The racism and intolerance at the core of Trump popularity has always been a case of his implicit and explicit promises to hurt black, Latinx and Asian folks in America and to make (white) America great again at our expense, and it should come as no surprise that much of white America is jumping at the chance to take advantage.
Since the founding of the United States, politicians and pundits have warned that partisanship is a danger to democracy. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, worried that political parties, or factions, could "allow cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men" to rise to power and subvert democracy. More recently, many political observers are concerned that increasing political polarization on left and right makes compromise impossible, and leads to the destruction of democratic norms and institutions.
A new study, however, suggests that the main threat to our democracy may not be the hardening of political ideology, but rather the hardening of one particular political ideology. Political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M have released a working paper titled "White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy." Their study finds a correlation between white American's intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.
Miller and Davis used information from the World Values Survey, a research project organized by a worldwide network of social scientists which polls individuals in numerous countries on a wide range of beliefs and values. Based on surveys from the United States, the authors found that white people who did not want to have immigrants or people of different races living next door to them were more likely to be supportive of authoritarianism. For instance, people who said they did not want to live next door to immigrants or to people of another race were more supportive of the idea of military rule, or of a strongman-type leader who could ignore legislatures and election results.
The World Values Survey data used is from the period 1995 to 2011 — well before Donald Trump's 2016 run for president. It suggests, though, that Trump's bigotry and his authoritarianism are not separate problems, but are intertwined. When Trump calls Mexicans "rapists," and when he praises authoritarian leaders, he is appealing to the same voters.
Miller and Davis' paper quotes alt right, neo-fascist leader Richard Spencer, who in a 2013 speech declared: "We need an ethno-state so that our people can ‘come home again’… We must give up the false dreams of equality and democracy." Ethnic cleansing is impossible as long as marginalized people have enough votes to stop it. But this roadblock disappears if you get rid of democracy. Spencer understands that white rule in the current era essentially requires totalitarianism. That's the logic of fascism.
Why anyone would be surprised that a country that was founded on slavery and created internment camps for Japanese-Americans is rapidly gravitating towards fascism under authoritarian rule is beyond me, but this path for America isn't new by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's very much part of our country's history and obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.
Trump's rise is often presented as a major break with the past, and as a repudiation of American values and democratic commitments. But in an email, Miller pointed out that white intolerance has long served as an excuse for, and a spark for, authoritarian measures.
"People are fond of the Framers’ grand vision of liberty and equality for all," Miller says, "but the beauty of the Federalist papers can’t paper over the real measures of exclusion that were baked into their understanding of a limited franchise."
Black people, Asians, Native Americans and women were prevented from voting for significant stretches of American history. America's tradition of democracy (for some) exists alongside a tradition of authoritarianism (for some). The survey data doesn't show people rejecting American traditions, then, Miller says, so much as it shows "a preference for the sort of white-ethnocentrism that imbued much of the functional form of democracy for the better part of two centuries."
New era, new technology, same old story. And at the end of this road is always the mass destruction of black and brown lives.