The Wretched Genius of Trump
How white supremacy contributes to democratic backsliding
Could we really lose our democracy? My post “Is American Democracy Really in Danger?” established that the US is backsliding on democracy, but we need to know more. Why on earth would people prefer less — or no — democracy?
The strong man, Donald Trump or anyone else, can’t just take over a democracy. It has to be a process of permission, whether that permission comes in the form of active support, coercion, fear, indifference, or silence. Backsliding occurs step by step; each instance of eroding a democratic value may cause alarm, but if allowed to stand, it opens the door for another and another… until what?
The truth is no one knows for sure. We can’t know. We likely won’t know until it happens. The only thing we can know for sure is that the future is made in the present moment. What we pay attention to and the actions we take are carving space for that future. I wonder about what is happening in the present moment: what is enabling us to backslide?
Mainstream theories about democracy
The bulk of the scholarship on democracy looks at how democracies spread and maintain themselves. Two theories predominate; the evidence is mixed for both. Much less is known about the process of backsliding because it’s a relatively new and, until recently, rare phenomenon.
The first theory asserts that democracy takes root through acculturation. This makes sense: we are taught to value democracy. We say the pledge of allegiance at school each morning. We celebrate the 4th of July every year. We learn a certain type of American history. We sing the national anthem before sporting events. But this doesn’t tell us much about backsliding, unless we infer that challenges to the pledge of allegiance, the broadening of history, or taking a knee before games are eroding democratic acculturation.
The second theory says that support for democracy is related to the outcomes it produces. People value living in safe, prospering, healthy communities. It might be a coincidence, but the backsliding began right around the 2008 financial crises, after which income inequality worsened even more. According to the 2020 Social Progress Index, the US is only one of three countries, joined by Brazil and Hungary, where social progress has declined since 2012.
Not satisfied with these theories? No single theory will explain backsliding. We should think of backsliding as a concoction brewed from many interacting ingredients. In this post I will add another ingredient: white supremacy.
The role of white supremacy in backsliding
Take a look at this graph of Republican “antidemocractic attitudes” as the author calls them.
What’s disturbing about this graph, besides the large proportion willing to resort to vigilantism and force, is what’s behind these attitudes. The author found that:
In every case the factor most strongly associated with support for antidemocratic sentiments is ethnic antagonism.
The author measured ethnic antagonism by people’s asking respondents’ about various perceptions. Do they think that government resources and political power are unfairly distributed to immigrants, people of color and African-Americans, Latinos and poor people? Do they believe welfare recipients are better off than people who work? Do they feel that immigrants contribute to society?
In fact, the single survey item most correlated with antidemocratic sentiments was not a measure of attitudes toward Trump or economic or cultural conservatism, but responses to this statement: “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
It’s important to note that Democrats were excluded from the study not because they don’t have such attitudes, but because political values tend to be expressed differently between Republicans and Democrats, so the survey would be less valid for Democrats.
The 2017 Democracy Fund Voter Study Group survey found a modest difference between liberals and conservatives in their support for democratic alternatives (i.e. a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections or army rule) at 17% and 22% respectively. But when asked if “European heritage” is important to being an American, the story shifts.
(I don’t know about you, but I’m suspicious of the “don’t know” and “skipped” respondents. You don’t know if European heritage is important to being an American?)
These findings may be alarming, but they still don’t explain why democracy in the US is backsliding now; racism isn’t a new thing. Some scholars have turned to the idea of “status threat:”
When members of a dominant group feel threatened, several well-established reactions help these groups regain a sense of dominance and wellbeing… Conservatism surges along with a nostalgia for the stable hierarchies of the past. Perceived threat also triggers defense of the dominant ingroup, a greater emphasis on the importance of conformity to group norms, and increased outgroup negativity. It is psychologically valuable to see one’s self as part of a dominant group; therefore, when group members feel threatened, this prompts defensive reactions.
What may be triggering status threat?
- the election of President Obama
- the declining share of the white population
- evidence of racial progress
- interdependence on foreign countries, reducing American dominance
Sound familiar as common Trump refrains?
Roughly one in three white Americans says their white identity is important to them (to be distinguished from racial resentment as the factor in status threat). A survey study found that both white identity and racial resentment impacted the likelihood of not voting for Obama and that both were correlated with a preference for Trump over other Republican candidates in the 2016 primary elections.
In an experimental study, white respondents unaffiliated with either of the two major parties were told one of two things: that the number of Hispanics in the country was roughly equal to the number of Blacks (the control condition), or that California had become a majority-minority state. Respondents were also asked a series of policy questions. As the graph below shows, the simple news of learning that California was no longer majority white resulted in a conservative shift on policy positions, leading the authors to state, “these results offer compelling evidence that making a majority- minority racial shift salient can lead Whites to perceive that their racial group’s status is threatened.”
A simulation study also supports the idea that status group threat is contributing to democratic backsliding. The researcher looked at changes in democracy over time in 135 countries and compared it to the level of support for non-democratic regimes. He found something odd: when increases in democracy were simulated, such as fairer elections or more civil rights, support for democracy decreased. Then he separated out two kinds of improvements — electoral democracy, which measures the strength of majority/dominant culture institutions and processes, and minoritarian democracy, which measures the democratic rights and legal protections of minorities. Here’s what he found.
The top two graphs show what happens when electoral democracy is improved: not much change in support for democracy. The bottom two graphs show what happens when minorities are given more rights: people prefer less democracy. The bottom right hand case is especially alarming, because it is the case of more minority rights in a regime of corruption. In this simulation, support for democracy has yet to return to its initial level after thirty years.
Social dominance orientation
One researcher found a significant rise in status threat between 2012 and 2016, noting that “evidence points overwhelmingly to perceived status threat among high-status groups as the key motivation underlying Trump support.” She measured status threat by something called “social dominance orientation.”
Social dominance orientation (SDO) is exactly like it sounds. It indicates the extent to which an individual wants their group to dominate and be superior to other groups. SDO scores vary by individual, with higher SDO indicating a stronger drive to exacerbate social inequalities and a stronger belief that their own group is worthy of special privileges. SDO is strongly correlated with anti-Black racism, sexism, cultural elitism, nationalism and belief in equal opportunity. But it is not synonymous with political-economic conservatism. Nor is it static — it can be activated and enhanced.
Interestingly, choice of careers seems to be related to SDO; for example, police recruits and law students have relatively high SDO. Serving in hierarchical roles can enhance SDO. Researches have tracked evidence of activation of SDO tendencies in the human brain.
By the way, ever wonder why Trump appears angry so often? It turns out that anger is a way of maintaining high status dominance. Moreover, people of high SDO are more attentive to displays of anger by high status people than low status people.
What does the future hold?
So, who is giving permission for backsliding? The evidence around race-based status threat seems to be firming up. Just to be clear, this includes people of all social strata. The highest support for army rule is found among the upper class and most wealthy. That’s scary, considering they are the ones who run this country.
How scared should we be? No one can predict for sure where our democracy will be in ten years, or five years, or even two months. In the next post I’ll offer some ways of thinking about how changes happen in complex systems, and what we’re up against.
Some things are more certain. As one scholar concluded just a few months ago: “Politicians invoking concerns about immigration, racial diversity, and the embattled or imperiled status of whites may activate these sentiments to their advantage among white voters in future elections.”
Enflaming these ugly tensions is the wretched genius of Donald Trump.