News & Politics

Donald Trump’s Appeal Explained in 5 Simple Steps

Donald Trump didn't come from nowhere. These passions drive his base and will continue to, even if Trump implodes.

The longer Donald Trump leads the GOP field, the more theories arise to explain — or explain away — his popularity. The vast majority have been about as credible or well thought-out as something Trump himself might say. But the day after the second GOP debate, political scientist Richard M. Skinner put everyone else on the “What’s up with Trump?” beat to shame with a post at the Brookings Institute’s FixGov blog. Skinner named five factors that combine to make Trump seem almost inevitable—and helped illuminate the broader political dynamics Trump's campaign vividly illustrates. These dynamics will not go away, even if support for Trump eventually does.

“I am not one of those who are inclined to read profundities into the Trump phenomenon,” Skinner wrote, but as he told Salon, he was referring to trying to make sense of what supporters were telling pollsters. “If you don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, but you get a little bit of news, you watched TV news, you see stuff on Facebook, there’s one presidential candidate on the Republican side you’re going to hear about,” he observed. So a certain undetermined amount of Trump’s support is simply exposure to folks who don’t normally follow politics much.

But those people, and their disengagement from politics as party leaders and elites know it, are actually indicative of one of the five factors Skinner pointed to. Researchers have known for at least 50 years about the lack of ideological thinking among low-information, low-engagement voters; the phenomenon was first cogently laid out by Philip E. Converse, a pioneer of public opinion research, in his 1964 article “The nature of belief systems in mass publics.” (More on it below.) Skinner notes that while ideological thinking appears to be more widespread than it once was, there is still a preponderance of non-ideological voters out there.

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The other four factors, however, all seem to be on the rise.

Skinner first called attention to two factors—“authoritarianism” and “ethnocentrism”— that do introduce some degree of cross-issue consistency, though not the same sort of traditional ideological forms that political junkies are familiar with. These two factors are attitudinal constructs seen around the world that have been studied and dissected for at least 60 and 100 years, respectively. Skinner also called attention to two less universal factors, which nonetheless have played a significant role in American politics in recent decades—declining political trust and growing negative partisanship—which most political commentary routinely ignores.

So Trump supporters, individually, may not be saying anything profound when they express their support for him, but collectively they reflect something profound that’s much larger than they are as a group. “One of the reasons I’m not inclined to get very profound about [Trump] is because he’s more like the guy riding a wave ... than like the guy who creates it ... [or] the moon creating the tide,” Skinner said.


The first of the five factors Skinner cited was authoritarianism. “That was a big buzzword in social science back in the ’40s and ’50s,” he said. “People were still trying to explain fascism. More recently, as I mentioned, Mark Hetherington and John Weiler brought it back.”

That’s a reference to their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, which Skinner cited in his discussion of authoritarianism. “It’s concerned with order, maintaining traditional hierarchy, a sort of suspicion of dissent,” he said, “and the interesting thing we’ve found over the past 20 years is that it is starting to play more and more of a role in American politics—that Republicans are starting to do better with people who have more of an authoritarian orientation.”

The use of physical punishment to discipline children is a fundamental indicator of authoritarian views, and a chart from the book shows how significant a role it plays in influencing votes for president. In a discussion forum on their book, Hetherington and Weiler presented a similar chart for the 2008 election. “Of course, we don’t think that spanking kids causes people to vote Republican,” they wrote. “We do, however, show in the book that those who view the world in hierarchical terms, a worldview consistent with using physical means to discipline children, are now much more likely to vote Republican.”

This was the result of “a gradual evolution” of an authoritarian-based issue agenda over the last few decades, they wrote. “That evolution started with race and ‘law and order’ in the 1960s, continued with the emergence of feminism and differing approaches to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and hardened following the rise of gay rights, terrorism and immigration as high-profile issues in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Hetherington backed up Skinner’s view of Trump as a creature of these larger forces. “This is best thought of as a process rather than a particular sort of event in time,” he told Salon. “You can see the appeal of Trump through a process of decisions that Republicans have made through decades. The signature issue for Trump, of course, is being really, really conservative on immigration, the denigration of an out-group of people—Hispanics, in this case,” Hetherington said. “This actually fits a pattern of things; it’s just that the out-group has changed. If you go back to the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon in 1968, there was the denigration of African Americans; then that became unfashionable, it morphed into welfare recipients, it had in the background the understanding that this was a racialized sort of thing.”

The points at which different issues became part of this dynamic might be surprising. Take immigration, for example. “If you look at the immigration chapter in our book, there was no divide between Republicans and Democrats in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” Hetherington pointed out. “But when it was raised as an issue, the Republicans felt pretty natural going in the anti-immigrant direction, and it’s also important to realize that the Democrats felt pretty natural going in a pro-immigration direction. It’s not a one-sided process.”

So, the specific timing was set by outside forces. But the positions the parties took were driven in each case by consistent internal logic.

“This is not something that happened out of the blue,” Hetherington summed up. “This is the result of a process of Republicans trying to compete for white Southern and white working-class voters, who tend to be very conservative in their otherness issue domains, and so that’s what Trump is appealing to.” Then he went a step further. “It’s not even just his issue positions,” he said. “It’s also a style, his blustery, very simple word use—'You wanna be winners, other people are losers'—type of dichotomous worldview.” Trump is, after all, a performer of politics.

“This is best thought of as a culmination,” Hetherington reiterated. Even though “Republicans are absolutely horrified about it,” given how crudely Trump makes his case, Hetherington said, they can’t easily escape from his position. After all, “It’s the culmination of a process as opposed to something that just parachuted in at this particular moment.”

This evolution does not stretch to include all issues across the ideological board, however. The book contains a table with two contrasting lists of “Authoritarian-Structured Values and Preferences” and “Traditional Political Values and Preferences.” The first contained items like “School boards should fire gay teachers,” “[Government] Should do more to restrict people coming into the country,” and “Discrimination against blacks is rare.” The second included “Businesses make too much profit” and “Poor have become too dependent on gov’t assistance programs.” In four short years, from 2003 to 2007, partisan differences for the 14 items in the first category increased from 14.9% to 20.1%, an increase of 5.2%. At the same time, the partisan differences for the 14 items in the second category, although higher, actually decreased by 1.9%.

So this is the background Skinner was drawing on. “All authoritarian voters are not necessarily conservative voters,” he said. “With Trump, he displays a lot of the factors that we tied to authoritarianism, the emphasis on ‘I’m going to restore American greatness,’ the suspicion of minority groups, the emphasis on ‘I’m going to restore order,’ ‘I’m going to restore traditional hierarchy,’ particularly race and gender, you know there’s an awful lot of that,” Skinner said. “On the other hand, as I point out, if you look at Trump’s statements—I don’t know how much people pay attention to this—but I think on issues, he’s a pretty incoherent guy, ideologically. No one would look at the things that Trump has said and say, ‘Wow! This is Mister Conservative!’ You’d say this more like, 'This is a grab bag, you have ideas that are tied tied together, but more by authoritarianism than by traditional liberal/conservative ideologies.'”


The second factor Skinner focuses on—ethnocentrism—has been studied for more than a century. “Trump seems to consistently appeal to ethnocentrism—favoring one’s own racial or ethnic group above others,” Skinner wrote, citing as examples his stance on immigration, his willingness to use racially charged language, his tough talk on trade and “law and order,” using polarizing language reminiscent of Patrick Buchanan or George Wallace.

The term “ethnocentrism” was coined by sociologist William G. Sumner in his 1906 book Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals, where he introduced it as one of his “fundamental notions,” defining it as “the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” He added, “Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right ones.” The initial focus was on its social role—promoting social cohesion and stability, for example—but its relationship to individual (political) psychology became a concern in tandem with the interest in authoritarianism after World War II. Although distinct, the two concepts have repeatedly been found to correlate with each other.

A 2001 paper, “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?” highlighted the role of ethnocentrism in influencing attitudes toward social spending. Comparing the US to Europe, the paper concluded, “The differences appear to be the result of racial heterogeneity in the US and American political institutions. Racial animosity in the US makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” 

However, more recent work has produced a more refined understanding of how ethnocentrism operates. The 2009 book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, by Donald Kinder and Cindy Cam, covered a broad range of subjects, including differences between black and white ethnocentrism. But on spending issues, the pattern was strikingly clear, as underscored in an article by Matt Yglesias: ethnocentric voters oppose spending on means-tested programs such as welfare and food stamps, which they (mistakenly) perceive as primarily benefiting minorities not like them [chart], while supporting spending on Social Security and Medicare, which are seen quite differently as benefiting a truly deserving white middle class [chart].

Skinner told Salon that ethnocentrism was “clearly at the heart of Trump’s appeal.” First off, “The only issue where he’s pretty consistent is immigration. It’s pretty clearly that what what draws a lot of his supporters, and once again it’s more than a coherent kind of ideological framework that probably drives his support.” But Skinner quickly added, “He’s quite adamant in his support of entitlements that tend to go more to older white people, but very mocking of those that go to other folks.”

This fits in with a broader international pattern, Skinner wrote: “European politics is now filled with extreme-right parties who back a welfare state—but only for our people.” He expanded on the parallels in conversation. “Right-wing parties in Europe, like the national front in France, they’re obviously very anti-immigrant, they’re very racist and they’re opposed to programs that might go to minorities, but they’re very loudly supportive of the welfare state for the traditional groups in society,” Skinner said.“You get someone like Marine Le Pen in France. On a lot of the economic issues she’s almost to the left of the mainstream parties in France. She very pro-welfare state, she’s very protectionist. It’s more like, ‘People have all these things, and they’re being endangered by all these outsiders.’ So there’s a little echo of that in Trump. I don’t think Trump is Le Pen, but that sort of connection among issues fits very nicely with ethnocentrism.”

Lack of Ideology

The third factor Skinner cited was lack of ideology. About it, he wrote:

Ideology has been described as the system that tells voters “what goes with what.” Opposing abortion goes with supporting lower taxes. Wanting stricter environmental regulation goes with backing universal health care. By that standard, Trump has been a remarkably non-ideological candidate. Outside of his pet issue of immigration, his views don’t fall into liberal or conservative camps. In that, he fits with the attitudes of the less-informed citizens who seem to be backing him.

As political scientist Hans Noel explained in the link above, “Remembering Converse,” focused on the 1964 paper, “Those with low political knowledge have little to organize their political views. They respond mostly to the ephemeral nature of the times. Then, as voters become more knowledgable, groups become very salient, to be replaced by ideological thinking among only the most informed.” In fact, Converse only found about 3% of the population to be true ideologues, those who actively relied on “a relatively abstract and far-reaching conceptual dimension as a yardstick,” while another 12% were “near ideologues,” a less sophisticated sort “who mentioned such a dimension in a peripheral way but did not appear to place much evaluative dependence upon it.” As Skinner mentioned, these numbers have increased since then, but they’re still a minority of the population. In contrast, to the extent that Trump’s views do tend to have some coherence, it’s the coherence provided by authoritarianism and ethnocentricism, both of which are tied to group identities and group interests, rather than the more abstract level of ideology. So Converse provides an insight into how Trump combines appeals to different levels of sophistication. It’s just not the levels that the political class considers worthy of consideration.

Skinner described two channels that bind the conservative GOP establishment together, but which leave Trump’s base untouched. “A really well informed conservative Republican probably would both have abstract ideas like libertarianism or free enterprise or traditional values or whatever, and would also have picked up the message from Republican elites that this is what a good conservative Republican thinks,” he said. “People who are less aware don’t think that way, and also don’t pick up those messages.” So it’s both a matter of how people think about the world and who they pay attention to. As elites try to overcome this two-fold barrier, to tell Trump supporters that he’s not a true conservative worthy of their support, they risk running into the fourth factor that Skinner described: distrust.


“There’s been a long-term trend with trust, where it's a long way down from where it was 50 years ago,” Skinner said, “and in the last several years with a war and then the recession, we’ve seen an even deeper fall in trust, falling trust in government, and it seems particularly strong among Republicans. Normally people trust government less when the president is of the other party, but there’s sort of a multiplicative effect here.”

Ordinarily the GOP would use this distrust to attack Democrats as the party of big government, but Trump has effectively outflanked them. After all, the GOP establishment controls Congress; their fingerprints are everywhere. Trump’s supporters trust him for giving voice to mass distrust. If distrusted elites attack him, they only validate him further. In his Brookings post, Skinner wrote, "Donald Trump is a perfect candidate for distrustful times. ... Trump’s staunch defense of middle-class entitlements, while opposing Obamacare (but not for ideological reasons), fits the attitudes of the distrustful. His rhetoric, with its constant baiting of other politicians (and groups in the electorate), and its dark view of the current state of American life, matches the attitudes of those with sour opinions of the political system.”

Hetherington has also studied the decline of public trust as well, even writing a book about it. “It’s not just Trump in this regard,” he said. “A new poll from CNN came out over the weekend and what it shows is that the top three candidates with about 55% of the vote, the only three candidates on top, have no government experience at all. It is not even a mild form of distrust.” With outsider candidates like these in the race, it’s not only bad news for the establishment but for self-styled “outsider” politicians as well.

“Just imagine where Cruz might be if we didn’t include Trump or Carson in the race. He probably has most outsider demonstrables of anyone in the race, shutting government down, and some of the things, and he’s not getting traction hardly at all,” Hetherington said. And it’s not just Cruz, he pointed out. For most of American history, governors have registered strong outsider appeal, combined with a record of experience—think Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. The same had been expected this time around, perhaps from Scott Walker, now gone from the race. “This hyper-outside caucus is soaking up a lot of support from these people who are more experienced candidates,” he concluded.

Skinner specifically cited Heatherington in his post:

According to Why Trust Matters by Marc Hetherington, distrustful voters are not ideologically conservative. They are quite willing to hold on to the government programs that benefit themselves. But they resist initiatives that might help others—hence, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!”

But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. The subtitle of Hetherington’s book is Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism, and the publisher’s description explains:

As people lost faith in the federal government, the delivery system for most progressive policies, they supported progressive ideas much less. ...

Specifically, Hetherington shows that, as political trust declined, so too did support for redistributive programs, such as welfare and food stamps, and race-targeted programs. While the presence of race in a policy area tends to make political trust important for whites, trust affects policy preferences in other, non-race-related policy areas as well. In the mid-1990s the public was easily swayed against comprehensive health care reform because those who felt they could afford coverage worried that a large new federal bureaucracy would make things worse for them.

In conversation, Hetherington added another explanatory wrinkle when he mentioned “the sort of ‘submerged state’ that exists, that provides these enormous benefits for in-group members that are just accepted as given, not opposed as government programs at all; but it’s the programs that benefit out groups that are ‘government programs,’ even though they make up a relatively small percentage of the budget.” In her 2011 book The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy,Suzanne Mettler shows that even those receiving government subsidies and incentives tend not to think of them as government programs, but simply mistake them as just part of how things are—as if there were nothing political about them.

Negative Partisanship

“Negative partisanship” was the fifth and final factor Skinner highlighted. “People are more likely to have really, really negative views of other parties than they once did,” he said. “There are all sorts of measurements of this. Of course the most fun one is the increasing percentage of folks people say they would be distressed if their child married a member of the other party.” It’s also reflected in the rise of straight-ticket voting, “because partisanship lines up with a lot of divisions in society, [more] than it once did,” he explained. “If you go back to the 1960s, '70s, being a Democrat or Republican had absolutely nothing to do with your views on abortion. If you look at issues like civil rights and Vietnam, they divided the parties internally more than from each other.” Politically, it was a very different world.

“Today, the issues all fall on the same divide. You see major cultural divisions in society fall along the same divide: race, religion and so on. And that seems to be accentuating the sense of the other party being not just mistaken, but really just alien,” Skinner said. “And Trump plays into that, despite not being that much of a Republican, not that much of the conservative; but there’s nobody else who’s been more identified with that sense that 'Obama is an alien, he’s not American, he’s not a Christian, he’s all these things.'” By being the embodiment of negative partisanship toward Obama, Trump has staked a strong claim to the GOP base—even if there's no substance to it.

Birtherism was the key to Trump’s transformation from the apolitical celebrity he had been to the right-wing hero role he’s playing today. But far from being some sort of freak anomaly, once again we see Trump’s actions are a snug fit within the broader patterns of American politics—in this case, the historical trend of increasing negative partisanship.“To some Republicans,” Skinner wrote, “if Donald Trump is saying bad things about That Kenyan in the White House, he can’t be all bad.”

Summing Up

 If Trump were explicable in terms of just one or two of these five factors, it might well explain his rapid rise in the GOP primary, though probably not his staying power. The fact that so many different factors combine to explain the logic of his success strongly suggests that he represents a much greater challenge than the political press has been willing to recognize, even as he’s shown some signs of possibly faltering in the polls. The combination of factors not only may make it more difficult to dislodge him, it also underscores the broader presence of persistent deep barriers to what GOP elites want to do—barriers within the ranks of their supporters. Even negative partisanship, which helps them in one way, promoting brand loyalty, can prove deeply destructive when it comes to governing—as the now-departing House Speaker John Boehner can heartily attest.

But it’s not just a challenge to the GOP. Even though these factors don’t line up along elite-defined ideological lines, and even cut against them in significant ways, they represent more of a challenge to liberals than to conservatives. Authoritarianism and ethnocentrism have long been recognized as illiberal forces; Herrington’s book on distrust stresses its corrosive impact on liberal activist government; and negative partisanship makes governing more difficult—a result that conservative Republicans increasingly regard as a feature, not a bug. Even Trump’s appeal to non-ideological voters tends to hurt liberals more than conservatives, because liberal politics generally involve more sophisticated arguments and more sensitive balancing of competing rights and interests.

This is why Trump’s surprising strength in the GOP primary should not be seen as good for liberals or Democrats, however helpful it may seem in the short run: it simultaneously strengthens multiple ways of seeing the world that are deeply at odds with how liberals seek to solve problems, which is by building bridges of dialogue, shared interests, mutual respect and, ultimately, trust.

In the end, it’s no accident that liberals build bridges, and Trump’s campaign is all about building a wall.


Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.