I think one of the things that divided the right during the 2016 presidential election was the “fear” factor. The #NeverTrump faction was the target for so much animosity because many Trump supporters saw this election as an existential crisis for the republic. I witnessed a great deal of anecdotal evidence that suggested this but now there are some actual numbers. According to research done by PPRI, a full two thirds of Trump voters thought their vote was literally a vote against America ceasing to exist.
According to a new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic, we can describe one way in which voters in 2016 felt this was the most important election in history. Forty-one percent of respondents — including two-thirds of those who voted for Donald Trump — felt that the 2016 election was critical because it was our last chance to “stop America’s decline.”
The fraction of Hillary Clinton voters who agreed with that sentiment was much smaller, at only a fifth.
Trump himself positioned this election as a final opportunity for his party, at one point telling the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that 2016 was “the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning” — in part thanks to shifting demographics. The idea of decline clearly also overlaps with the motto embroidered into his hats. America was once great; it no longer is; Trump will reverse that. The decline will stop.
I engaged in a lot of discussions with friends during the campaign who were existential crisis voters. This line of thinking goes a long way toward explaining why so many social conservatives enthusiastically backed such a loose cannon like Trump. Questions about his character, his recent history supporting liberal Democrats, his frequently changing policy positions, his tendency to say stupid things—none of these things mattered to even people who consider themselves rock-ribbed conservatives. Anything was better than Hillary because Hillary was the end.
I never gave Hillary that much credit obviously because I was in the #NeverTrump camp. Even her own people thought her political instincts were bad. I expected her, if elected, to be a weak president facing a resistance from a coherent conservative movement. I saw Trump fracturing that movement by causing some on the right to defend him reflexively regardless of how conservative his policies were. I still think that is what is going to happen as we move forward, though I admit there are few glimmers of hope.
Drilling down into the research we also learn that more than half of Trump voters think change makes them “feel like a stranger” in their own country and that “increasing diversity comes at the expense of whites.”
The fear factor in politics is dangerous though.No, Trump isn’t Hitler, but what if he was? Faced with what people believe to be the literal failure of the American experiment, how far would they be willing to go? How bad would a candidate have to be before they refused to give their support? Being afraid is sometimes warranted and useful. Panicking isn’t.