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Op-Ed World Affairs

Trump’s right-wing rainbow coalition

Boston-Mass, USA

Though mainstream observers were shocked that Donald Trump increased his support among many ethnic minority groups in the 2020 election, this should not have come as a surprise. The common thread linking the Trump base has little to do with demographics, and much more to do with a personality type. So why does the 45th president appeal to so many voters whose ethnic, religious, and sexual identities he has mercilessly disparaged? Unless we improve our understanding of these voters’ overriding identification with those able and willing to exercise power, and their own latent thirst for power, we risk being blindsided by it again.

By Yasheng Huang

Dec 14, 2020: Although Donald Trump will pack his bags and leave the White House on January 20, he has presided over an authoritarian awakening among a large swath of the American population – one that will persist long after he is gone. As president, Trump not only deployed racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, but actually baked it into his policies. Nonetheless, more than 74 million Americans voted for him in 2020.

Even more strikingly, exit polls suggest that Trump actually gained support from all of the demographic groups that he had maligned, insulted, and harmed, garnering more black, Hispanic, and Muslim votes than he did in 2016. Asian-Americans also pivoted to Trump, voting for him by a larger margin than they did for him in 2016. And Trump won around 55% of white women in 2020. In two consecutive elections, the majority of white women chose a blatant misogynist over a female presidential or vice-presidential candidate.

Writing in the Washington Post just after this year’s election, Fareed Zakaria argued that there is no common ground among ethnic and religious minority groups, the implication being that their members found Trump appealing for different reasons. But this is the wrong way to frame the issue. Trump created his rainbow coalition, and his supporters are more blindly loyal than President-elect Joe Biden’s. The right question, then, is what united minority Trump supporters, both among themselves and with his white supporters.

To be sure, Biden has his own rainbow coalition, but he earned it through hard work, sincerity, and conscientiousness. He put an African-American woman on his ticket and promised to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. By contrast, Trump was showered with support from the very people he savagely attacked and harmed. He has referred to immigrants from Latin America as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists,” and has presided over the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border. Nonetheless, he increased his Hispanic support in critical districts this election cycle.

Trump’s trade war with China, moreover, had a devastating impact on rural America. But that didn’t stop him from winning Iowa and other farm states by a healthy margin. Likewise, some first-generation Chinese immigrants (with PhDs and Ivy League credentials) are fervent Trump supporters, despite his malicious labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

These voters worship power and the powerful

The common foundation supporting this vast Trumpian tent of rural whites, Latinos in Texas, Chinese-American entrepreneurs, white suburban women, and a small but growing share of black men is a deep-seated notion of authority – a more primordial disposition than ethnic tribalism, religious affiliation, and sexual identity. These voters worship power and the powerful, and identify with all exercises of power by their chosen leader.

This perspective can explain a wide range of Trump supporters’ attitudes. His racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic utterances are each an assertion of power. Racism is a power play, exercised by whites over other ethnic groups; sexism is also a power play, exercised by men over women. Religious intolerance and xenophobia are power plays in the same fashion. “Make America Great Again” offers the promise of restoring lost privileges and status for those whose sensibilities are offended by a changing world.

In economics, the “circular flow of money” describes how a cost incurred by one person in the economy amounts to income for somebody else. Buying a loaf of bread is a cost to me, but it is income to the baker. Now apply this idea to politics. A white woman is a victim of misogyny; but in a Trumpian world, she also belongs to a class of victors (whose dominance is demonstrated through racism and xenophobia). In this hierarchical vision of the world, white women may be reduced to handmaids, but at least they can still exercise power over others, such as black people and immigrants. In this scenario, while others hold power over her in one instance, she can simultaneously hold power over others in a separate exchange.

I got my first glimpse of this circular flow of power in 2016. I had just delivered a speech on why so many Chinese supported Trump, and a young MIT alumnus shared an exchange she had had with a classmate who said he was okay with a white-supremacist president as long as he, as a young Chinese immigrant, could discriminate against blacks and Latinos.

Disposition known as right-wing authoritarianism

But how does this dynamic explain Trump’s share of the black and Hispanic vote? As it happens, there is a common thread uniting conservative whites, Asian Trump supporters, and a significant portion of African-Americans and Latinos: a disposition known as right-wing authoritarianism. RWA comprises certain psychological traits that map onto individuals with an “authoritarian personality.” This personality type has many dimensions, but a key component concerns the perception and exercise of power.

RWA is the tie that binds Trump’s rainbow coalition. As political scientist Matthew C. MacWilliams of the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows, 2016 Republican primary voters who scored high on RWA were more likely to vote for Trump than for other GOP candidates.

In a November 2016 paper, “American Authoritarianism in Black and White,” MacWilliams finds that on average, African-Americans outscore whites on RWA. Here, a particularly illuminating data point is the social and organizing function of religion in African-American life. MacWilliams finds that those who attend church on a regular basis exhibit more RWA tendencies, on average. And similar research since the 1950s has shown that Mexican-Americans, too, are more authoritarian-leaning than white Americans, probably also owing to their churchgoing.

Instead of trying to sort Trump voters by skin color or gender, a more nuanced view of psychology might help us understand why the 45th president appeals to so many voters whose ethnic, religious, and sexual identities he has mercilessly disparaged. Unless we improve our understanding of these voters’ overriding identification with those able and willing to exercise power, and their own latent thirst for power, we risk being blindsided by it again.

- Yasheng Huang is Professor of International Management and Faculty Director of Action Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, 2021.