Home The Rise of Donald Trump : The Political Science Behind It

The Rise of Donald Trump : The Political Science Behind It

In an unprecedented phenomenon, Donald Trump is the first candidate in modern presidential primary history to have begun his campaign with a majority of his own party establishment disliking him – as many as 57 per cent of Republican officials have an unfavourable view of the Business Mogul. However, the people’s vote registered in his favour has been a whopping 13.4 million. Prima facie, the plausibility of his support base makes sense due to the congruence of his domestic policy with mainstream Republican positions vis-à-vis abortion, same-sex marriage, denial of climate change. It is the extremities of his foreign policy, and the overwhelming support it has attracted, which has baffled political analysts across the world. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 per cent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. Another poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty per cent said Lincoln shouldn't have freed the slaves.

Two major questions thus need to be asked :

1. How did Trump attract such broad support from this particular niche of Republican voters, and,

2. What are the implications beyond this election?

The answer, or at least part of it, has existed for a while in the niche field of political science, which developed a theory on Authoritarianism – not dictatorships, but a worldview that values order and authority, and distrusts outsiders and change in the social status quo. Authoritarians, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders: leaders who’re punitive, target ‘outsider’ groups, and have a simple, forceful leadership style. If one was to grow such a candidate in a lab, it would look a lot like Mr. Trump. Researchers of authoritarianism naturally wondered if authoritarian tendencies might correlate with support for Trump. The answer was a strong affirmative, in addition to the conclusion that authoritarians skew heavily Republican.[1] As per political scientist Karen Stenner, there exists a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies , which can be triggered or “activated” by physical threats(such as terrorism), or the threat of destabilizing social change ( such as same-sex marriage). While social change threatens more of those who score high on authoritarianism, physical threats can lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians and support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque. Even though Trump supporters’ immediate policy concerns, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, are in sync with GOP orthodoxy, the real divide is in how far to go in response. Authoritarians "are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties.” It is this “action side” of Trump supporters that sets them apart from supporters of other GOP candidates, and makes it hard for the GOP establishment to co-opt his support.[2]

Trump’s Style

It’s not just his policies, but Trump’s unmistakable style which sets him apart. When Trump launched his campaign, his real constituency was the media — not any group of voters per se. His goal was to shock the media into paying attention to him, which is exactly what happened. Trump’s celebrity status and his claim that he himself is his campaign’s only donor, makes it affordable for him to be candid with his supporters in a way no other candidate can. He is explicit about having given money to politicians in the past in return for favours later. This is another anomaly: Reformers, in their attempt to garner support, tend to present themselves as blameless. Trump, on the other hand, claims to have mastered the art of American corruption so well that only he himself can resist it. This gives his voters the impression that since he’s the only one whose wallet is involved, the words he says are his own. His reduction of everything to black and white extremes of strong v/s weak, us v/s them, and that the “Us” has to defeat the “Them”. Especially vis-à-vis minority groups, his lack of political correctness, willingness to flout the conventions of civilized discourse, an unapologetic attitude for the same has led to the normalization in the public sphere of rhetoric that was hitherto deemed so bigoted and divisive that no one had even considered it. Take for instance, going to the extent of generalizing an entire country like Iraq and calling it the Harvard for terrorism and praising Saddam Hussein in the same interview.[3] For the on-going July 18-21 Republican National Convention in Cleveland where the Primary winner is to be formally announced via delegate and super delegate votes, most delegates are unlikely to deny Trump the nomination, their main reason being that he registered more votes in his favour than his rivals, and played by the rules in doing so.[4] Apart from this, a lack of serious alternative is another major obstacle in co-opting his support. An irony of this primary has been that efforts by establishment candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to match Trump’s stance on ISIS or American Muslims ended up deepening fear, which only led voters back to Trump.

Implications – Beyond November

What would a Trump Presidency mean for India? Trump has gone from blaming Indians in addition to the Chinese for job encroachment from the US Economy to calling India ‘great for business’ in a recent interview. By and large he has proposed to limit H1-B visas for highly skilled foreign workers – which would have an undeniably adverse impact on Indian software companies, currently the highest absorbers of these visas. Republican Party member Duncan Hunter echoed similar views in an interview stating that Trump’s foreign policy would be dictated by ‘America First and Foremost’ mantra whether dealing with “India, China or Norway, for that matter.”[5] However, the massive size of India’s consumer market and its contribution to the USA’s Net National Product cannot be ignored by any rational economist during trade policy formulation. The Washington Post reported that in a meeting with its editorial board, Trump laid out his “unabashedly noninterventionist approach to world affairs,” including a plan to “significantly diminish” US involvement in NATO, and he questioned “the value of massive military investments in Asia”.[6] Trump wants less intervention and more deal making. But an isolationist America would mean that other nations; including India – which Trump has also called ‘the real checkmate’ to Pakistan - may have to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining international security.[7]

Ideologically, the USA, already suffering from internal instability due to racial violence under the Obama administration – a black president’s administration, is definitely bound to be marked by increased intolerance of non-white outsiders, and raised anti-immigrant sentiments among an already xenophobic population. Even if Trump loses and Clinton clinches the Presidency, the fact of the matter remains that there now exists in the States a de facto three party system: the Democrats, the Grand Old Party(GOP) Establishment, and the GOP Authoritarians. Longer term, if current demographic trends continue, white Americans will cease to be a majority over the coming decades.[8] In the long run, this could mean a GOP that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups. In short, Donald Trump could be just the first of many, many Trumps in American politics.



The Author is an Intern at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.




1. http://www.vox.com/2016/2/23/11099644/trump-support-authoritarianism

2. http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism









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Shivangi Sharan

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