Many academics and pundits have tried to explain the Trump phenomena as they analyzed the intersections of economic, social, religious, tribal and political reasons, but no one explanation explains how a sociopath rose to the top of an established political party in a democratic system to wield such autocratic power.
While there are many reasons for Trumpism, his followers seem to share some common characteristics. According to Jordan Smith in the publication, Democracy, his followers are mainly white working-class men, politically conservative, with high school education and a salary of about $50,000. In the article, “Who Are Trump’s Supporters,” Trump synthesized an appeal to disenfranchised white working-class men even though he has never considered them part of his business associates, or social class friends. At best, this group was just tenants in his father’s apartments in Queens and Brooklyn that he inherited after his father’s death in 1999.
Smith quotes the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset these working-class authoritarians also formed the base of the Nazi Party and were very receptive to ideas about being victimized by the wealthy and immigrants, especially those from different races. Worse, Lipset said this group would be more attracted by more authoritarian leaders and would resist more democratic and tolerant politicians who did not offer an authoritarian message.
As we have seen, Trump supporters, including those Republicans in Congress, are not offended by his racist rant and demonstrations of authoritarian power. Traditional arguments about Trump’s failure to adhere to traditional conservative social and economic values, such as fiscal austerity, a balanced budget or marital fidelity, are all routinely ignored by Trump and his followers.
Even Trump’s impeachment trial and the conclusion that he did not promote American interests to an ally, Ukraine, by threatening to withhold military aid to that country, produce any backlash from conservatives. By ignoring the conclusion that Trump betrayed his oath of office to protect the nation, Trump’s working-class authoritarians were following a similar conclusion for one of their other heroes, Robert E. Lee.
In the former Confederacy, which is also a bedrock of support for Trump, Lee is an unquestioned war hero and political leader. He is the proud symbol of the Confederacy and perhaps its best-known figure.
But Robert E. Lee was also a traitor to the U.S. As a top federal general at the start of the Civil War, n April 18, 1861, Lee was asked by Lincoln to command the US Army. Lee declined. As a loyal Virginian, he said: “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.” AS historian James McPherson describes in The Battle Cry of Freedom, Lee’s decision to side with the South was not shared by other Union officers who were born or had affiliations with the Confederacy. McPherson writes that “scores of southern officers, however, like (Winfield) Scott, remained loyal to the nation rather than section (the Confederacy.)”
In short, Union officer Lee became a traitor to the established Federal government to which he had taken an oath.
Identifying a social and political thread still very evident today, McPherson writes that “The Upper South, like the lower, went to war to defend the freedom of white men to own slaves and to take them back into the territories as they saw fit, lest these white men be enslaved by Black Republicans who threatened to deprive them of these liberties.”
Whether it be white working-class men who embrace authoritarianism in 2020 or white men who owned slaves and went to war again the Union to defend the Confederacy’s version of “justice and liberty,” it looks like we are still fighting unresolved issues from the Civil War in 2020. The difference is that we have the additions of class friction, income inequality, globalism, technology, and social identity movements layered on top of the old race issue.
One way to fight Trump’s working-class authoritarian base is to offer a non-authoritarian, racially inclusive working-class solution that addresses 21 Century issues. People respond to following a positive vision that provides a more financially stable future.
But that also means Trump supporters must acknowledge that their heroes are also traitors to their own best interests.