NOVEMBER 2, 2020
ON JULY 21, 2016, the Republican National Convention was in full swing and delegates in ruddy Americana and cowboy attire packed the Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Although it’s hard for most of us to recall, this was a time where even staunch Republicans were doubting Trump’s ascendency to the United States’s highest office. I was there, and remember it fondly, and was intrigued as to why those who did want Trump were willing to vote for a man who had called Mexicans rapists and had made fun of a handicapped New York Times journalist. A 52-year-old delegate from Vermont stressed the usual three prongs: the border, anti-terrorism, the military. Trump’s insensitivity mattered not. “To me,” the delegate said, “if you’re not safe, then you’ve got nothing.”
The same search for the soul of the average Trump diehard is found in John Hibbing’s The Securitarian Personality, a 304-page-long petri dish observation of the brain matter that lies tucked in the belts of MAGA hats. Using Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality as its theoretical base, Hibbing delves into the various facets of personality, demographics, behavior, and mindset that compose both devoted and on-the-fence Trump supporters and their conservative cousins, while tip-toeing across the tightrope strung between right-leaning sympathy and “racist” accusation.
He entertains a worthwhile treasure chest of Democratic curiosities of the Trumper breakdown — Are they racist or xenophobic? Are they sexist? Have a couple of loose screws? — while asserting he’s merely a concerned anthropologist, one admitting his own anti-Trump biases (he’s clearly out of place, he writes, lugging a Francis Fukuyama book to a MAGA rally). But Hibbing knows his work will be chewed at by partisan piranhas. “In today’s hostile political climate,” he writes in his introduction, “neither side will be pleased with my account.”
The central problem, Hibbing says, is that liberals primarily and utterly misunderstand their rivals, that “the standard, established narrative regarding the makeup of Trump supporters misses the mark.” Instead of being Second Amendment–wielding, twilight-of-life-aged, overly broke and manufacturing-class whites, Hibbing urges us to step back and observe the factual heart of the Trump venerators, those who are irrevocably pushing for the president’s reelection in November.
From the results of four focus groups in which Hibbing delivered a vast survey of over 250 questions — “Rather be seen as nice than strong?” “Is preparation better than democracy?” “Attend church twice a month?” “Watch pornography?” — he argues that the very basis of the majority of these voters (nearly 60 percent) has security needs at heart. And this, he says, explains the root of their political stance: keep safe myself, my friends and family, my culture, and scrutinize any outsider that steps in my way. As Hibbing puts it: “For securitarians,” he writes, “it is a simple world: those who strive to enhance security by putting insiders first are revered; those who do not are reviled.”
Exact classification is of humongous importance to Hibbing, and one could say his entire work is an argument centered on scientific name-calling. Going back to Adorno’s 1,000-page magnum opus — a political ideology–oriented survey of 2,000 war-torn Americans in the 1950s — Hibbing helps us recall the personalities that likely venerated Hitler or Mussolini, and, quoting Adorno, explaining that “anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism” could be “traceable to sources deep within the structure of the person.” Besides the surveying facet, this is where Hibbing’s comparison seems to end. Ardent Trumpers are not authoritarians, he says, as some op-ed writers today claim them to be (Hibbing doesn’t hesitate to list them all). If we are to presuppose that authoritarianism, in the Adornan sense, includes complete and utter submission of its citizens, then that’s not really the case with the supporters Hibbing has surveyed. Securitarians, like the escape-tunnel-digging old-field mice of the American Southeast, are just naturally “programmed” to place self-preservation high on the list of day-to-day concerns; to them, it doesn’t really matter who’s advocating, it just matters that they’re advocating.
“Fervent Trump supporters like that his language does not kowtow to outsiders such as minorities, gays, and the parade of identity groups,” Hibbing writes. “If his unfiltered direct speech and tweets compromised insiders and lifted outsiders, his base would turn on him in an instant.” In sum, it’s not Trump per se; it’s just what he seems to represent.
Does calling the majority of Trump supporters “security-minded” — and who wouldn’t want their family safe? — nullify the never-ending string of sexist, xenophobic, and unintelligible stream of comments the president has made? Hibbing repeatedly cites a role in this onerous dissection as a bookish professor type in an ivory high tower, not a liberal finger-pointer. “[M]y goal here is not to excuse racist behavior but rather to try and explain to you how Trump and his followers can believe they are not racist,” he reminds us halfway through his book.
This is where Hibbing’s meticulously worded paragraphs are important. From the securitarian’s innate worldview, they themselves are not racist because the identity of outsider — Black Lives Matter backer, new Muslim neighbor, poor white on unemployment — is not important, it’s the fact that they’re a perceived outsider from the start. Even the securitarian’s own race doesn’t matter, Hibbing asserts: a black securitarian would surely be ready and able to vote into office a black Donald Trump. Is that racist? Well, it’s up to the beholder.
A question that rings throughout The Securitarian Personality has a lot to do with the second word: can we actually know a persona via a collection of survey questions? At times, Hibbing’s book tends to pose more questions than it answers, but with the data given, the 1,000-plus lives of Trump’s most hardcore surely reveal themselves to be more nuanced and complex, and that in itself is a resounding success for our volatile era. Breaking up Trump venerators into five types — “Securitarians,” “Social Warriors,” “Tea Partiers,” “Economically Concerned,” and “Enigmas” — Hibbing shows us scientifically that not all Trumpers are alike, and that the majority (securitarians) have distinguishing traits that need to be further analyzed in an election year. You can hear Hibbing laughing behind his tweed sleeve. “When it comes to watching porn,” he says, “the only group that comes close to tea-partiers is liberals (37%).” Again, no big screed. Just pure data.
That’s where The Securitarian Personality may have been improved, in including more actual personalities. I understand fully that Hibbing is a political researcher and psychologist, but most readers may feel the desire to hear from the actual Trump supporters that Hibbing surveyed — not just the fictional “types” he scribed for the purpose of providing that character. That said, The Securitarian Personality is a book concerned just as much with the next four years as it is with the past four.
In the worst sense, it’s dark fodder for more bemoaning. Are the Trump securitarians an ephemeral blip in American politics, Hibbing asks, or are they a precursor to an even lengthier movement? Or, will globally minded unitarians eventually just outgrow the aged-out and deceased Trump venerators of the late 2010s? Insiders and outsiders change. Poo-pooing interracial or gay marriage, he reminds us, lessened greatly in the past 40 years, so why can’t the harsh securitarian mindset of insiders? Hibbing seems sure that the personality itself is undying on a global stage, but it’s perennial and it merely takes disparate forms as time goes by.
While touching on the threat of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic — he finished his book in the deep thick of the spread — Hibbing concludes with his most dire lesson his research has revealed: “For Trump’s base, life without personal security and the preservation of worthy insiders in the face of teeming outsiders is the equivalent of total planetary collapse.” It’s absurd, yes, but you must grasp it.