One possible explanation for Donald Trump’s cult-like allure lies in the realm of political socialization: Trump and the Republican Party have created an alternate reality for their public where empirical reality and facts do not exist. Moreover, in that bizarre universe, commonsense rules of human decency and virtue have also been rewritten to serve grotesque goals.
Another clue to the power of Trump’s allure lies in the fact that human political behavior is a function of both nature and nurture. Pundits and other members of the commentariat have done a much better job of addressing the latter. Until recently, few have seriously grappled with the role of ingrained genetic or biological factors in shaping elections and other political outcomes.
How much can social psychology help explain Donald Trump’s political success? What shared values are most important to Trump and his supporters? Is authoritarianism hardwired into the brains of conservatives? What would it take for Trump’s most loyal supporters to abandon him, if we conclude that they installed him in the White House as a means of hurting others?
In an effort to explore these questions, I recently spoke with Rick Shenkman, a historian and former investigative reporter. Shenkman is the founder of the History News Network and is a regular guest commentator on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. He is the bestselling author of six previous books, but his latest was the impetus for our conversation. It is called “Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How was Donald Trump able to become president?
There are ultimate causes and proximate causes. As for the first, once the Democratic Party became committed to civil rights that inevitably meant there was going to be a revolution in our politics. The Democratic Party for a century had been composed of people in the South and urban parts of the North and elsewhere. There was tension between those two elements, but party elites kept things unified, more or less.
But when Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights laws, Southerners bailed wholesale from the Democratic Party. The Republican Party saw all these Southern voters now up for grabs and they gravitated toward them. So now you’ve got the two political parties, one striking out in favor strongly of civil rights and the other party increasingly uncomfortable with its own past as a civil rights pioneer under Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party decided to use racial grievances, and in some instances outright racism, to win over the voters who abandoned the Democrats over civil rights.
Considering that the United States has only been a full democracy (under the law) for approximately 50 years, since the civil rights movement, is the white backlash that Trump represents in many ways just a return to the norm in America?
I am more impressed with the similarities in Donald Trump’s politics than I am with the differences when we look back over the long arc of American history. But of course I do see very real differences between Donald Trump and all previous presidents.
He’s like having elected Joe McCarthy as president. Trump is not only using racist tropes in his rhetoric but he’s just a pure demagogue, and we’ve just never had that kind of a combination in the presidency before. Trump is wrong for this country in so many different ways such as his egotism, his self-aggrandizement, his gross ignorance, his unwillingness to learn basic facts about the issues that he’s talking about.