The Jan. 6 riot shocked Americans. Maybe it shouldn’t have.
In her testimony to Congress about the Jan. 6 riot, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Donald J. Trump’s then-chief of staff Mark Meadows, reported that President Trump knew the crowd gathered outside the White House Ellipse was armed with guns, knives, spears, flagpoles and body armor. Even as rioters later at the Capitol called for Mike Pence’s hanging, according to Ms. Hutchinson, Mr. Meadows said the president “doesn’t want to do anything” and “he thinks Mike deserves it.” Ms. Hutchinson reported that Mr. Trump refused to calm the protesters, though he was repeatedly urged to do so by staff including White House counsel Pat Cipollone. Ms. Hutchinson said she “overheard the president say something to the effect of, ‘You know, I don’t f—ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me…. They can march to the Capitol from here.’”
In this testimony and others throughout the Jan. 6 congressional hearings, the anger and violence of the day were portrayed as an aberrant breach of the political traditions of the United States. And the actions of Mr. Trump and his associates to overturn the 2020 election surely were. But the actions of the crowd were not a breach. They were the outcome of our political culture, ironically and tragically the underside of that culture’s success.
The actions of the crowd were not a breach of the political traditions of the United States. They were the outcome of our political culture, ironically and tragically the underside of that culture’s success.
Donald Trump lost the 2020 election by seven million votes and 74 seats in the Electoral College. His claims of winning were refuted in over 70 lawsuits, twice by the Supreme Court, and by his own attorney general, William Barr. To understand why a third of U.S. voters nonetheless believe the “big lie” (some enough to commit violence) and why—in the big picture—30 to 40 percent of Americans see Trumpist populism as a remedy to their problems, we need a long-view exploration of how they got there.
What in the country’s political history and present socioeconomic circumstances makes right-wing populism seem like the best path? The question is especially poignant as, after four years in office, Mr. Trump managed no major health care, job training, education, immigration or infrastructure program, all of which are popular with voters. As for his 2017 tax cut, a columnist in the business journal Forbes wrote, “The biggest winners” were “corporations and the households that get income from corporate profits”—not the middle and working classes but the wealthiest Americans.
So why does Trumpist populism spark support? First, we can understand populism overall as a way of responding to way-of-life, economic and status-loss duresses that finds a solution to these problems in “us-versus-them” thinking. Identifying “us” and “them” draws from historical and cultural notions of society (who’s in, who’s not) and government (its proper size and role). Traditional notions of “us” and “them” have not only the ring of familiarity but of authority. They feel both “natural” and ethically “right.”
We can trace each part of this populist progression, from duress through history and culture to the us-them shift over the last half century.
What in the country’s political history and present socioeconomic circumstances makes right-wing populism seem like the best path?
The economic duresses that many Americans face include un- and under-employment, especially in “old industry” regions, prodded somewhat by globalized trade and substantially by automation and other productivity gains, the latter accounting for 88 percent of U.S. job loss. This loss disproportionately burdens those without college degrees. Notably, areas with higher numbers of jobs threatened by automation tended to give strong support to Mr. Trump in 2016.
Way-of-life shifts include changes in gender roles, technology, demographics and the sense that life is harder, less familiar and less fair than a generation ago. In 2018, before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a decline in American life expectancy for two of the previous three years, prodded by “deaths of despair” and social isolation.
Status loss entails the fear of losing one’s respectable place in society and falling “below” those one is currently “above.” The issue, researchers Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin write, is not status itself but status loss that provokes efforts to restore “the rightful order of things,” often through non-mainstream politics precisely because mainstream strategies have been ineffective. Those most attracted to the political right between 2010 and 2016 were high-school-only whites with middle-class incomes concerned that opportunities were shrinking and their “respectable” place in America was under threat.
The issue is not status itself but status loss that provokes efforts to restore “the rightful order of things.”
Because white evangelical Protestants comprise a significant share of Mr. Trump’s support—according to many polling sources, 84 percent voted for him in 2020, compared with 50 percent of Catholics—it is worth looking at duress as experienced by this group. White evangelicals face the three sorts of duress described above plus membership loss and a growing sense of cultural and political marginalization in an increasingly secular, multicultural and socially liberal country. They have decreased as a share of the population, from 23 percent in 2006 to about 15 percent in 2020, while Catholics remain steady at about 20 percent. More than two million left the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest denomination, between 2006 and 2020. As Robert Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, notes, with this status loss, “‘a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance’ has set in.”
The present sense of marginalization comes on top of decreasing “cultural dominance” since the late 19th century, spurred by industrialization, urbanization, changing social norms and non-Protestant immigration. Part of the evangelical response was the embrace of apocalyptic doctrines that reflected anxieties about the future even as they isolated evangelicals and reinforced the sense of being sidelined. In the 20th century, these anxieties were sparked by the 1925 Supreme Court decision in the Scopes case that allowed the teaching of evolution in public schools, as well as the 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale that prohibited school-organized prayer. The 1960s youth counterculture, the civil rights and Great Society anti-poverty programs, the worry that Democrats were “soft on Communism,” and the feminist and gay rights movements furthered the white evangelical sense of “loss of cultural dominance.”
For many conservatives, religious and not, the Republican “New Right” of the 1970s and ’80s promised relief: small-government economics, social conservativism (including opposition to abortion), resistance to “outsider” disruptions of local norms and law, and anti-Communist foreign policy to defeat the biggest of big (atheistic) governments. Moving from conservatism to the political right, these voters supported Ronald Reagan and both Bushes to serve as president. Catholics remain more evenly divided between the parties, in part because they are more divided on small-government-ism and immigration.
But the shift to the right in American politics failed to relieve the duresses of the day, and way-of-life, economic and status-loss duresses persisted, yielding both “representational deficiency,” where citizens feel unheard in Washington and so are more open to political extremism, and “efficacy deficiency,” where people move to the extremes to at least do something to be effective on their own behalf. The duresses since the 1970s were aggravated by President Obama’s enlargement of the government’s role in health care, in regulating business and in environmental protection—moves against “small-government-ism”—and by the 2015 legalization and public acceptance of same-sex marriage.
The right’s efforts against a traditional “them” provide quick feelings of effectiveness.
All told, the accumulation created the ground for us-them thinking. While addressing the complex sources of economic and way-of-life duress may seem daunting and futile, the right’s efforts against a traditional “them” may be simpler and may thus provide quick feelings of effectiveness.
Us-Them Thinking and Its Historical Roots
With duress or fear of duress, the usual focus on oneself, family and community flips outward to constraining a “them” ostensibly responsible for the duress. It is a common defense mechanism. Vamik Volkan, who studies the psychology of extremism, writes, “The more stressful the situation, the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”
But which “other”? The identification of the “other” emerges from history and culture. In America, the traditional “others”—government and “outsiders” (minorities and new immigrants)—were set in place in the earliest colonies. Covenantal political theory, brought by the Puritans and others not conforming to Europe’s government-established churches, saw society as a covenant among sovereign people. Any ruler out for himself could be deposed for covenant violation. Covenantalists were wary of governments, authorities and outsiders who might disturb their way of life. The 1620 Mayflower Compact sought not only to establish covenantal government in Massachusetts Bay but also to constrain non-Puritan “outsiders.” Aristotelian republicanism, a second building block of American political culture, also emphasized the community, the polis, and citizen participation in running it. It too was wary of tyrants. Liberalism, our third component, emphasized individual freedom and was equally wary of government meddling and control.
In America, the traditional “others”—government and “outsiders” (minorities and new immigrants)—were set in place in the earliest colonies.
Anti-authoritarian wariness of government was especially persuasive in America as many immigrants had fled oppressive political systems. The harsh frontier, too, advised self-reliance, trust in one’s local community. and caution about interloper authorities and outsiders.
On one hand, suspicion of government birthed a democratic critique of authority and the robust, localist, civil society Alexis de Tocqueville admired. “What political power,” he wrote, “could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association?... No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.”
But under duress and us-them shift, the heritage of community and local pride may turn to a self-protective, my-community-in-struggle mindset against “outsiders.” Wariness of oppressive government and elites may turn to suspicion of government and elites per se, whose activities and programs should be limited—except to constrain “outsiders.” In short, the very anti-authoritarianism and community building that contributed much to American vibrancy may create self-protective and aggressive us-them worldviews.
This us-them shift is about as American as you can get. The Shays’ and Whiskey rebellions, armed revolts against state and federal government, erupted with the very birth of the country, in 1786 and 1791. The anti-immigrant Naturalization Act of 1790 and the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which also included anti-immigration provisions, were also part of our founding.
The very anti-authoritarianism and community building that contributed much to American vibrancy may create self-protective and aggressive us-them worldviews.
Not only was the Civil War fought against Washington’s “interference” in local governance and in support of slavery, but the South’s response to defeat was also a mix of anti-government suspicion and resistance to “outsiders.” After Reconstruction, the Confederacy was imagined into a “lost cause” of Christianized white supremacy and noble resistance to federal interlopers. Discriminatory immigration laws were enacted in 1873, 1882 and 1924 and enjoyed national, bipartisan support. Discrimination and voting restrictions targeted not only African Americans but also immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and southern and eastern Europe, both Catholic and Jewish.
Us-Them Politics Today
Though the federal government grew along with the nation, wariness of Washington and “outsiders” retains a vaunted place in American identity and practice. One example, much in the news with the summer 2022 mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Tex., is the gun rights movement. Though Americans use guns for a range of reasons (self-protection, sport), the political mobilization is spurred by fear that the government will turn tyrannical. “An assault-weapon ban,” David French explained in the National Review in 2018, “...would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny.” In a 2017 poll, three-quarters of American gun owners associated gun ownership with “freedom.” Ninety-one percent of Republican and Republican-leaning gun owners reported that gun ownership is “essential” to their freedom.
In 2017, 59 percent of those who would have lost $5,000 in government health insurance subsidies had President Trump succeeded in overturning Obamacare still said they would vote for Mr. Trump for re-election.
Government-wariness combines with outsider-wariness in opposition to federal social services, even among beneficiaries of those services. In 2017, those who would have lost $5,000 in government health insurance subsidies had President Trump succeeded in overturning Obamacare still said they would vote for Mr. Trump for re-election, by 59 percent to 36 percent. Though increasing numbers of Americans benefit from government programs, resistance to them has grown on the view that “other people,” perceived as “undeserving, lazy” minorities and immigrants, are being given “our” tax dollars by the corrupt federal government. Where these views are embraced, whites, including those who benefit from government assistance, vote to restrict it.
Seventy-two percent of Republicans believed immigrants use more than their fair share of social services, according to a 2012 poll released by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent believed that immigrants increase crime, and 57 percent felt that whites face “a lot of discrimination.” These anxieties may persevere even when economic and law-enforcement records do not support them. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-borns, and of the 40 million people who were below the poverty line in 2019 (and thus would have qualified for the largest share of government assistance under President Biden’s American Rescue Plan), 17.3 million identified as non-Hispanic white, less than half that number were Black (8.2 million), and 10.1 million were Hispanics of any race.
Immigrants are also disproportionately entrepreneurial job creators, contributing robustly to the tax pool: $30 billion in the second generation and $223 billion for the succeeding one. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes that “immigrants’ children—the second generation—are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.”
Good solutions do not come from distortions. So the original duresses remain, to the continued harm of the distressed communities and to prod further rounds of us-them anger.
Hunting Where the Ducks Are
When Donald Trump first ran for president, America’s us-them frameworks were not new. But they were animated by Mr. Trump and others who tapped into and reinforced suspicion of America’s traditional “thems.” That was Mr. Trump’s appeal: He would fight the “deep state,” the D.C. “swamp” of “government insiders” and their elite media “fake news,” Mexican “rapists and drug dealers,” and foreigners who cheat Americans in trade. As the Jan. 6 riot demonstrates, people are willing to fight hard for the guy they believe is fighting for them.
Us-them thinking, with its simple explanations and clear path of action—get the “thems!”—is appealing. But it is also concerning. “Solutions” to economic and way-of-life problems that emerge from us-them thinking are based on the distortions that duress itself prods—from a sense of community to exclusionary communities, and from wariness of oppression to wariness of government. Good solutions do not come from distortions. So the original duresses remain, to the continued harm of the distressed communities and to prod further rounds of us-them anger. Who benefits? Those who animate us-them anxieties for political and economic gain. There’s a name for that. It’s called “hunting where the ducks are.”