Donald Trump was voted as US President as many voters thought that their country was under the greatest threat and they wanted an authoritarian power that could tackle it

By Kenneth Tiven

Vilma is in her 60s and runs a small gift shop in Cape Town, South Africa. Hearing an American accent, she wants to discuss President-elect Trump. “Growing up in Chile, I remember my parents talking about America as an amazing country where good things happened. Today, I am worried about America under Trump,” she said. Vilma is not alone. These encounters happen frequently to Americans living or travelling outside North America.

One American columnist writes: “The election of a man temperamentally unfit to the presidency and lacking in the basic qualifications to perform the job, backed up by Congressional allies who seem determined to ignore his flagrant corruption, is an alarming situation. The odds that he will systematically corrupt American institutions and install an authoritarian kleptocracy or blunder into some kind of catastrophic war seem simply too high to entirely discount.”

Based on the nominations so far for cabinet-level jobs and others which require Senate approval, it is obvious that this is the richest group of mostly white American males invited into senior governance. Yet, there is scant, if any, experience in government, where consensus management is essential rather than the “my way or the highway” approach of big businessmen who own or control the firms they manage.

AUTHORITARIAN KLEPTOCRAT

Another political writer, Heather Parton, who had surveyed some academic writings on voter behavior, said: “It’s going to be very easy to become disoriented and lose sight of what we know to be true: we have a full-blown authoritarian kleptocrat coming into the White House.”

The unintended consequences of this election will be many and long-lasting. One is already obvious: this new group of writers and theorists who are trying to explain the American voter. All the explanations must be understood in the context of the internet revolution and social media: Twitter tidbits substitute for serious policy reflection. This phenomenon makes it easier for people to feel that their beliefs are part of a much greater movement than their own imagination.

A psychologist at the University of Maryland surveyed politics in the US and globally and found that when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach. Michele Gelfand calls this “cultural tightness”: a desire for strong social norms and a low tolerance for any sort of deviant behavior.

Trump and nationalist-oriented leadership in Europe make it a point to stress the social changes of the last decade, especially about sexual preference, equality and immigration, claiming this has “weakened” the moral fibre of nations. The greater the perceived threat, the tighter the culture becomes. Gelfand finds that the strongest supporters of Trump are also those who thought the US was under the greatest threat.

GREATER FORCE

A decade ago, a researcher named Karen Stenner defined the “Authoritarian Dynamic” noting that most people are not authoritarian as such. Stenner finds most of us are usually capable of fairly high tolerance. It’s only when we believe there is a threat to the perceived integrity of the moral order (as we see it), that we suddenly shut down our openness and begin to ask for greater force and authoritarian power. Is it any wonder that after eight years of social change in America under the guidance of an articulate president, who is also a black man, that disenchanted voters would find Trump appealing for “toughness” and (if nothing else) for his belief in the illegal and discredited “stop and frisk” police tactic used against minorities.

It is no surprise that humans like to hang out with other humans with whom they agree. Yes, we have a tendency to believe what we agree with, see what is familiar. In an academic manner, this can be described as political and intellectual tribalism. And we tend to be optimistic. Obviously, this is why many politicians, journalists and voters did not see train wreck about to happen in American politics.

Supporters with a long history of opposition to the then Soviet and now Russian leadership accepted Trump’s “bromance” with Vladimir Putin because it was part of his anti-establishment message. His libertine and irreligious behavior should have deterred Evangelical Christians but anti-abortion promises trumped his deficits.

All of this helps explain how a candidate could get less than a quarter of the eligible voters and win. Why half the Americans don’t vote—can’t get registered or don’t care—is the unexplained question that could threaten the world.

—The writer has been a journalist in American media for more
than 50 years, including stints at
The Washington Post,
TV network news with
NBC, ABC and CNN and was involved in
the start up of
Aaj Tak and continues to work with several
Indian news channels

Lead Picture: There is a strong opinion that Trump will install an authoritarian kleptocracy in the US. Photo: UNI