Millions of words have been spilled in efforts to understand Donald J. Trump’s appeal, much of them involving discontent with the alternatives in both parties offered to voters in 2016. But now, 32 months into his presidency, the more pressing question is how Trump maintains such steady support despite his erratic behavior, his incessant lying, his outbursts of racist malevolence, and his many broken promises.
Is it simply a matter of a booming economy anesthetizing people who really only care about their own pocketbooks, and if so, could the steadily increasing economic jitters — many of them directly attributable to Trump’s policies — finally send his approval ratings into a downward spiral? Is the whole MAGA movement purely and simply an effort by demographic “losers” — particularly white men on the margins of the economy and society — to turn back the clock? Or is Trump just an especially lurid product of extreme ideological and partisan polarization — proof that literally anyone can command one of the two major political parties with no serious erosion of support?
To these much-discussed possibilities — each with its own implications for 2020 and American political life generally — you can add an especially alarming alternative explanation highlighted in a column by the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall: Trump is tapping into a hunger for chaos that he is uniquely qualified to feed. According to an award-winning paper by three political scientists (two from Denmark and one from Temple University), there is a sort of toxic synergy at work between this “populist” pol, chaos-seeking voters, and social media that has placed Trumpism in the mainstream of American politics:
It argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to “chaos incitement” and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media.
How do Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux measure this “need for chaos”? They conducted six surveys, four in the United States, in which they interviewed 5157 participants, and two in Denmark, with 1336. They identified those who are “drawn to chaos” through their affirmative responses to the following statements:
I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
I think society should be burned to the ground.
When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.
In an email, Petersen wrote that preliminary examination of the data shows “that the ‘need for chaos’ correlates positively with sympathy for Trump but also — although less strongly — with sympathy for Sanders. It correlates negatively with sympathy for Hillary Clinton.”
More terrifyingly, they found sizable numbers of people agreeing with three of the five “chaos” statements:
The responses to three of the statements in particular were “staggering,” the paper says: 24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’ ”; and 40 percent also agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”
If you ever wondered to whom Trump was addressing his dark vision of “this American carnage” in his inaugural address, this could be your answer. More importantly, perhaps, these chaos-seekers don’t seem to care about empirical data or even truthfulness:
Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
To put it another way, when Trump says and does outrageous things, he’s just “owning the libs,” or defying “political correctness,” which is a more important goal than truth-telling to people driven by fury. This could well be the reality underlying Salena Zito’s famous maxim that MAGA folk “take Trump seriously, but not literally.” What are a few thousand lies among comrades-in-arms?
Edsall ends his column with some unhappy thoughts about how these chaos-seekers, who are almost by definition hostile to democratic norms, might react to a Trump defeat in 2020:
If voters deny Trump a second term, how many of his most ardent supporters, especially those with a “need for chaos,” will find defeat unbearable?
It’s certainly a fear I’ve expressed, based in part on the regular efforts of Trump and the GOP to promote voter-fraud and election-theft myths in the last few years. But beyond that lurid scenario, evidence that a significant share of Trump supporters are as nihilistic and destructive as Donald Trump himself supplies a sort of Occam’s-razor answer to all the questions about why they put up with him: His worst traits are a feature, not a bug, for those who take pleasure in chaos. Yes, maybe there is a progressive cure for this malady that you can prescribe via the right mix of economic policies and demonstrations that cultural and demographic change is good for us all. But it would appear that appeals to sweet reason, or even to self-interest, will produce limited results. Maybe it’s enough to drive Trump and his enablers from office, but the longer he’s there, Americans addicted to the chaos he embodies will want more.