Before entering politics, Donald Trump was largely unknown outside the U.S. To Americans, he was a New York real estate developer constructing lavish casinos and golf courses, a TV personality, host of The Apprentice, and owner of the Miss Universe pageants. During this period, Trump was already notorious for his controversial statements on women, foreigners, and people of color. He was also known to the Internal Revenue Services for alleged tax fraud and to the U.S. Department of Justice for racial housing discrimination at his New York properties. None of this mattered when over sixty million Americans voted for him in 2016.
A day away from the presidential elections, Trump’s approval rating stands at 45%. While this rating is not out of the ordinary, the consistency of it throughout the past four years—with fluctuations between 35% and 49%—is striking in comparison to previous presidents. Paradoxically, Trump’s presidency has been characterized by numerous scandals and political faux pas, both at home and internationally. This would have been political suicide for any other elected official, let alone the president of the United States.
Just last month, The New York Times published the president’s tax returns covering the past two decades, which Trump has long fought to keep private. These showed that the president has not paid federal tax in 10 of the 15 previous years, and paid the absurd amount of $750 in the year he became president. Following each of Trump’s scandals, from keeping immigrant children in cages to colluding with foreign powers to intervene in national politics, Twitter is flooded with political commentators and journalists arguing that this was the final straw, that the limit to the lying and outrage Trumpists can support has been reached. Yet, a few days later, the story dies and the president’s approval ratings remain stable. What exactly explains this unmatched solidity of Trump’s base?
Understanding Trump’s supporters
Early analysis in the wake of the 2016 election described Trump supporters as “Middle American Radicals,” a white, flag-loving middle class “neither conventionally liberal nor conventionally conservative but instead revolved around an intense conviction that the middle class was under siege from above and below.”
However, research carried out the past four years points out that there is nothing “middle class” about the vast majority of Trump supporters. On the contrary, they are largely working class, less educated than other Republicans and earning less than $50,000 a year.
More precisely, Trump’s base is a manifestation of the phenomenon that sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset coined “working class authoritarianism.” According to Lipset, authoritarian predisposition and ethnic prejudice is often first found in the lower classes. This impetus is then passed on to the middle and upper classes. In the U.S., Trumpism came about when a strong political figure vindicated the lower class and cared about their grievances. This was followed by the “mainstreamization” of behaviors previously displayed mostly by the white lower classes, such as being openly racist.
In addition to working class supporters, two other groups led Trump to the White House: big corporations, such as Blackstone and Oracle, and economic protectionists on one side, and white evangelicals on the other. The former’s support for Trump is straightforward. Trump promises to put America’s interests first in the global market and promotes a national economic policy that allows the continued accumulation of wealth by big corporations. As for white evangelical Protestants, they made up the firmest of Trump’s constituencies, with 81% voting Republican in 2016. This group will once again be essential for the GOP candidate on Nov. 3. Their support for Trump is founded on his promise to defend traditional Christian values through the enactment of conservative policies and the election of Republican judges to the Supreme Court.
With this in mind, it does not come as a surprise that a stunning 80% of Republicans said they agreed with President Trump when he tweeted about four minority Congresswomen, insisting they should “go back” to their countries of origin. Similarly, support for Trump did not shift an inch when the inhumane treatment of immigrants and forced separation of children in ICE custody was revealed. Trump supporters are not sensitive to these matters, which are considered to be identity-based and partisan issues. In this case, the solidity of Trump’s support base is understandable.
However, Trump’s actions and words do not always align with his supporters’ values. Scandals like the Access Hollywood tape, where Trump lightly talked about sexual assault, should have been condemned by his most Christian audience. Yet 78% of Republicans at the time did not consider this a problem. Similarly, when the hush payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels became public weeks before the 2016 election, it could have been expected that his conservative base would have punished this “un-Christian” behavior. They did not. Furthermore, the Trump campaign and administration’s alleged numerous instances of collusion with foreign powers (Russia and Ukraine) for the president’s own interests could rightly be considered un-American. None of these issues were reflected in his approval ratings or shook the president’s partisan support base.
The answer is in the lies
During the 2016 campaign trail Trump infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The record shows that he might have been right.
While it is expected that all politicians tell a lie at some point, the frequency, degree and impact of Trump’s lies is unprecedented. Professor Carole McGranahan’s (University of Colorado in Boulder) anthropological analysis of Trump’s rhetoric explains why nothing seem to matter for Trump’s supporters.
Through his political lies, McGranahan writes, Trump creates new realities and denies historical reality, and provides the narratives his base wants to hear. Throughout the 2016 campaign and thereafter, Trump created a new political community through aspirational lies and affiliative truths. Aspirational lies aim to build an imagined reality, while affiliative truths reinforce the feeling of belonging to a particular community. Both are essential to his rhetoric, which has been described as “truthful hyperbole” by his biographer Tony Schwartz in The Art of The Deal. This rhetoric, which includes the persistent dismissal of facts, is exactly what makes Donald Trump seem authentic to his followers.
Lies can be aspirational: “we are going to make America great again”, “ I feel better than I did 20 years ago”, “Mexico is going to pay for the wall”, and so on. In McGranahan’s theory, aspirational lies have the capacity of forming steadfast communities around them. These lies are divisive in nature, inciting people to act against the Other (foreigners, LGBTQ people, feminists, people of color or the Left in the Trumpists’ imagination). When members of a community act upon these ideals, often even inflicting violence on the Other, their allegiance to the community fastens. When encountered with dilemmas around the morality or righteousness of their leader, they close ranks. Affiliative truths, in turn, reinforce the imagined community. Supporters of Trump who feel vindicated in their desires and grievances by Trump’s new community will be unable to criticize or depart from it, and they will not be alienated by Trump’s lack of democracy or departure from his alleged values.
Social media as an enabler
On top of Trump’s rhetoric, social media have also played a central role in the creation of Trump’s steadfast community through the development of “outrage rhetoric.”
Trump’s support base is well-known for its online presence. The online community is opt-in and self-validating. Social media algorithms match the content that a user is shown to his preferences and beliefs, reinforcing insular worldviews and making experiences of community stronger and realer. Trump himself is particularly fond of social media as platform to convey his views and messages to the world. His contrasting of social media against the “fake media” reinforces his supporters’ belief that only he is telling the truth.
In addition to strengthening community links, social media have allowed Trump supporters to launch their ideas and “otherize” great portions of society. For instance, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, online Trumpists took it onto themselves to kill the news as quickly as possible. They boosted the Wikileaks hacking of Clinton emails that had come out almost simultaneously and redirected the online conversation. According to senior researcher Emerson Brooking, more than 200,000 pro-Trump bots flooded Twitter to ensure their messages reached beyond the president’s base. These bots and the way in which social media shapes narratives can partly explain why most of Trump scandals died out after a couple of days, and proves the deliberately short memory of his supporters.
The future ahead
Professor McGranahan explained in an interview that Trump’s rhetoric is not just of his own creation, but that he has inserted himself in pre-existing white nationalist ideology.
“He has brought this polarizing and destructive lie-filled narrative inside the White House and has given this masculinist white and hate-filled community a platform to convey and act upon their ideas.”
His supporters are no longer hiding their racist and misogynistic ideas behind anonymous internet handles, but are proudly fighting for their vision of American life united under this president.
While it is not possible for us to predict what will happen after the upcoming elections, the consequences of Trump’s rhetoric on American social relations will be long-lasting. Similarly, we can expect that the same reasons that have solidified Trump’s base will continue to impact American society at large. His presidency created a new political community which will not be dissolved even if Trump loses. Whether a new leading figure arises, or individual members take the ideological fight upon themselves, is yet to see.
That is why Professor McGranahan feels different about this election.
“It feels as if we are in the middle of something, on the precipice of something big.”
With the degradation of our social fabric, there is a genuine fear that “regardless of who wins, there is going to be violence.”