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Who Goes Trump?

What ultimately determines support for the GOP nominee isn’t race, class, or political ideology. It’s character.

James Kirchick
November 03, 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Trump. Having gone through the experience many times, I have come to know the types: the born Trumpkins, the Trumpkins whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would go Trump.

It is preposterous to think that Trump supporters are created by economic or regional characteristics. The rural white working-class may be more susceptible to Trumpism than most people, but I doubt that preference is inherent. Hispanics are barred, but that’s an arbitrary, circumstantial ruling. I know lots of Hispanics who are born Trumpkins and many others who would support Trump tomorrow morning if given an opening to do so. Trumpism has nothing to do with class, ethnicity, or even gender. It appeals to a certain type of mind.

Let us look around the room. The gentleman standing beside the fireplace with an untouched glass of whiskey beside him on the mantelpiece is Governor A, a man with homes in the country’s finest ZIP codes. The son of a Republican governor of Michigan, he has been married to the same woman for over 40 years, and raised five enviably accomplished and attractive young men; has had a classical education but has not a touch of snobbery in him; is full of humor, courtesy and wit. He left a highly lucrative career in private equity to rescue a failing Olympic bid in the city of Salt Lake, and later ruled as a moderate Republican governor in one of the country’s bluest states, earning a high approval rating from his Democratic constituents. He is modest, a staunch friend, and a man who greatly enjoys the company of his dozens of grandchildren.

Beside him stands Mayor B, a man who showed remarkable heroism and leadership after the terrorist attacks against New York City 15 years ago. He is a good fellow and was extremely popular. He had gay roommates and enjoyed dressing in drag. But once his party began to go Trump, he joined up. Why? Why the one and not the other?

Senator C, a Midwestern Republican, spent most of the past four years leading the charge against the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama and endorsed by his former secretary of state and likely successor, Hillary Clinton. “Tens of thousands of people in the Middle East are gonna lose their lives because of this decision,” he has said, characterizing it as “the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” Yet even his fervent opposition to the signature foreign-policy achievement of the Democrats was not enough to persuade him to go Trump, a man he has denounced as a “malignant clown.” Senator C is a veteran and since recovering from a stroke some years ago, has embraced a new, more altruistic outlook on life. “I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others,” he said after triumphantly ascending the Capitol steps to the applause of his colleagues. He despises Trump.

Former Speaker of the House D has risen beyond his real abilities by virtue of his cunning, intelligence and unscrupulousness. Like Mayor B, he is on his third wife; the first he served divorce papers to while she lay in a hospital bed stricken with cancer. He fits easily into whatever pattern is successful. That is his sole measure of value—success. Trumpism as a minority movement would attract only his scorn. As a movement likely to attain power, it attracts his endorsement.

Mrs. E would go Trump as sure as you are born. That statement surprises you? Mrs. E seems so sweet, so clinging, so cowed. She is. She is a masochist. She is married to a man who never ceases to humiliate her, to lord it over her, to treat her with less consideration than he does his dogs. Mrs. E, who married him very young, has convinced herself that he is a genius and that there is something of superior womanliness in her utter lack of pride, in her doglike devotion. She speaks disapprovingly of other “masculine” or insufficiently devoted wives. Her husband, however, is bored to death with her. He neglects her completely, and she is looking for someone else before whom to pour her ecstatic self-abasement. She will titillate with pleased excitement to the first popular hero who proclaims the basic subordination of women, which is why she is so infatuated with Mr. Trump.


The above is adapted, in some places word-for-word, from a 75-year-old Harper’s essay titled “Who Goes Nazi?” Written by Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany, the article presents readers with the aforementioned “macabre parlor game” in which she secretly assesses which guests at a random social function might “go Nazi” given the proper political and social conditions. As Thompson keenly observed from her time in Germany, there was no single demographic “type” of Nazi supporter; workers and businessmen and intellectuals and landed gentry all backed Adolf Hitler’s political movement, just as workers and businessmen and intellectuals and landed gentry opposed it. There were even Jews, Thompson wrote, “who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis.” Nazism, Thompson argues, “appeals to a certain type of mind,” not a rigid composite. As such, her article is a timeless analysis of the authoritarian mentality and makes for disturbingly relevant reading today.

Since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president 16 months ago, it has become a lazy journalistic trope to attribute his rise to the economic travails of the white working class in an era of globalization. Contrary to popular conception, however, the median household income of a Trump primary voter is a healthy $72,000 a year, well above the $62,000 national average and higher than the median incomes of those who supported both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, 44 percent of Trump voters have college degrees, far more than the 29 percent of the general adult population. According to a Gallup working paper based upon interviews with some 87,000 Trump supporters over the past year, the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the Trump phenomenon completed thus far, “There appears to be no link whatsoever between exposure to trade competition and support for nationalist policies in America, as embodied by the Trump campaign.” The same study also found “little clear evidence that economic hardship predicts support for Trump, in that higher household incomes tend to predict higher Trump support.”

What does drive enthusiasm for Trump? According to the American National Election Survey, the best determinant of whether someone is a Trump supporter—even more than Republican Party affiliation—is if they think President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Eighty-nine percent of those who believe this racist conspiracy theory will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton. A Pew poll, meanwhile, reports that Republicans who believe America’s impending non-white majority is “bad for the country” are overwhelmingly positive toward Trump, while a qualified sample of 10,000 Trump Twitter supporters finds that a third follow white nationalist accounts.

Support for the Republican nominee, then, seems to hinge upon a mix of racial resentment and pining for strongman rule. Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts, says that the only statistical variable predicting support for Trump is a voter’s authoritarian inclinations. “It is time for those who would appeal to our better angels to take his insurgency seriously and stop dismissing his supporters as a small band of the dispossessed,” he writes. “Trump support is firmly rooted in American authoritarianism and, once awakened, it is a force to be reckoned with.”

As Dorothy Thompson demonstrated 75 years ago with National Socialism, gauging sympathy for Trump is less a matter of class or ideology (for Trump doesn’t really have one) than it is one of individual character. The best way to understand the Trump phenomenon isn’t by reading Hillbilly Elegy, the widely praised memoir about the Appalachian underclass, but through something more prosaic: personal integrity.

Ask yourself: Among the men you know who support Trump, are they unlikely to be bothered by their candidate’s lecherous musings and admitted sexual predation because they view women in a similarly odious fashion? As for the women who support Trump: Are they the kind who gravitate toward abusive men? Is the uncle or work colleague who always puts an emphasis on the president’s middle name backing Trump? “Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi,” Thompson observed. “But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis.” Much the same can be said of those who go Trump.

Characterological defect as an explanation for Trump support is even more pronounced among the candidate’s elite enablers; people in positions of power and influence who, unlike Trump’s less-economically secure supporters, cannot appeal to their pitiable life station as justification for backing the most unqualified person ever to win the presidential nomination of a major political party. From Roger Stone to Roger Ailes to Steve Bannon and the bigots at Breitbart, the cast of characters composing Trump’s inner circle is, without exception, a collection of loathsome—some might say deplorable—individuals. The significance of personal character becomes especially clear when one contrasts a Trump-supporting public figure with his or her non-Trump supporting peer.

Take Eric Metaxas and Erick Erickson. Both are evangelical Christian conservative media personalities, the former a Trump supporter, the latter a mainstay of the #NeverTrump movement. Reading Erickson over the past year, one witnesses a fundamentally decent man grappling with what it means to be a Christian in the face of a Republican nominee who so wantonly disregards fundamental biblical teachings. For speaking out against Trump, Erickson and his family have been subject to constant death threats from the nominee’s supporters.

Contrast Erickson with Metaxas, a Trump proponent and what passes these days for a conservative evangelical “intellectual.” Metaxas is a biographer of abolitionist William Wilberforce and anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christians of heroic moral conscience and courage who are also heroes to the country’s liberal elites. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Metaxas audaciously likened voting for the fascistic Trump with Bonhoeffer’s joining the Valkyrie plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Metaxas can make this claim with a straight face because, like many other Trump supporters, he has been peddling a form of apocalyptic political extremism that sees the Democratic Party as hell-bent on a mission to destroy America. “The fascistic globalism of HRC/Obama is similar to the threat that German fascist nationalism was in Bonhoeffer’s day,” Metaxas recently tweeted in the style of a doomsday prophet. “Both are anti-God.” Metaxas’s calling the bloodlessly centrist Clinton “Hitlery” is thus the logical conclusion of this catastrophizing mode of ex cathedra discourse. He is Elmer Gantry in a nicer suit.

Turning to conservative talk radio, consider Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Both men have played a role in poisoning our political discourse with their uncompromisingly partisan ranting that demonizes political adversaries as traitors. But it is only Beck who has reflected upon his past divisiveness and repented for it. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart, and it’s not who we are,” he remorsefully told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in 2014. Today, not coincidentally, it is Beck who opposes Trump, while Hannity serves as his most loyal mouthpiece.

David Horowitz and Ron Radosh have experienced similar life trajectories as Jewish, ex-radical-leftist historians who eventually made their homes on the right. Radosh, however, has always been a mensch—a gentle soul who still likes to play the folk music he learned at the feet of the Stalin-loving Pete Seeger. Horowitz, by contrast, remains the thug he was five decades ago when he was cavorting with the Black Panthers, still a Stalinist but of the right-wing variety. Guess which septuagenarian Jewish conservative is the Trump critic and which the pro-Trump fanatic?

While we’re on the subject of Jewish Trump supporters, Thompson made an interesting observation about the unlikeliest of Nazis. “I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance,” she wrote. Reflecting upon some Jews of my acquaintance who have twisted themselves into supporting Trump, a candidate whose campaign has stirred anti-Semitic passions to a degree unlike anything in recent American political history, I can claim a similar familiarity. Can I really profess surprise that the admirer of Meir Kahane I’ve known since high school backs Trump, a man who, like the late Jewish fascist, promises to ethnically cleanse his country of millions of people? Elsewhere, back in January, David P. Goldman, a Tablet contributor who sometimes writes under the pseudonym “Spengler,” was asked by an Israeli politician to characterize Trump. “Imagine if Hitler had liked Jews,” he replied. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. Today, Goldman has come around to support the man he described, less than a year ago, as a philosemitic Hitler.

More than any book I’ve read or lecture I’ve attended, the Trump phenomenon has explained the 1930s for me. Witnessing so many otherwise rational people fall for the lies of a demagogic con man who promises that he “alone” can “fix” all of our country’s problems and bleats about throwing his opponent in jail (when he’s not urging his raucous crowds to kill her), one begins to fathom how a modern, educated, advanced country like Germany went Nazi. You already see the stirrings of a nascent fascist movement in America. The parallels between the GOP’s amoral cowards willing to do anything to achieve power and the German leaders who thought Hitler could be “controlled” are as pathetic as they are frightening.

Not long ago, I was conversing with the chief of staff of a former high-ranking congressional Republican, the epitome of an “establishment” politician, who explained his support for Trump on purely partisan lines. Trump was the party’s nominee, after all, and as a loyal Republican, it was this man’s duty to support him. If the GOP nominated a bona fide Nazi, I asked incredulously, would you support him, too? Yes, he replied.

We spend too much time attacking Trump’s person, fooling ourselves into thinking he’s just a sui generis figure, without listening to those who support him. Plenty of people who voted for the Nazi Party weren’t motivated by anti-Semitism but other, worthier concerns like rampant inflation, an atmosphere of violent political chaos, and Germany’s diminished place in Europe. Like Trump supporters, these Germans wanted to regain a sense of individual and national respect that they felt had been lost. Weimar Germany was awash in distrust, fear, and resentment, feelings that, while not nearly as acute, characterize much of America today.

It’s true that some Trump supporters loathe the man’s behavior and more outré positions, but nonetheless see him as something of a savior figure. They are willing to put their faith in a sociopath because they have convinced themselves that the alternative will literally destroy the country. On the other hand, many, perhaps most, Trump supporters aren’t voting for him in spite of his talking like a thug, demeaning women, and hurling racist insinuations at the country’s first black president, but because he does these things.

“Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi,” Dorothy Thompson wrote. “Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them. Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.” Trump supporters are people who, were he to become president, would explain away the mosque firebombing or Attorney General Chris Christie’s “opening up the libel laws” against The New York Times, just as passive Nazi voters looked away from the “Don’t buy from Jews” graffiti spray-painted on the neighborhood grocery store. These people are lacking “something in them,” a moral code, and their very large numbers are a troubling indicator of a rot in the American soul.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.