out for the white guy anymore,” he said.