The Secret of Trump’s Appeal Isn’t Authoritarianism

If the presidential election were held today, Donald Trump could very well win it. Polling from several organizations shows him gaining ground on Joe Biden, winning five of six swing states and drawing the support of about 20 percent of Black and roughly 40 percent of Hispanic voters in those states.

For some liberal observers, Mr. Trump’s resilience confirms that many Americans aren’t wedded to democracy and are tempted by extreme ideologies. Hillary Clinton has described Mr. Trump as a “threat” to democracy, and Mr. Biden has called him “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.”

In a different spirit, some on the right also take Mr. Trump’s success as a sign that Americans are open to more radical forms of politics. After Mr. Trump’s win in 2016, the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin crowed that the American people had “started the revolution” against political liberalism itself. Richard Spencer declared himself and his fellow white nationalists “the new Trumpian vanguard.”

But both sides consistently misread Mr. Trump’s success. He isn’t edging ahead of Mr. Biden in swing states because Americans are eager to submit to authoritarianism, and he isn’t attracting the backing of significant numbers of Black and Hispanic voters because they support white supremacy. His success is not a sign that America is prepared to embrace the ideas of the extreme right. Mr. Trump enjoys enduring support because he is perceived by many voters — often with good reason — as a pragmatic if unpredictable kind of moderate.

To be sure, Mr. Trump’s wild rhetoric, indifference to protocol and willingness to challenge expertise have been profoundly unsettling to people of both political parties. His term in office was frequently chaotic, and the chaos seemed to culminate in the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021. In the current presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has promised to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Mr. Biden; he continues to argue that the 2020 election was stolen and that America does not have “much of a democracy right now”; his fondness for incendiary language has not abated.

But it is worth remembering that during his presidency, Mr. Trump’s often intemperate rhetoric and erratic behavior ended up accompanying a host of moderate policies. On matters ranging from health care and entitlements to foreign policy and trade, Mr. Trump routinely rejected the most unpopular ideas of both political parties. Voters seem to have noticed this reality: When asked whether Mr. Trump was too conservative, not conservative enough or “not too far either way,” 57 percent of voters in a recent poll picked “not too far either way.” Only 27 percent of voters regarded him as too conservative.

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