Understanding the Trump Phenomenon: We've Still Got it Wrong

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of Trump's domination of the Republican primary. Where the heck did he come from, and what does his base look like? How does he hold the lead despite having the entire party leadership turned against him?

There are two popular theories, and they're both very wrong. And it's very, very important to get them right. 

Theory 1: Angry, White, Male Sexists/Racists

The first-pass view is that Trump's base is a bunch of angry, white, male sexists/racists. It's popular in left wing media like Salon and Mother Jones, and this assumption was expanded upon by the very unhelpful poll about the emancipation proclamation, whose sins we've already discussed

It's clear anecdotally and with some numbers that Trump certainly has racists in his camp. But all the numbers sounded by even the most fervent supporters of the racist-sexist-base theory show that these folks make up a small minority of his following.

One might point out that 91% of Trump's supporters are white, but 89% of the Republican party is white, so this doesn't indicate anything about him specifically. One might point out that only 42% of Trump's supporters are women, but not only is this a pretty small gap, it's also the case that only 45% of Republicans are women, so the gap is almost zero.

Theory 1.5 here is that his supporters are Tea Partiers gone mad, but he doesn't do well among Tea Partiers at all--they're going for Ted Cruz. 

Theory 2: Authoritarians

After the numbers didn't support Theory 1, the next du jour theory was that Trump's supporters are "authoritarians." This was probably most popularized by Vox, heralding "the rise of American authoritarianism." 

One of the problems with this theory is that "authoritarianism" is not exact, and most people don't read into the actual methodology behind how some political scientist defined "authoritarian." The guy behind it (Feldman) has a survey with "4 simple questions:"

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Our own instincts on this are that folks in the United States would have almost unanimously chosen the "authoritarian" answers before the 1960s, when new thoughts about raising children came into being. It's entirely possible that these questions have a lot more to do with traditionalism and conformity than they do with fascism.

But even if you accept this definition, it turns out that a wider survey than the one in the Vox article shows that Cruz supporters are significantly more "authoritarian," and Rubio's supporters are about equally so. The Washington Post has a great graph on it.

So using this same measure of authoritarianism, Trump just doesn't stand out at all. The other bars are far more interesting (and we'll come back to them in a moment). So Theory 2 is bunk.

Some Actual Demographic Consistencies

Trump's support is actually really, really broad. It's not just Republicans... in fact, it's sort of not Republicans. Trump does far better among Independents and actually does best among Democrats that vote in the Republican primary


He does well among those without college education, and 3x better among "pro-choice" Republicans than "Pro-Life" ones. 

It's Just Populism, Guys

In the end, whatever Trump might say or believe, the most consistent thread in his base is populism. Trump may say all sorts of awful things, but we shouldn't assume that a given thing he said is what resonates with his base. Those that support him have a few common threads that indicate populist sentiment more than anything else:

Anti-Outsider Sentiment

The common thread that binds wanting to "take on" China, build a wall with Mexico, and ban Muslims from entering the country is a fear of outsiders. It's got less to do with racism (blacks, who are notably the target of most racism in the United States, are completely absent from the messaging here). Trump's supporters don't want jobs sent to China, low-skill workers coming in from Mexico, or terror threats coming from the Middle East. 

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Trump's immigration and protectionist/anti trade deal stances are so appealing. Immigration and trade are the biggest two concerns of Trump's supporters. 

National Pride

Trump's supporters score highest on "American Identity," (see the first graph in the article) and that's not surprising. Trump's statements on this that get the most traction are things like, "China is killing us," "they [for many iterations of "they"] think we're idiots," etc. These are the heart of "Make America Great Again:" there is a sense of lost dignity, a fading place on the world stage. 

Like other populist candidates, restoring the nation's dignity is a key factor in his support. 


Trump's supporters think that the Republican party is "bought," and that the government is made up of insiders, gunning for their own interests. Trump's supporters are the only Republican ones in WaPo's graph that have "anti-elite" sentiment--by a very long shot. 

We cover more of this in our op-ed with the Independent Voter Network. Republicans have for so long run on a message that Washington is broken, that the federal government isn't good for the interests of common Americans, and now it's come back to bite them: Trump (and Carson, who also briefly flirted with front-runner status) is the only guy that hasn't been part of the mess. Any surprise that folks are turning to him after being told for so long to reject the Beltway?

More than the supporters of any other candidate, by far, Trump's supporters believe they don't have a political voice. They feel voiceless, shut out by the system. They feel they've been hurt.


For these folks, Trump is the outsider that can shake things up. His no-nonsense approach and disdain for Washington insiders makes him hugely popular among this group. When one feels shut out by the system, one stops looking to the system for the way out.

Ironically, most attempts to destroy Trump can actually strengthen him in this way: if insiders--whether wearing blue or red jerseys--lash out at him, or if the media tries to tank him, his message grows stronger. People that have been on the fence about Trump's message become convinced: the establishment and media are out to stop my guy because he's an outsider, so I'm just now more convinced the system is corrupt. In this way, Trump supporters and Sanders supporters have a lot in common. 

Why This Is Important

For those that don't support Trump, the story that his supporters are angry white racists or fledgling Nazis can be either a source of comfort ("I don't understand them, but that's because they're terrible people so I don't need to") or rage-porn. 

Either way, these stories are false, and that disarms us. We need to understand the folks that disagree with us, whether we want to work with them, change their minds, or just live with them. Just as lashing out at Trump strengthens his support, calling his supporters racists or Nazis strengthens their resolve and does nothing to change minds. It shows that you're out of touch and don't care to understand what worries them. 

To understand Trump's supporters, we have to look to them, not to him. We can look at something Trump said that we think might be fascist, or racist, and think, "his supporters must all agree with him there." This is a critical error that leads us astray.

Love him or hate him, Trump is indeed a herald of a new era in politics, and working in that context requires understanding it. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.