By Maija Wallace
As an American in France, I’ve often been asked how it is that a candidate like Donald Trump has been able to gain so much support. The United States is often referred to as a country founded by immigrants. Yet, somehow, Trump has gained support with policies that talk about banning Muslims from entry and building a wall across the border with Mexico.
Of course, one good explanation is fear.
Trump’s website cites a press release stating that nearly 25% of American Muslims believe that violence is a legitimate response to offenders of Islam. Questionable methodology aside, (and there are many reasons why one would have reservations about Trump’s data), Trump has been using events such as the San Bernadino shooting and other recent global attacks claimed by the Islamic State to capitalize on fear.
If you want to get really afraid, just check out Dabiq — the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine — whose most recent issue praises the San Bernadino shooters for having fought for Allah and “succeeded in killing” 14 disbelievers.
Fear cannot be underestimated in our understanding of the current political situation, but there is also another force at play. That force is American Individualism.
If we talk about social brownie points in the United States, nobody gets more than the American who came from a poor family and worked their way through college, juggling two jobs and a young family, only to eventually get an amazing job and become well-known or wealthy. This is what we often refer to as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and it embodies American individualism and the American dream: not relying on anyone else to go from rags to riches.
Respect for American individualism is deep-rooted, and probably traces all the way back to when Americans literally pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to explore the Wild West and build communities across the vast territory of the New World. Many would argue that it’s this very quality that has contributed to the United States producing so many talented entrepreneurs and innovators. Indeed, conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, even considers it to be one of America’s three core values, along with egalitarianism and liberty. After all, a society that values self-reliance and hard work yields innumerable benefits.
Individualism also affects how Americans view national policy. Conservative Ayn Rand argues that today’s most basic issue in the world is the struggle between individualism and collectivism. She also gives some decent definitions for these two principles. Rand writes that with individualism, “each man exists by his own right and for his own sake, not for the sake of the group.” In contrast, she writes that collectivism suggests “each man exists only by the permission of the group and for the sake of the group.” This struggle between whether we exist for ourselves or for the group also permeates our understanding of the role of government. Should the government prioritize individual rights or group rights?
In an article for the Wall Street Journal, political scientist and libertarian Charles Murray explains that up until the 1960s, political candidates embraced individualism in their campaigns before what he describes as a “large-scale ideological defection.” Murray points to policies such as affirmative action that led to treating citizens as groups. He further explains that the fading of individualism has led working-class white men to feel they are “looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses.” This then fuels Trumpism — not through fear, but through anger and a desire for the government to focus more on individuals and less on groups.
Notice that this view of individualism holds a specific type of individual at its core: a white, American male. When asking whether the government should prioritize individual rights or group rights, it is important to specify whose individual rights or which group’s rights we are talking about. After all, if affirmative action had favored poor white men, Murray’s argument would no longer stand. The issue is not one of fading individualism in general, but rather fading individualism for Trump supporters, which a Washington Post analysis showed tend to be white, male and low-income.
How do Trump policies promise to restore individualism to these supporters?
One way is through protecting second amendment rights — that is, the right to bear arms. Trump’s plan regarding guns has three main parts: enforcing existing laws, fixing the mental health system and defending the rights of law-abiding gun owners. In order to achieve this, Trump points to groups — drug dealers, violent criminals, gang members and the mentally ill — that he says need to get off the streets via treatment programs and harsher sentences for those who use guns to commit crimes. He says this will “put the law back on the side of the law-abiding,” who are “the ones who anti-gun politicians and the media blame when criminals misuse guns.” Therefore, with Trump, gun owners will be treated more as individuals and not as groups. Furthermore, Trump opposes expanding background checks for gun purchases because they are inefficient and a hassle for the law-abiding individual.
As far as health care goes, Trump plans to completely repeal Obamacare, which is seen as promoting group access to health care at the expense of individual access to an efficient system. Again, the idea here is to reduce the hassle for the individual even if that might mean sacrificing benefits for the group as a whole.
These are not radical policy positions; they generally garner consensus from Republicans across the nation. Prioritizing an individual’s right to carry comes in part from a view of individualism with law-abiding gun carriers at its center. Repealing heath care is about prioritizing the individual who doesn’t want to deal with the inefficiencies of access, cost and quality that come with a universal system.
However, Trump differs from the Republican mainstream in his focus on a particular group of individuals he calls the “silent majority.” On his website, Trump states that his immigration reform approach prioritizes the needs of working people, and he lays out three core principles for his plan: building borders, enforcing laws and improving the economic situation of Americans. In order to defend the home country from immigrants illegally crossing the Southern border, he hopes to increase visa fees for Mexicans and seize remittances in order to pay for his infamous wall. Of course, seizing remittances immediately jumps out as a policy that doesn’t put working people first at all — at least not Mexican working people. That’s why it’s important to understand who the individual at the root of Trump’s policies is.
Building a wall is a policy that holds US-born citizens at its core — specifically those who have economic or racial fears associated with immigration. The same can be said about policies to restrict Syrian refugees from entering the country, temporarily banning Muslims and legally requiring Americans businesses to hire U.S. citizens before others.
Historian Rick Perlstein explained on NPR that the phrase “silent majority” comes from President Nixon. In the 1960s, the noisy minority represented black civil rights militants, bra-burning feminists, and drug-smoking students. In contrast, the silent majority included “the ordinary middle-class folks […] who play by the rules and pay their taxes and don’t protest.” Perlstein also explains that the phrase is racially coded because: “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.” Indeed, as racism has recently come to the headlines with the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump responds to concerns for a population that is over 77% white. Trump supporters shift the focus away from black lives saying that all lives matter and that “no one’s looking out for the white guy anymore.” They are a silent majority with a feeling of dispossession.
An article from The Guardian points to statistics showing that white Americans have had a tendency to ignore the existence of racism, making the shocking thing about Trump not his opinions, but rather his blatancy. Indeed, many Trump supporters say that they like his politically incorrect rhetoric. By speaking bluntly in a way that other politicians do not dare, he is the voice that a silent majority has been, until now, too hesitant to raise.
So, how could Trump’s policies possibly gain so much support in the United States? A combination of fear and an extension of individualism that holds a so-called silent majority of white Americans at its core.
While primary elections generate a lot of noise, it’s important to keep in mind that primary elections are just the first step to choosing a new US president. Moreover, there is historically no correlation between primary and general election voter turnouts. In fact, a surge in turnout of Republican voters this primary season might indicate that the possibility of any Republican making it to the White House is in doubt. As of March 2016, 62.3% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Even if he wins the presidential primary, polls predict that he would lose in the general election to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders by an average of 6.3% or 10% of votes, respectively.
Although not a Trump supporter myself, I think the support he has gathered is a good wake-up call. The United States needs to find a way to make all its citizens, including working-class white males, feel individually appreciated for their contributions to society. Strengthening the economy and expanding the middle class are, in my opinion, key. However, I believe we can — and indeed must — find a way to achieve that without resorting to racist or discriminatory agendas.