Alexandra BosbeerGovernancePeace

Enablers of autocrats

[21 July 2018]  We – and the media – focus on the words and choices of Donald Trump, but it is the enablers– his staff, elected members of Congress and Senate, and all his supporters among the public – who are together allowing him to have such an impact on the world.  So, rather than falling into the trap of focusing on Trump and his use of dramatic language together with lack of accuracy, perhaps we should focus on those who are propping him up. And the same applies to other would-be or developing autocrats in Europe and elsewhere. What motivates those whose support brings these leaders into power and keeps them there?

We should bear in mind that about a third, and sometimes up to two-fifths, of the American people approve of the job Trump is doing, according to the Gallup polls. Although the same polls show that more than half consistently disapprove of his performance, this only serves to highlight the divide in the society. The thirty to forty percent of the population who support Trump have their reasons for approving of his performance, and it behooves us to understand rather than disparage.

Political science professor Sheri Berman recently published an opinion piece in The Guardian, outlining that emphasis of difference can evoke defensive reactions – and so those on the left who are emphasizing their rejection of the values and methods espoused by politicians like Trump (and he is only one well-known example), are unwittingly reinforcing the divide they may deplore.

I’d say there are a number of factors acting together:

  1. Appeal to vanity: the appearance of powerfulness in a leader willing to be blatant about his power, which may include attacking allies, making strongly worded statements, and ignoring etiquette. Trump speaks bluntly and uses everyday language, while projecting a persona who is confident in his position of power. The lack of use of polished speech also makes him seem more like an ordinary person, bolstering his claim to be against the elite (contradicted by recent speechesin which he indicated he was wealthier and so should be regarded as the super-elite).


  1. Successful marketing: Trump’s tendency to make claims about his effectiveness and popularity is described sometimes as a joke, particularly when contradictory photographic evidence exists, but there are many who believe the claims. Trump manages to dominate the headlines, ‘getting his brand out there’, with his outrageous claims and journalists’ clarifications and fact checking.


Marketing is about getting potential customers to believe in your product. It has nothing to do with actually fulfilling their expectations: in fact, one traditional model of the utility of marketing, was to convince the consumer of quality, while avoiding spending expense on the (same) quality. Marketing also has nothing to do with sticking with the truth: it is about manipulation of the reader’s or listener’s viewpoint. So, if Trump says that both his parents were born in Europe (his father was born in New York), we should first try to understand what he is aiming to ‘sell’.

  1. The allure of rules being broken: for those for whom the rules have not worked, either economically or more generally, the concept of a president who breaks rules might be very attractive. And Trump both breaks rules and touts his own power as ultimate. One example is his issuing of pardons in response to lobbying or for other, unpredictable reasons. A businessman attempting to get approval for special and grandiose projects, often pushes at the rules and sometimes may succeed in being granted an exception. Fifteen years ago, Trump tried and failed to be permitted to build in Berlin a building 50m taller than the planning regulations allowed. This is the rule of law, in this case, inflexible against the wheedling in the negotiating room.

Breaking the rules, and shocking commentators and journalists, again garners headlines and visibility.

  1. The desire to achieve one’s own legislative agenda, even among evangelical Christianswho might otherwise be expected to disapprove of his lifestyle: in the polarized political world of (only) two parties, some will prefer someone on their side of the political spectrum. This same process functions at the individual level as well, of course: there may be voters who selected Trump because they preferred the option of a President likely to pursue their own particular legislative agenda.
  2. Unity born from defensiveness: being described as ‘deplorable’ or holding views that one is told are wrong, probably increases a person’s sense of defensiveness. Having a leader who – at least sometimes (with his contradictory assertions) – supports one’s view, might be reassuring. In fact, having a leader who makes contradictory statements might also be reassuring, surprising though that might seem. Imagine someone with views that are not often seen as acceptable, such as holding a view of women similar to Trump’s. Imagine how they must feel vindicated by having as their president, someone who states such views! And yet, his inconsistency also helps, as those who oppose those views can be confused as to what to believe. Another example is the confusion in the media about Trump’s view, for example, of allies and old enemies. (The actual damage, of confusion on the part of allies, for example, gets less attention than Trump’s pronouncements.)

I am among those who wish to retain the European (and trans-Atlantic) values of democracy and the rule of law. These – especially democracy – require also understanding those with whom we do not agree, such as the third of the American people who approve of President Trump. Let’s understand and listen, and see if we can find some common ground, discover our similarities, and rebuild more meaningful democracy.