One of the biggest news stories of 2015 can be captured in one name: Donald Trump. To the shock and amazement of many, Trump’s presidential candidacy successfully launched in 2015 and continues to soar into the New Year. While many media pundits expected initial support for this Republican contender in the early stages of the primary season, few thought voters would support him in large numbers by the end of the year; they were wrong. Trump leads the Republican field in all national polls and has been in one of the front spots since the summer. Despite his offensive statements regarding Mexicans, Muslims and others, in some polls, Trump is in a statistical dead heat against Hillary Clinton in a race for the United States presidency.
What is the secret of Trump’s success, you may ask? To answer that, let’s consider the findings of social psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto on the matter of social dominance. Their well-researched theory shows that within societies, some groups enjoy more than their fair share of quality housing, health care and food in addition to political power, wealth and education. Other groups, their research reveals, have more than their fair share of underemployment, criminal punishment, distasteful work, disease and substandard housing. When most group members share the same relative status across generations of experience, you can bet a rigid social hierarchy is in place that protects and maintains the privileged position of dominant groups and the exclusion and deprivation experienced by those at the bottom. Think of the so-called untouchables of India, the aborigines of Australia, the “Gypsy” or Roma people of Europe and people of color in the U.S.
Although any individual person may defy the odds, groups as a whole will be concentrated at some level of a social hierarchy. In the U.S., race, class and gender have always played central roles in determining where people land in the hierarchy. If you are born white, you enjoy a series of advantages and privileges in American society that persons of other racial groups lack. In the same way, people born into families with wealth have huge advantages over members of the society who lack wealth. Likewise, men still enjoy numerous advantages in American society over women. Despite our constitutional protections, civil rights laws and supposed commitment to “equal opportunity,” race, class and gender remain the best predictors of how people will fare in life. White men born into families with wealth historically and today remain at the top of American society in business, politics and education and have the lowest representation among the poor. In contrast, women of color born into families with little or no wealth make up a disproportionate share of America’s poor and have the least representation at the top of America’s business, political and educational institutions.
People who prefer the status quo inequities support political candidates who make clear their intention to maintain the existing social hierarchy. For these voters, a candidate’s commitment to maintaining social dominance is a “trump” card that is more important to them than the substance or details of a candidate’s policy proposals. This is key to Donald Trump’s success. He gained popularity with these voters early by claiming America’s first non-white president was not a citizen and was illegitimate. His insults of women, Mexicans and Muslims signaled his intention and boldness to continue racial, gender and religious dominance, while his record as a CEO and his class standing suggest his support for economic inequality. Polls show his support is highest among older, white males who, today and historically, show the least support for social change in America. While that does not mean older white men all oppose change (consider Bernie Sanders’ platform), it does show Donald Trump’s popularity is grounded in large numbers of voters who seemingly want to roll back the clock to a time of more strident race, gender and class dominance — a time when America was great for them, if not anyone else.
Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law.