(republished from the NYTimes)
Why Trump Is Still Their Guy
You don’t hear his name as much. But as far as the G.O.P. is concerned, the former president rules.
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.
April 21, 2021
His exile in Mar-a-Lago notwithstanding, Donald Trump’s authority over the Republican Party remains vast. You can see it in Republican reluctance to back a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in the widespread denunciation of party members who refused to overturn election results and who voted for Trump’s second impeachment, and in poll data showing continuing repudiation among loyal Republicans of the 2020 election results.
Trump’s centrality guarantees that large numbers of resentful, truth-denying, conspiracy-minded, anti-democratic, overwhelmingly white voters will continue to find aid and comfort in the Republican Party.
Ed Rogers, a top political aide in the Reagan White House who describes himself as “a committed Republican,” responded by email to my query about the degree of Trump’s command: “Trump is the most powerful person in the Republican Party — his endorsement can make the difference in a lot of primaries and sometimes in a general election.”
Trump, Rogers continued, “would win the Republican nomination for president if the race were today. He looks unstoppable in the G.O.P. I don’t know who could challenge him.” Anyone opposing Trump for the nomination “would be mocked, mimicked and generally harassed for months. Who needs that?”
Rogers captured his party’s current predicament: “For the G.O.P., Trump is like a fire, too close and you get burned, too far away and you are out in the cold.”
Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Trump appointee as ambassador to the United Nations, recently proved Rogers’s point.
After the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, Haley was sharply critical of Trump, telling Tim Alberta of Politico:
We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.
Haley went on:
Never did I think he would spiral out like this. … I don’t feel like I know who he is anymore. … The person that I worked with is not the person that I have watched since the election.
But Haley, ambitious herself to be president, quickly backtracked. And just last week, at a news conference on April 12 in Orangeburg, S.C., she was asked if she would support Trump if he ran in 2024. “Yes,” she said, before pointedly adding, “I would not run if President Trump ran.”
As my news side colleague Peter Baker wrote in September 2020:
After a summer when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets protesting racial injustice against Black Americans, President Trump has made it clear over the last few days that, in his view, the country’s real race problem is bias against white Americans.
Not in generations, Baker continued, “has a sitting president so overtly declared himself the candidate of white America.”
The result, as William Saletan of Slate wrote earlier in April this year, is that “three months after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Republican Party still won’t fully renounce it.”
In recent weeks, Saletan continued:
Republican lawmakers have belittled the attack, defended the mob that precipitated it (Sen. Ron Johnson called them “people that love this country”), voted against a resolution condemning it, or accused liberals of overreacting to it. In February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, speakers blamed a “rigged election” for provoking the rioters. But the sickness goes deeper. The Republican base is thoroughly infected with sympathies for the insurrection.
The depth of party loyalty to Trump and to the men and women who have his back has even found expression in the flow of campaign contributions.
As Luke Broadwater, Catie Edmondson and Rachel Shorey of The Times reported on April 17:
Republicans who were the most vocal in urging their followers to come to Washington on Jan. 6 to try to reverse President Donald J. Trump’s loss, pushing to overturn the election and stoking the grievances that prompted the deadly Capitol riot, have profited handsomely in its aftermath.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, the first-term Georgia representative, perhaps the most extreme of Trump’s allies, has raised $3.2 million, they wrote, “more than the individual campaign of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, and nearly every other member of House leadership.”
What are the sources of Trump’s continued ability to not only maintain the loyalty of millions of voters, but to keep them persuaded of the conspiratorial notion that the 2020 presidential election was rigged?
There is an ongoing debate among scholars and political analysts regarding the bond between Trump and his loyalists, his preternatural ability to mobilize white resentment into grievance-based social-movement action. Where does it come from?
Before we delve into competing interpretations, Johanna Ray Vollhardt, a professor of psychology at Clark University, makes a crucial point:
The psychology of collective victimhood among groups that were objectively targeted and harmed by collective violence and historical oppression is quite different from the psychology of grievance or imagined victimhood among dominant group members, who are driven by a sense of status loss and entitlement as well as resentment of minority groups that are viewed as a threat.
Because of this difference, Vollhardt wrote by email, she would not use the word “victims” to describe Trump supporters: “I would perhaps simply say ‘grievances’ or ‘imagined victimhood’ to refer to the kinds of ideas that have fueled Trump’s and other right-wing White Americans’ rhetoric and appeals.”
This distinction is explicit in “Resentment and Redemption: On the Mobilization of Dominant Group Victimhood,” by Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin, both at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, in a chapter of “The Social Psychology of Collective Victimhood.”
Reicher and Ulusahin contend that “dominant group victimhood” emerges when groups experience a feeling
of actual or potential loss of dominance, a sense of resentment at this loss which is bound up with issues of entitlement — the undeserving are taking what we deserve — and hence provides a moral dimension to restitutive actions, and finally the prospect of redemption — of restoring the rightful order of things — through action.
These feelings of “undeserved” displacement, the authors write, “are not unmediated perceptions of reality. Rather, they are narratives offered by leaders with the aim of mobilizing people around the leader as representative and savior of the group.”
To conclude, the two authors write,
Our argument is not simply about victimhood as it applies to “objectively” privileged groups. It is ultimately about the toxicity of a particular construction of victimhood: One which transforms eliminationist violence into the restitution of a rightful moral order. For it is when we believe ourselves to be acting for the moral good that the most appalling acts can be committed.
Other scholars point to the political manipulation of the emotions of shame and humiliation.
In their March 2021 article “Populism and the Affective Politics of Humiliation Narratives,” Alexandra Homolar and Georg Löfflmann, members of the politics and international studies department at the University of Warwick in Britain, make the case that Trump is a master of “populist humiliation discourse.”
In this political and rhetorical strategy,
The country of the present is described as a fundamentally weakened nation, systematically disadvantaged through “bad deals” negotiated by the establishment and exploited by allies and enemies alike. Treasured pasts of national greatness are represented through romanticized images that reduce the present to a demeaning experience.
Members of the target audience, Homolar and Löfflmann continue, “are constructed as an idealized community of shared origin and destiny, the ‘pure people,’ who have been betrayed and humiliated because what is represented as their way of life and righteous place in the world has been lost.”
In September 2016, Hillary Clinton’s infamous characterization of Trump voters was an open invitation to Trump’s counterattack:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.
In a Sept. 12, 2016 speech in Baltimore, Trump shot back:
Hillary Clinton made these comments at one of her high-dollar fund-raisers in Wall Street. She and her wealthy donors all had a good laugh. They were laughing at the very people who pave the roads she drives on, paint the buildings she speaks in, and keep the lights on in her auditorium.
In a direct play on the humiliation theme, Trump declared:
She spoke with contempt for the people who thanklessly follow the rules, pay their taxes, and scratch out a living for their families. She revealed herself to be a person who looks down on the proud citizens of our country as subjects for her to rule over.
In a separate article, “The power of Trump-speak: populist crisis narratives and ontological security,” Homolar and Ronny Scholz, a project manager at the University of Warwick’s center for applied linguistics, argued that Trump’s “leadership legitimation claims rest significantly upon ‘crisis talk’ that puts his audience in a loss frame with nothing to lose.” These stories serve a twofold purpose, instilling “insecurity among the American public” while simultaneously transforming “their anxiety into confidence that the narrator’s policy agendas are the route back to ‘normality.’”
The authors studied Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches to identify the words he used most often, and then grouped them “together with the words with which they predominantly co-occur.” They demonstrate that the word clusters Trump habitually deployed “surrounding ‘American’ and ‘country’ centrally featured the interrelated themes of crime and violence, killing jobs, and poverty, as well as illegal immigration and drugs, Islamic terrorism, trade and infrastructure.”
At the heart of what the authors call “Trump-speak” is a
politics of reassurance, which relies upon a threefold rhetorical strategy: it tells audiences what is wrong with the current state of affairs; it identifies the political agents that are responsible for putting individuals and the country in a state of loss and crisis; and it offers an abstract pathway through which people can restore past greatness by opting for a high-risk outsider candidate.
Once an audience is under Trump’s spell, Homolar and Scholz write:
Rational arguments or detailed policy proposals pale in comparison with the emotive pull and self-affirmation of an us-versus-them crisis narrative, which creates a cognitive feedback loop between individuals’ ontological insecurity, their preferences for restorative policy, and strongmen candidate options. In short, “Trumpspeak” relies on creating the very ontological insecurity that it promises to eradicate for political gain.
The authors describe “ontological security” as “having a sense of presence in the world, describing such a person as a ‘real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person,’” citing R.D. Laing, the author of “The Divided Self.” Being ontologically secure, they continue, “allows us to ‘encounter all the hazards of life, social, ethical, spiritual, biological’ with a firm sense of both our own and others’ reality and identity. However, ontological security only prevails in the absence of anxiety and danger.”
Miles T. Armaly and Adam M. Enders, political scientists at the University of Mississippi and the University of Louisville, argue that Trump appeals to voters experiencing what they call “egocentric victimhood” as opposed to those who see themselves as “systemic” victims.
In their January 2021 paper, “‘Why Me?’ The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics,” Armaly and Enders argue that:
A systemic victim looks externally to understand her individual victimhood. Egocentric victimhood, on the other hand, is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the ‘oppressor,’ nor the attribution of blame, are very specific. Both expressions of victimhood require some level of entitlement, but egocentric victims feel particularly strongly that they, personally, have a harder go at life than others.
There were substantial differences between the way these two groups voted, according to Armaly and Enders:
Those exhibiting higher levels of egocentric victimhood are more likely to have voted for, and continue to support, Donald Trump. However, those who exhibit systemic victimhood are less supportive and were less likely to vote for Trump.
The same pattern emerged in the case of racial resentment and support for or opposition to government aid to African-Americans, for building a wall on the Mexican border and for political correctness: egocentric victims, the authors report, tilted strongly in a conservative direction, systemic victims in a liberal direction.
In an effort to better understand how competing left and right strategies differ, I asked Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple, a series of questions. The first was:
How would you describe the differences between the mobilizing strategies of the civil rights movement and Trump’s appeals to discontented whites? Arceneaux’s answer:
The civil rights movement was about mobilizing an oppressed minority to fight for their rights, against the likelihood of state-sanctioned violence, while Trump’s appeals are about harnessing the power of the state to maintain white dominance. Trump’s appeals to discontented whites are reactionary in nature. They promise to go back to a time when whites were unquestionably at the top of the social hierarchy. These appeals are about keying into anger and fear, as opposed to hope, and they are about moving backward and not forward.
What role has the sense of victimhood played in the delusional character of so many Trump supporters who continue to believe the election was stolen? Arceneaux again:
Their sense of victimhood motivates the very idea that some evil force could be so powerful that it can successfully collude to steal an election. It fits the narrative that everyone is out to get them.
Looking toward the elections of 2022 and 2024, Trump not only remains at the heart of the Republican Party but also embodies the party’s predicament: Candidates running for the House and Senate need him to turn out the party’s populist base, but his presence at the top of the ticket could put Congress and the White House out of reach.
Still, Arceneaux argues that without Trump, “I do believe that the Republicans will struggle to turn out non-college-educated whites at the same rate.”
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, observes that turning out working-class voters in 2024 will most likely not be enough for Trump to win: “There are a large number of Republican voters (around 40 percent), who were either reluctant Trump voters or non-supportive voters, who make a Trump win in the general election look very undoable.”
Ed Rogers, the Republican lobbyist I mentioned at the beginning of this column, argues that if Trump runs in 2024 — despite the clout he wields today — he is liable to take the party down in defeat:
I don’t think Trump can win a two-person race in a general election. He can’t get a majority. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 2016 and he got beat bad by an uninspiring candidate in 2020. 2024 is a long way away but I don’t know what might happen to make Trump have broader appeal or more advantages than he did in 2020.
Stuart Stevens, a Republican media consultant who is a harsh critic of Trump, emailed me to say that “Trump is the Republican Party” and as a result:
We are in uncharted waters. For the first time since 1860, a major American political party doesn’t believe America is a democracy. No Republican will win a contested primary in 2022 or 2024 who will assert that Biden is a legal president. The effect of this is profound and difficult to predict. But millions of Americans believe the American experiment is ending.
What is driving the Republican Party? Stevens’s answer is that it is the threat of a nonwhite majority:
The coordinated effort to reduce voter access for those who are nonwhite is because Republicans know they are racing the demographic clock. The degree to which they are successful will determine if a Republican has a shot to win. It’s all about white grievance.
Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant, described what may be Trump’s most lasting imprint on his party: He said many prospective presidential candidates, including Josh Hawley, Kristi Noem, Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis, “seem to me to be embracing the growing nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-diversity fire Trump lit.”
In the 28 years since the 1992 election, Begala continued by email, there has been “more diminution in white voting power than in the previous 208 years” dating back to the nation’s first presidential election.
For the Republican Party, Begala wrote, “as white power diminishes, white supremacy intensifies.”