Trump’s core supporters won’t reject him. It would mean rejecting their own values.

NBC news made an interesting point in a recent article.

Political experience and logic tell us that, at some point, Donald Trump’s supporters should become overwhelmed by the mounting evidence of his failures and broken promises — as Steve Bannon reportedly was over the inclusion of a path to citizenship for DREAMers in the State of the Union — and retreat.

But the back of the Trump base is not likely to break any time soon, because Trump’s supporters aren’t beholden to politics or logic. Instead, they are creatures of a group psychology dynamic more commonly seen in religious and fraternal organizations.

In the “communion mode” authority structure, described by Andrew Gray, people’s recognition of legitimate authority is “based on an appeal to common values and creeds.”

Supporters to listen to President Donald Trump speak at a factory in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, on January 18, 2018.Jeff Swensen / Getty Images File

“In this mode,” added Gray, “the legitimacy for actions lies in consistency with the understandings, protocols, and guiding values of shared frames of reference.”

Compare that to the contractual mode, which is based an agreement that sets out obligations and rewards, or “command mode,” which Gray said, “is based on the rule of law emanating from a sovereign body and delivered through a scalar chain of superior and subordinate authority.”

Communion governance structures rely on regular in-person meetings, call and response rituals (witness the continued usefulness of “Lock her up!” chants at Trump rallies, despite Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss) and faith in shared values and experiences. Groups built around communion authority are tightly connected and very strong in part because, research shows, they display “homophily and parochialism directed to those outside the group.” (That is a scholarly way of saying that those in communion groups tend to associate and bond with people that are similar to themselves and view those who are not with suspicion and hostility.)

When Trump said he was going to build the wall, he was reflecting a shared value of opposition to immigration, or anti-Hispanic bias or frustration with paralysis on immigration policy (or all three).

Significantly, researchers have also found thatreligious communion authority followers make contributions as a show of their values rather than to affect any consequence. That’s key to understanding Trump’s base because it means that contributions to the cause — whether money, posting on social media or voting — were unlikely to be influenced by whether Trump could actually deliver on his promises.

And it explains why political arguments about whether the wall will really get built (Trump has admitted that it doesn’t need to be a full scale wall), whether Mexico is going to pay for it (they won’t, and Trump knows it) or whether he’s brought coal jobs back (he didn’t) did not, do not and will not matter to Trump supporters.

Even though Trump promised a wall for which Mexico would pay and coal jobs, among other broken promises, his supporters did not invest in his campaign to get those specific things. When Trump said he was going to build that wall, he was reflecting a shared value of opposition to immigration, or anti-Hispanic bias or frustration with paralysis on immigration policy (or all three). To those in this communion structure, Trump’s seriousness about their shared values — that he believes them too — is all that matters.

Supporters of President Donald Trump argue with protesters outside of Suffolk Community College where President Trump was speaking on July 28, 2017 in Brentwood, New York. Spencer Platt / Getty Images File

Moreover, according to philanthropy experts, for those in communion structures, a belief that the group’s values are under threat or assault by larger, stronger forces dramatically increases followers’ commitment. Therefore, the act of critics pointing out Trump’s failures could strengthen his standing if drawing attention to those failures are seen as persecution by outside forces (such as a “deep state” or a “fake news media”). 

Perhaps most importantly, as communion followers, those in the Trump base are likely to see attacks on him as attacks on them personally, because they recognize Trump as a values leader, not a political one. Opposition to him is opposition to those values — their values. So, when reporters ask, “Do you still support Trump?” they hear, “Do you still support your own values?”

Research supports that the bonds between communion group members are stronger than those between followers and a leader. It is important, therefore, to view Trump as distinct from the values of the group. A leader may be transitional, but the values tend to be more rigid. Therefore, inroads to Trump’s base are more likely to be successful if they avoid the values or symbols of the supporters, and find ways to target Trump for betraying them.

They recognize his legitimacy and follow him not because of who he is or what he does, but because of what they think he believes — and what they think that says about them.

Because the values outweigh the leaders, when communion followers no longer see their values reflected by a communion leader, they become receptive to finding a new one. Since people’s acceptance of communion authority relies on consistency with shared values, demonstrating that Trump no longer does (or never did) share the values of his followers in faith, not practice would be pivotal.

Similarly, the emergence of other leaders that more passionately reflect shared values would cleave Trump from his base. If, for example, someone stepped forward to say Trump is not hard enough on immigrants, terrorists or trade, that person might pull supporters away from Trump and into their orbit.

Still, owing to the group’s insularity and resistance to outside criticism, any values-based replacements for Trump must come from within the structure, not outside. To work, the followers must believe the leader believes in the shared value more than Trump. And even under such scenario, it’s unlikely that such a replacement leader could take over the Trump base as much as fragment it.

No further treks to Trump Country are needed to understand why Trump’s base remains unshaken. They recognize his legitimacy and follow him not because of who he is or what he does, but because of what they think he believes — and what they think that says about them.

Derek Newton is a communications professional and
writer in New York City. He worked as a political
consultant and speech writer for numerous
campaigns including John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential
campaign and was formerly a Vice-President at
The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.


2 thoughts on “Trump’s core supporters won’t reject him. It would mean rejecting their own values.

  1. A wall is not unusual between countries. There are plenty of other walls around the world. The wall is not to stop immigration, but to have them come in the right way. Would you want strangers coming into your house any time they were hungry or needed a new dress? Would you want those strangers to demand you make them a meal and go buy them some new clothes? Mexico shoots on sight anyone trying to sneak into their country.
    I’ve been a Republican since I was old enough to vote. In high school I was taught the difference between all the parties. I made my choice because at that time the Democrats had 8 planks of Communism as part of their platform; now they have all 10. My mother, a staunch Democrat, was so unhappy when I told her. Communism is a bad thing since we fought wars against its tyranny. Common Core, Michelle’s lunch program, and Obama’s health care are all disasters and need to be fixed. All I hear is the liberal yammering how wrong Trump is with everything and fighting against everything he wants to do. All the liberals care about is having total control and they can’t have that if we have a republican mindset. JFK was the only democrat I would have voted for, if I’d been old enough to vote, because he saw things differently.
    I feared for my life under obama because I’m a Christian. No president should do that.
    I like your posts, but on politics we’ll never see eye to eye! ~ Connie


    1. Connie, friends don’t need to see identically on everything. And the thing about this country is that we all have a right to our own opinion, and a right to express it.

      On the wall thing, fear moves a lot of people to do a lot of things. For years we had no keys to our house — we didn’t need them. People respected each other and no one messed with their neighbor’s property. What changed was not new people in the neighborhood but new attitudes among the ones who were already there. So, being afraid of people from other countries — in light of the fact that almost EVERY COUNTRY in the world puts fewer people (per capita) in prison than we do in the U.S. is a meaningless argument.

      It would be nice we we had a government that was strictly one thing: republic, socialist, communist, democracy — but the fact of the matter is that as we have gotten more and more people — after all the population is twice what it was in 1960 — we have needed solutions to problems that never existed in the 1960’s or in the 1770’s. We have to keep moving.

      And of course you remember that at at least one point in time the Democrats and the Republicans actually changed party platforms — Dems used to stand for what Republicans do today and vice versa. Labels are unreliable designations as people do change — and groups of people change.

      I’m all for fixing what needs fixing. But obstructionism is not fixing anything. And we cannot stand by while major parts of the population languish in poverty, ill-health- ignorance. There are ways to lift up our population — other countries are doing just that — but our political system is broken — paralyzed by the influx of special interest money. Corruption, greed, and prejudice are killing this country much faster than any immigrants. >


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