In Karen Stenner’s penetrating 2005 study of the forces that tear societies apart, she explains that some people strongly prefer diversity, dynamism, and difference, while others have a powerful, possibly innate need for oneness and sameness. Politicians can exploit the latter predisposition, as Donald Trump did when he told his fellow Americans that their usurping Kenyan president was too lazy, disloyal, and incompetent to stop Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and minority street gangs—and that only he could stop the “carnage” on America’s streets.
Trump’s unusually naked authoritarian rhetoric stoked dark fears and prejudices, activating the latent predispositions toward intolerance possessed by some in his base. Anti-immigrant sentiments increased. Calls for a Muslim ban were cheered. A fearful faction turned out. And despite losing the popular vote, Trump reshaped his party.
Before Republican Ed Gillespie was defeated in the Virginia governor’s race this week, he ran a campaign pitched to trigger the authoritarian instincts of those same voters.
“Gone was the staid, traditional Republican who nearly upset Mark Warner in 2014 through careful appeal to conservative suburbanites,” Jamelle Bouie observed. “Gillespie remade himself as a demagogue, playing on white racial resentment. He blasted Northam on MS-13—tying the gang to ‘sanctuary cities’ and undocumented immigration—promised to protect Confederate monuments (‘our statue’ declared his ads), and linked Northam to protests by NFL players. Gillespie may have put physical distance between himself and Trump, who never came to campaign on his behalf, but rhetorically he wasn’t far behind the president.”