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.”
Why didn’t those tactics bring victory?
As Ron Brownstein tells it, the “coalition of transformation,” his phrase for “the modern Democratic voting base that’s mostly clustered around the nation’s major metropolitan centers: minorities, Millennials, and college-educated whites, especially women, “generally express optimism about the demographic, cultural, and economic changes remaking American life,” and “provided Democrats with insurmountable margins on Tuesday that reflected their intense antipathy toward Trump.”
Watching those voters turn out in Virginia suburbs to defeat the Republican candidate, I thought of another insight from Stenner that helps to explain their behavior.
In her taxonomy, “authoritarians” are those who have the most extreme preference for oneness and sameness; at the other end the political spectrum are her “libertarians,” so-called because they are not merely anti-authoritarian, but ascribe a positive value to diversity and difference, and thus strongly oppose coercive measures to impose sameness on the population in the name of unity. Under many circumstances, those two types behave almost indistinguishably. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama had supporters from both of those groups; the folks with a latent predisposition to authoritarianism had not been activated—and because difference and diversity weren’t threatened, libertarians weren’t activated either.
But once authoritarians are triggered, they “clamor for authoritative constraints on racial diversity, political dissent, and moral deviance,” a broad crackdown on difference.
“Libertarians will have little concern for the uses of the collective authority until other people’s ambitions for its usage suggest that they ought to take interest in its limits,” Stenner writes. “The challenge presented to libertarians by these same conditions, then, is to celebrate and defend individual autonomy and diversity at precisely those moments when these favored social arrangements and outcomes might seem to be in jeopardy.”
Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, the Electoral College, Trump’s celebrity (which blinded some Americans to the authoritarianism of his campaign), and the widespread expectation that he would lose combined to help the president to win in 2016, despite the backlash that authoritarianism reliably triggers. Nevertheless, Stenner’s “libertarians” were awoken by his victory. They took to the streets in protest, spontaneously congregated at airports to help those affected by Trump’s first travel ban, and began to organize politically at the local level.
Enter Gillespie, who needed to appeal to the authoritarians in Trump’s base to win over the president’s coalition; and he appeared to win those voters, but in doing so, he guaranteed a backlash populated by those suddenly-invested libertarians.
In Virginia, their backlash was bigger.
In the 2018 midterms, the relative strength of these same camps will likely be tested again. Here is how Stenner described the underlying “authoritarian dynamic”:
Authoritarians and libertarians are mobilized in defense of that which they value only when those valued ends appear to be in jeopardy. For each side, this will be when they are induced to fear that those ends, and the social arrangements that serve them, might be at risk, or starting to seem too risky for the collective … Mean levels of intolerance may remain constant or even decline. But it will be a very different world indeed.
The aggregate result of activating this dynamic will be deeply intensified value conflict across the tolerance domain, sharply polarized politics, and enormously increased demands upon the polity: for greater and lesser discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration; for more and fewer limits on free speech, assembly, and association; for stricter and softer policies on common rites, abortion, censorship, and homosexuality; for harsher and more lenient punishment.
A “debilitating culture war” ensues.
Trump wouldn’t have won but for the authoritarian dynamic. Stephen Bannon still thinks it can propel other Republicans to victory. Breitbart and Sean Hannity will keep triggering authoritarians, but Virginia casts new doubt on their dark tactics.
Bouie argues that had Gillespie won or come close, “other Republicans would have taken note, charging into 2018 with campaigns aimed at the same kind of voters, with the same kind of message, with the same basic goal: to obscure an otherwise unpopular agenda with targeted appeals to white racism.” And he’s right, save for the fact that the appeals in question are better understood as targeting authoritarianism, which can manifest as white racism but is more varied and complicated, being rooted in discomfort with difference, not ideological white supremacy.
Now, instead of organizing around Trump-like appeals, Republicans have to reckon with the political environment going into next year. And that environment is dangerous. Trump is deeply unpopular, tangled by scandal and investigation. And Republicans overall are well behind in the generic congressional ballot, trailing Democrats by 10 points. In theory, individual Republicans can distance themselves from the president, but Virginia shows that is more difficult than it seems, even against a lackluster opponent. Gillespie tried as much as he could to downplay his connection to Trump.
It didn’t work.
In the old political landscape, Republicans excelled at winning seats in Congress and state legislatures, even while losing the White House for an eight-year period. Triggering authoritarians was probably the only way Trump could have won the White House. But that change may yet fuel a backlash that costs Republicans much more.