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The Trump Cult Is Loyal to an Ideology, Not the Man

A rise in extreme polarization culminated in Trump—and likely won’t be vanquished by Biden.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As America heads toward a critical election, much of the world wonders whether Trump loyalists will have a change of heart. Adding to the list of national and international crises since Donald Trump entered the White House, the nation now stands buffeted by a deadly pandemic threatening to hollow out its fragile economy and a popular uprising over police violence. A sparsely attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had the president seething at his allies afterward, according to The New York Times. Aides had promised him huge crowds. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr, seeking out new ways to be the president’s most trusted aide-de-camp, forced out Geoffrey S. Berman, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, for investigating misconduct by Trump and his associates.

Trump’s enablers are earning a new share of scrutiny. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum offers a lengthy exploration of why Republican politicians, both outside and within the administration, have gone to such lengths to make themselves indispensable to Trump. To Applebaum, certain dynamics lead people to compromise their moral or patriotic values by empowering autocrats. Applebaum thoughtfully compares America’s present situation to past examples of blinkered collaborators and blind loyalty cults, from World War Two to the Cold War and Hugo Chávez’s autocratic socialism in Venezuela. In dictatorships, people are coerced into collaboration, Applebaum argues, but those who collaborate with Trump do so voluntarily because America remains a democracy.

Yet the nation is sharply polarized over its conception of democracy, between unchecked populism and traditional liberal democracy. Trump’s approval ratings in these recent months have hovered between 39 and 49 percent. That may be low compared to past presidents, but they are remarkably high given the endless stream of scandals, falsehoods, and legal quagmires throughout Trump’s presidency. This largely reflects his popularity in conservative America: He boasts an 85 percent approval rate among Republicans. That support refuses to yield in the face of storm and stress.

Still, it would be a mistake to get transfixed by the president’s peculiarities and conclude that something that’s only recently come to be known as “Trumpism” uniquely captures the devotion of enablers or the larger conservative movement. Notwithstanding its insights, Applebaum’s engaging essay neglects how Trumpism did not arise in a vacuum. Insofar as it is a loyalty cult, it does not exist mainly because rank-and-file conservatives refuse to adhere to their values and stand up to Trump. Rather, the evolution of their ideology enabled Trump’s rise. Their worldview is closer to his than it may seem at first glance.

The Trumpist loyalty cult reflects at least as much loyalty to a long-standing ideology as loyalty to a man. Moreover, this loyalty has distant historic roots in the fabric of American society. Four particular strands stand out: anti-intellectualism, Christian fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, and racial resentment. These threads converge in a nexus of polarization that has fostered an exceptionally hard-line and anti-rational ideology. It culminated in the Trump presidency—the crescendo of a longer musical score.

Trump’s incessant clashes with his aides and the Republican establishment have long been a feature of his life in politics. The media nonetheless tends to obscure how their conflicts are often more about style, temperament, or decorum than about substantive policy disagreements. Applebaum’s essay, titled History Will Judge the Complicit, focuses on individual choice and moral character. She briefly acknowledges the role of ideology in steadfast Republican support for Trump, such as opposition to abortion, yet invites us to consider the personal ethical dilemmas of politicians who remain by his side. In doing so, Applebaum reminds us how human agency helps shape the course of history. However, her suggestion that Republican leaders enabling Trump “accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own” falls short of reality. Leaving exceptions aside, such as the Muslim ban, many Trump administration policies have long been at the heart of the party’s agenda, including barring abortion; repealing the Affordable Care Act; and undoing environmental, financial, and lobbying regulations.

I began researching the roots of America’s polarization in the midst of Barack Obama’s presidency, as I sought to understand the Tea Party movement’s fierce opposition to his centrist policies. At a time when all other Western democracies had long had universal health care, the backlash against Obama’s relatively modest health care reform was striking. It was only the tip of the iceberg. I found that Americans are generally more divided than other Westerners over a host of issues, including wealth inequality, climate change, the theory of evolution, abortion, contraception, sexual education, gay rights, gun control, criminal justice, foreign policy, and human rights. Divides over immigration in Western Europe or abortion in Ireland and Poland should not overshadow how America’s degree of polarization is exceptional.

Certain political scientists, such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, have called into question whether it’s fair to blame America’s bitter divisions on the existence of equally matched extremists on both sides of the ideological spectrum. As it happens, a phenomenon called “asymmetric polarization” indicates that Republicans have become far more hard-line than Democrats in recent decades.

A key disagreement between experts is about whether the polarization among politicians, elites, and activists truly reflects the American public’s views. My research suggests that a relationship exists between the worldviews of hard-line leaders and citizens, which have been shaped by the aforementioned nexus of polarization. Its threads are embedded in interrelated, peculiar mindsets. Buried in the American psyche, they span decades before Trump arrived on the scene.

The thread of anti-intellectualism is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this nexus of polarization, as it is intertwined with a recurrent issue. Why does Trump’s skepticism of education, fact-free rhetoric, and contempt for experts widely appeal to his supporters? One would assume these traits to be political liabilities. Indeed, they are to a majority of Americans, although a substantial minority seems to admire them.

Ironically, anti-intellectualism largely stems from an admirable dimension of American history. As the historian Richard Hofstadter explained, the birth of modern democracy in the United States fostered an egalitarian spirit perceiving education as a badge of elitism. Common sense was supposedly enough to understand the world and make money. “As popular democracy gained strength and confidence,” Hofstadter described, “it reinforced the widespread belief in the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, over-sophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and well-to-do.”

Anti-intellectualism may be defined as a skepticism of education that can range from mere indifference to knowledge to a downright animosity toward experts. One sees glaring manifestations of this age-old mindset almost every day, for example in John Bolton’s disclosure that Trump assumed Finland was in Russia and did not know that the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons. Such ignorance reflects the lifelong incuriosity of a man who had access to the best education money could buy.

Similarly, countless other elected officials have touted an anti-intellectual style. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things,” George W. Bush tellingly admitted following his invasion of Iraq, recognizing that his approach was “not very analytical.” Like Trump, W. trusted his gut instincts, and he announced in the same interview that he found Vladimir Putin trustworthy. “History will prove me right,” he added. But as Susan Jacoby noted in The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, a re-edition of a Bush-era book, “[W]e place too much emphasis on the personality of the president” at the expense of wider social circumstances.

Anti-intellectualism can shape a political culture in a host of harmful ways by normalizing irrational, counterproductive, or even catastrophic policies. It makes millions of citizens extraordinarily receptive to populist disinformation about the hoax of climate change, the “tyranny of socialized medicine,” “death panels,” and myriad other issues. Yes, Trump’s relentless falsehoods and the ability to spread conspiracy theories on social media have exacerbated these trends, but anti-intellectualism has influenced parts of American society for generations. This is a paradox in a nation whose Founding Fathers, writers, artists, scientists, among innumerable other citizens, have made impressive contributions to human thought.

Just like anti-intellectualism, other factors in this nexus of polarization have distant roots and systemic dimensions. Christian fundamentalism goes beyond religious conservatism, as fundamentalism is a radical conception of faith rooted in Biblical literalism. Due to a distinctive religious history, America is the sole Western democracy with a vast segment of Christian fundamentalists. Approximately four in 10 Americans are creationists who reject the theory of evolution and believe that God created humans in their present form. A comparable proportion embraces apocalyptic prophecies about an imminent doomsday and the Second Coming of Christ. Not only are other Westerners usually much less religious than Americans, these types of radical beliefs are rare among those who are Christian.

Trump’s steadfast support among Christian fundamentalists does not merely reflect policy preferences, such as his appointment of federal judges inclined to overrule or eviscerate Roe v. Wade. Indeed, the influence of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. is broader than it seems, as it does not simply shape hard-line views on “culture war” issues like evolution, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. It extends to other areas by molding anti-intellectual, anti-rational, authoritarian, black-and-white mindsets. These are also among the traits of Donald Trump, which helps explain why Christian fundamentalists strongly identify with him despite his irreligious lifestyle and sex scandals.

As for market fundamentalism, it is the notion that “big government,” taxes, and regulation are the causes of virtually all economic problems. Joseph Stiglitz, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote in his book Freefall that market fundamentalism assumes that “markets are self-correcting and that society can rely on the self-interested behavior of market participants to ensure that everything works honestly and properly—let alone works in a way that benefits all.” This purist ideology is buoyed by disinformation and conspiracy theories, like the canard that Obama raised income taxes toward all-time highs, when in fact they were around their lowest levels in decades. Within the West, skepticism of government has gone the furthest in America, as exemplified by Republican efforts to scrub financial and environmental regulations, notwithstanding the toll of the 2008 financial crisis and climate change. Market fundamentalism has likewise hindered attempts to regulate lobbying and campaign financing.

Even though Trump struck a more populist tone than establishment Republicans with hollow promises of helping the working class, his presidential campaign also echoed claims about “Obamacare” destroying the U.S. economy and the Democrats’ “class warfare.” In practice, his administration has unabashedly embraced market fundamentalism, moneyed interests, and winner-take-all economics.

Finally, racial resentment is the dimension of this nexus of polarization that is closest to the situation in Europe, where scapegoating minorities has driven the far-right’s resurgence. America still stands out in this area because it has historically been the Western democracy with by far the highest share of racial and ethnic minorities. Today they represent 40 percent of the U.S. population. Over generations, American attitudes and institutions have therefore been colored by racial prejudice and misconceptions, which has impeded socioeconomic solidarity and led legions to vote against their economic self-interest. Tellingly, opponents of Obama’s health care reform regularly branded it as a handout to minorities. Yet millions of its beneficiaries are white, illustrating how disinformation and a visceral suspicion of “big government” intersect with racial resentment.

The four factors in this nexus of polarization mutually reinforce each other. And while bitter political divisions exist elsewhere in the West—whether in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand—more sources and forces of polarization divide the U.S. Moreover, peculiar, hard-line mindsets tend to be heavily concentrated in conservative America, which has become an outlier in the modern Western world. The Republican Party, for instance, is almost alone among the West’s leading political parties in providing a redoubt for climate change denial.

In various periods of history, America was significantly less polarized over the economy or other key issues, thereby offering room for hope. Illustratively, President Dwight Eisenhower was a Republican who generally rejected market fundamentalism and accepted diverse New Deal–era reforms to decrease wealth inequality. A greater consensus existed among Americans over core economic values in his epoch. Nevertheless, this should not lead us to minimize how polarization has intensified in recent decades.

Even on fundamental matters such as the respect for institutions, the rule of law, elementary human rights, and plain facts, one does not have to look far for evidence that the Trump presidency often followed in the Republican Party establishment’s footsteps.

Let us consider that, on September 10, 2001, someone had contended that the U.S. president would claim the authority to detain criminals forever without trial and would officially reintroduce torture into Western civilization. Many would have thought this unfathomable. Yet this occurred in the all-too-recent past, under the George W. Bush administration. The significant support for Guantanamo Bay’s forever-prison and “enhanced interrogation techniques”—a euphemism for torture—among the Republican establishment struck countless experts as a strange regression. After it came to light that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor an alliance with Al Qaeda, wholly unraveling Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq, experts were likewise puzzled by how a large share of the public stood unfazed. At the time, the four aforementioned strands of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, and racial resentment already provided a sturdy foundation for Bush’s two terms.

Interestingly, Bush would later emerge as one of the few Republican politicians to firmly reject Trump. This might partially explain why Trump’s rise is rarely seen as a continuation or intensification of the Bush presidency’s disturbing dimensions. However, if one wishes to uncover the roots of America’s polarization, one should delve beyond Trump, Bush, or, for that matter, any particular individual. In these and other forgotten chapters of history lie troubling revelations.

Naturally, the Trump presidency has unique and unprecedented features, from alt-right populism to brazen nepotism, self-dealing, narcissistic histrionics, autocratic proclivities, and beyond. They may be so striking as to eclipse the past. Joe Biden, the former vice president who now seeks to supplant Trump and begin a process of restoration, has referred to the Trump era as an aberration and has suggested that the Republican Party could return to where it stood before embracing Trumpism. The nation might soon come to grips with how this bitter polarization did not start with Trump. It may not end with him.