Who Are Trump’s Supporters?

Donald Trump’s boosters are examples of a phenomenon that the late Seymour Martin Lipset termed “working class authoritarianism.”

By Jordan Michael Smith

Tagged conservatismDonald Trumppolitics

In one of the final issues of National Journal, John Judis wrote a characteristically thoughtful and historically minded explanation of the stunning support among Republicans for Donald Trump.

Trumpists, Judis wrote, are comprised mostly of a demographic of “Middle American Radicals,” a term invented by sociologist Donald Warren in the 1970s. What defined Middle American Radicals was an ideology that was “neither con­ven­tion­ally lib­er­al nor con­ven­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive, but in­stead re­volved around an in­tense con­vic­tion that the middle class was un­der siege from above and be­low,” writes Judis, summarizing Warren’s research. They were white populists, nationalists, and they think they’re getting screwed by both the rich and minorities. But in addition to their views, according to Judis, Middle American Radicals were of similar economic class; as their name and perspective suggests, they were middle-class.

Judis conceded, however, that “there has been no similar polling of Trump’s sup­port­ers, so all one can rely on are crowd re­ac­tions and in­ter­views.” The piece contained interviews with Trumpists who buttressed the notion that they are Middle American Radicals.

Now we have data on Trump supporters. And it turns out they are not really Middle American Radicals. In fact, they are not middle class at all. Rather, they are working class. This fits in not with Donald Warren’s ideas but with those of another sociologist. Trump’s boosters are examples of a phenomenon that the late Seymour Martin Lipset termed “working class authoritarianism.”

First, let’s look at what we know about Trump’s fans. They are far less likely to have a college degree than those partial to other Republican presidential candidates, and they also make less than $50,000 annually. In addition—and this really contradicts Judis’s theory—they describe themselves as “conservatives” wholeheartedly. Indeed, Trump is attracting as many conservatives as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush combined.

A white lower-educated supporter on the lower-income scale is not what we normally term middle-class: It’s more aptly called the working-class. Which is why William Galston of the Brookings Institution analyzed the data and wrote that “Trump is the staunchest champion of the white working class that American politics has seen in decades.” Combine their class with their self-declared conservatism and you have the people Lipset described.

According to Lipset, “authoritarian predispositions and ethnic prejudice flow more naturally from the situation of the lower classes than from that of middle and upper classes.” These were the people who formed the base of the Nazi labor unions (Lipset was writing in 1959), the White Citizen’s Councils in the segregated American south, and race rioters in England. Lipset continued, “working-class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic and jingoistic sector of the population. In a number of nations, they have clearly been in the forefront of the struggle against equal rights for minority groups, and have sought to limit immigration or to impose racial standards in countries with open immigration.” This, of course, describes a Donald Trump rally almost perfectly.

Most of the conservative commentariat have been horrified and bewildered by the ardor Trump inspires among the Republican rank-and-file. “For me, and I suspect for many, the largest problem is that Trump would make the GOP the party of racial and religious exclusion,” wrote George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson. But that word “many” seems to mean people Gerson actually knows, which excludes most of Trump’s supporters, who are not small in number. For them, the feature of Trump’s GOP is that it would be the party of radical and religious exclusion.

And this is exactly as Lipset would predict: “Both evidence and theory suggest that the lower strata are relatively more authoritarian, that they will be more attracted toward an extremist movement than toward a moderate and democratic one, and that, once recruited, they will not be alienated by its lack of democracy, while more educated or sophisticated supporters will tend to drop away.”

Now, not all of Trump’s supporters are working-class whites, and not all working-class whites are Trump supporters (mercifully). But rather than seeing most Trumpists as Middle American Radicals or even a uniquely American phenomenon, it is more accurate to see them as the latest in a long line of working-class authoritarians—people with a very scary, very dishonorable past.

Read more about conservatismDonald Trumppolitics

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He received the 2023 Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism.

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