By Lauren Johnston
Donald Trump is repulsive to many—from his porcine face, to his farcical spray tan, to his turgid personality. And yet he has won three consecutive primaries, placed second in the Iowa caucuses, and looks nowhere near losing his 30 percent lead in national polls. Trump’s supporters are here to stay, so it’s worth noting who they are.
Demographically, his supporters tend to be older and whiter. According to Slate, half are between the ages 45 and 65, and 35 percent are over 65 years old. They also tend to be working and middle class Republicans—as such, they constitute a huge percentage of the GOP.
Policy-wise, Trump supporters are moderate on most affairs except for immigration. That makes sense: from a policy standpoint, Trump is just not very radical. He supports war, but not the Iraq War. He wants to cut taxes for the wealthy, while also promising to protect Social Security and Medicare. He leans to the left on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but considering he does not capture much of the religious vote anyway, these leftward-leaning tendencies are not likely to damage his support.
Trump diverges from his competitors and his party on immigration policy and gains much for doing so. He capitalizes on the fears of his voting base by promising to shut the door on immigration, and by perpetuating false claims about the danger of Mexican immigrants and Muslim-Americans. In fact it is his nativist fear-mongering that touches on a crucial element of Trump’s voting base: authoritarianism.
Vox published a tremendous article explaining that the best predictor of a Trump supporter was their tendency towards authoritarian behavior. These voters look for a strong leader, tend to view the world in black and white terms, and seek protection from the “other”—for example, immigrants or terrorists. Such voters are unlikely to be swayed after they have made up their mind. More, attitudes towards authoritarianism transcend age, race, income, class, and religion, meaning that Trump’s appeal to authoritarian voters is spread across pre-existing ideological divides.
In addition to being authoritarian, Trump supporters tend to be misinformed. The distinction between uninformed and misinformed citizens is that uninformed citizens do not have any information, while misinformed citizens have incorrect information. Misinformed citizens cling the most strongly to their beliefs, and their opinions are only strengthened when they are confronted with challenges. Trump benefits greatly from the support of the misinformed—those who are terrified about threats from ISIS are likely to become more convinced of their fears when confronted with statistics about the low likelihood of terrorist attacks.
Ultimately, Trump benefits from a collection of overlapping phenomena. His supporters reject the political establishment, which has not improved the lives of working and middle class Americans in the midst of economic turbulence. They find hope in a brash, bombastic strongmen who seems able to deliver on his promises to combat perceived threats—everything from terrorists, to immigrants, to economic stagnation. Trump represents the policy beliefs of moderate and conservative, working and middle class Republicans, and many of them seek an authoritarian leader to “make America great again.”
It is worth noting the role that conservative media and polarized party politics have played in creating Trump. Years of fear mongering and lack of nuanced reporting or negotiating have culminated in a frontrunner candidate who most successfully embodies the politics of fear, of “us versus them,” of simple answers and easy solutions—albeit in a swathe of orange spray tan.