A unifying chorus on the left and middle asks how in the world anyone could still support Donald Trump and any politician who endorses his behavior and policy stances. A similar collective chorus involves the "why" questions, including why in the world Trump does what he does and says what he says, and why in the WORLD he feels the need to play it all out on Twitter.
I believe I have the answer to these questions, or at least some of them.
Donald Trump is not a Republican. Donald Trump is a right-wing populist.
Right-wing populism is sweeping the globe, as it has from time to time. In most countries, a right-wing populist politician will be a member of a right-wing populist party, such as Marine Le Pen in France and her National Rally far-right party. But in the United States, right-wing populism hijacked the Republican party—initially by the Tea Party Movement, and now by Donald Trump.
So what is right-wing populism and how is it different from the Republican party?
Well first, populist ideology can occur on either end of the political spectrum. On the far Left we have socialism, and on the really-really far Left we have communism. And on the far Right we have authoritarianism, and on the really-really far Right we have a dictatorship (personally, I'm of the opinion that people on the far right and far left meet somewhere "back there" in angry conspiracy theory land).
Populism at its core is anti-establishment, and populists at their core envision society as two distinct and opposing groups: the "pure people" versus the "corrupt elite."
Populists believe that politics should be a direct expression of will of the people. The difference between populists on the left and those on the right boils down to the nature of this collective "will."
Who are Right-wing populists? They are:
In a nutshell, right-wing populism "evokes nostalgic, retrospective nationalism and claims of speaking for 'regular people' anxious about social, cultural and economic change that is often attributed to the presence and social ascendance of racial and ethnic minorities."
So now back to why Donald Trump was elected. Beyond the Russian meddling and voter suppression factors, Trump supporters are motivated by two primary things: 1) economic insecurity, and 2) cultural backlash.
Right after the 2016 election, most researchers characterized the classic Trump supporter as feeling left behind economically in a globalized era. These are your rural folks, people from former manufacturing states, and coal country. These are the people in our country who haven't benefited from globalization—people who work with their hands, and who have seen their livelihoods evaporate in the last few decades. They're primarily white, working class, "heart of America" types of people who largely voted for Obama in 2008, sat out the 2012 election, and voted for Trump in droves in 2016.
The more recent research though has found that the primary motivation for supporting Trump is cultural backlash. People who most strongly support Trump are desperately fearful of progressive change. They see their way of life evaporating. What feels most "normal" to them, most "right," most "moral" and "most safe" is disappearing before their very eyes, and they are scared and really angry.
Those most likely to experience cultural backlash are older generations, white men, conservative Christians and those lacking a college education. They are vehemently opposed to progressive cultural values, including those related to gender roles, sexuality, religion, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, globalization and tolerance of foreigners. They are least likely to travel internationally, are often territorially attached (meaning they often live in communities with strong historic and familial ties), and traditionalism is something they value deeply. They do not see their values as racist or misogynist, they see them as normal, healthy, safe and good.
Cultural backlash is most commonly directed toward anyone perceived as "foreign" because it is the foreigner who represents the biggest threat to the traditionalists' way of life. This is why right-wing populist politicians often make immigration the centerpiece of their campaigns, touting anti-immigrant policies, and framing immigrants as invaders, enemies, and criminals. In extreme situations, immigration is framed in the context of a war.
Cultural backlash is why a human rights approach to many of the social issues we're experiencing right now will never work. Attempting to appeal to the right-wing populists' sympathies for immigrant families fleeing persecution (i.e., the "caravan"), or trying to get them to care about migrant kids in cages is like trying to get any soldier to care about the fate of the enemy.
Many right-wing populists believe we are in a war, and they believe immigrants are the enemy invaders. They believe immigrants are going to steal their communities and kill their families.
Listen to the rhetoric of right-wing populist politicians, like Trump. The majority of their messages stoke these fears and deep racial resentments., and it is the fear of cultural change that discourages Trump supporters to fact-check. They are certain their fears are based in reality, and it is virtually impossible to convince them otherwise.
And do you know what? They are at least partially correct, at least in terms of what they are afraid of. Progressive values in the form of gender egalitarianism, increased multiculturalism, racial equity, religious pluralism, sexual inclusion, environmentalism, and globalization fueled by technology will forever change the traditionalist 's way of life.
Older white men with traditional values—whether white collar or working class, will no longer be on top of the social hierarchy. White traditional families will no longer be the moral norm in America.
They are going to have to learn to share, and for many, this is a downright scary proposition, and it feels very unfair. And, after eight years of Obama—eight years of mass progressive change in the United States, many right-wing populists said "Enough! Enough of this nonsense!" And they fought back by voting for someone who was the very antithesis of Obama, the very antithesis of social progress: Donald Trump. But here's the thing...progress always wins out in the end. Always.
Progress is inevitable.
The United States will continue to move forward, as well the world. We will become more egalitarian in all respects, eventually. Globalization isn't a "right" or "wrong" dynamic—it just "is." Globalization is being driven in large part by technology, which makes the world smaller by interconnecting us in a million different ways.
Trump can't stop globalization any more than he can bring back manufacturing jobs. But, he can play on people's fear of change, their fear that their way of life is forever changing. Because it is, changing. And that sucks for people who don't want to change.
I know it seems crazy for me to ask people to have a little compassion for Trump supporters, but that is ultimately what I'm asking. I also know it's difficult for progressives to have any sympathy for people who often embrace racially divisive rhetoric, who defend immigrant kids in cages, who mock sexual assault survivors, and who champion (even covertly) people who walk down the street carrying torches while screaming white nationalist slogans. But their reality really is frightening, for them. And people typically act in the most extreme ways when they believe--when they know, that their way of life is ending.
Centric Republicans aren't the problem. Idealistic progressives need the balance that reasonable centric Republicans can offer. Centric Republicans do not pose a threat to forward progress. Rather, they provide just enough tension to keep us on a slow steady forward-moving pace. Centric Republicans are not Trump supporters.
Right-wing populism is a problem because it represents stagnation, protectionism, and backward motion, which in all ways are dangerous dynamics. Understandable in some regard, but dangerous nonetheless.
Those engaging in cultural backlash based on generational factors (meaning members of the older generations, who are wistful for a bygone era), will eventually die out, as has always been the case. But the younger generations—the white, working class, non-college educated populations with traditional values, are going to be here with us for quite some time, and we need to figure out a way to get along, or we really will have two countries.
If we want to stop this cultural pendulum that has been wildly swinging for centuries so we can finally mature as a nation, we need to better understand what motivates right-wing populists, and give them some time to accept our country's new normal. Just not too much time though, as people of color, including African Americans, immigrants and our indigenous populations, have been waiting a really long time (some for centuries) for white patriarchal traditionalists to get their act together.
Most people who embrace the right-wing populist ideology will go kicking and screaming into the future, regardless of facts, critical reasoning, and reasoned arguments. Or, they will be left behind. My preference is that we all move forward together into a future that has as its foundation, not fear and resentment, but a collective sense of hope, trust, compassion, and a spirit of cooperation.
Come on America, we can do this!
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.