So what drove the ascent of Donald J. Trump? I have teased out six main reasons why some 63 million Americans voted for him in 2016. Approximately 70 million did this time around. Despite every failing, he got 70 million votes!
Diana C. Mutz, in her 2018 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pointed out the most crucial reason – cultural anxiety. Daniel Cox and his group came to the same conclusion in their Public Religion Research Institute survey of more than 3,000 people.
Many whites were worried this country was losing its white identity. This fear was quite notable among white men who felt they were becoming an endangered species. They hated seeing all the non-white immigrants everywhere and hearing strange languages. Feminism was also seen as a threat. The emergence of ISIS did not help matters. Thus when Trump called Mexicans rapist and promised to build a wall, he assuaged a fear and garnered support. His anti-globalism stance also jelled with those who wanted the US to take a stronger and more belligerent attitude towards China and for the US to assume a more isolationist position on the world stage.
Though both Mutz and Cox did not think economic anxiety played a role, I think it did. There are many places in the Ohio Valley where lack of jobs and a future have driven many Americans to drugs and deaths of despair. Trump spoke to them when he blamed China, Mexico, and NAFTA for having the jobs they used to have.
The third reason is individualism, a significant part of American society and identity – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, blazing your path. This attitude has served the nation well and allowed the country to rise and rise.
Some fear the US is losing this spirit of individualism and self-responsibility, and self-reliance. They fear it bodes badly for the country because it has allowed the emergence of “snowflakes” who cannot withstand the challenges life throws in one’s way. In a way, they may have a point; however, there is a version of this individualism that Trump embodies that seemed attractive to even more people. It is the version that is selfish. The “it-is-all-about-me-everyone-else-damned, say-what-i-want, do-whatever-I-want, take-what-I want” version. It is a cruel version that does not look out for the other but just for the “I.” The kind of individualism that prevents one from seeing the importance of wearing a mask to protect others from getting COVID-19.
The type of individualism that makes one call being considerate of racial and cultural differences, political correctness. I call it “Malignant Individualism,” and some Trump supporters see that as a way of life that absolves them of all social responsibility. Like him, they want to get rich, not pay taxes, and do and say whatever they want.
A lot of business owners and entrepreneurs found the policies of Obama stifled economic activity in the US. Even though the economy grew well after the crash in 2008, the GDP was relatively stagnant in his 2nd term. Most blamed it on high taxes and regulation. Thus the business community welcomed the thought of a businessman – even if he was not necessarily a successful one – in the White House.
Trump Speech at Sioux City in 2016
If you decide listen to the speech remember to fact check it
Another is embodied by the white evangelicals who voted upwards of 70% for Trump. Most want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, prayer re-introduced in schools, and gay rights curtailed. For that, they needed social conservative judges in the supreme court. When Trump in a speech In Sioux City, Iowa, in January 2016, said, “Christianity will have power,” he won millions of adherents. Despite all his character flaws and cruelty, it did not matter. Despite sticking children in cages, white evangelicals flocked to him, for he had promised them power.
The last reason is his authoritarian tendencies. Matthew MacWilliams published a survey he did in January 2016. He found among 1800 respondents that the dominant trait was a belief in a strongman being able to get things in order. In the four years of Trump, we saw several examples of his wish to be a strongman and the attempts he made to subvert the constitution and our democracy.
Trump may have lost the elections, but the issues that got him 70 million votes are not going anywhere. Neither are those who believed in the things he represented. While some of the beliefs are racist, bigoted, and anti-democratic, others, like the economic issues, demand consideration.
Hopefully, America’s changing face will temper these beliefs and launch a more tolerant and accepting society.
By Nana Dadzie Ghansah an anesthesiologist who lives and works in Lexington Kentucky
Feature photo by Gage Skidmore