Here's the Best Predictor of Support for Donald Trump

Michael Liccione | February 29, 2016

What’s the best predictor of those likely to support Donald Trump?

According to this Vox piece by political-science researcher Matthew MacWilliams, it’s not “income, education, or age.” In fact, the only “statistically significant” predictors of support for Trump were “[a]uthoritarianism and a hybrid variable that links authoritarianism with a personal fear of terrorism…”

That’s an interesting result. But just as interesting is how the key metric was devised.

As MacWilliams defines it, “authoritarianism” is a fairly common cluster of the following characteristics:

  • “Fear of “the other.”
  • A “strong inclination to follow and obey strong leaders.”
  • A tendency to “see the world in black-and-white terms.”
  • “Attitudinally inflexible and rigid.”

Now to my mind, that sounds more like tribalism than authoritarianism per se. For as usually defined, the latter corresponds only to the second of the aforesaid four characteristics.

On the other hand, people who are tribalistically-inclined tend to see the world in terms of “us vs. them,” to fear or loathe “them,” and to adhere rigidly to whatever values and attitudes define “us.” That’s three of the four. Such people can also be authoritarian if their fear of “them” is great enough to make them hanker for a strong leader to ensure that “us” prevails over “them.” Fear of terrorism would certainly qualify as such a cause of authoritarianism as usually defined. And if one assumes that, when asked about ‘terrorism’, the people MacWilliams surveyed understood him to mean Islamic terrorism, then that’s the “hybrid variable” he cites.

I find it quite plausible that Trump’s chief base of support is tribalistic people who want a strong leader to stomp “them” and energize “us.” When absorbed along with some of his statements about immigration and Islam, his very persona—optimistic while also rude and overbearing—makes him attractive to tribalists who are frustrated with where they see America going. I would call his persona ‘trumpalistic’, a play on the term ‘triumphalistic’. Whatever else he may be, Donald Trump is unabashedly triumphalistic about America.

Nonetheless, there is a potentially unstable paradox here. While it is clear that about one-third of registered Republicans who have voted in this primary season support Trump, it is not at all clear that he cares much about traditional Republican issues other than immigration. His sometimes-shifting positions on the culture-war issues dear to social conservatives, his apparent support for “Obamacare,” and his vagueness about what he’d do regarding taxes, deficits, and the economy, would ordinarily be anathema to the vast majority of Republicans. Yet paradoxically, his support appears to be “granite” going into Super Tuesday.

This suggests that his appeal may be largely emotional rather than rational. By appealing to tribalistic instincts, he makes people who feel bad about the country’s direction—and in many cases, their own—feel better, or at least more hopeful. Never mind that neither his business interests nor his personal life are what many such people would find admirable. But if he’s both nominated and elected, it’s unlikely he could accomplish enough to keep them feeling better.

Probably nobody could.