As America slowly emerges from the chaos of the last five years, many of us remain mystified about the significant number of people who still support Trump and Trumpism. Virtually every political conversation includes sentiments of bewilderment: who are these people? What explains their devotion to someone so personally repellent? What accounts for their willingness to believe a blatantly illogical fabrication promoted by a documented liar?
The evidence produced at Trump’s second impeachment trial–and especially the films showing the insurrection– prompts most rational observers to wonder what could have motivated those who participated in the horrific assault on the nation’s capitol? The problem with efforts to understand that motivation is that it can lead us to categorize disparate people, to define “them” as a group sharing particular personalities or bigotries, and of course, it’s never that simple.
That said, what do we know? What similarities do “they” possess, if any?
One of the confounding elements of the assault that has been widely remarked upon was the number of middle-class participants without a history of violence or lawbreaking who joined with the Q crackpots and the Proud Boys and their ilk. What impelled their behaviors?
Academic researchers investigating those participants are finding some intriguing and suggestive commonalities. As a Washington Post article reported,
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
Clearly, there is no single factor that accounts for someone’s decision to join a mob assaulting the seat of government. But what pundits call Trump’s brand of grievance politics “tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.”
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
I have seen the term precarity used increasingly in articles describing the effects of America’s huge economic disparities. It’s a term that gets beyond superficial comparisons of poverty and wealth, and for that reason, it is especially useful. When people feel that their position–whatever it may be at a particular time–is precarious, it is unnerving, unsettling. Those feelings of threat and insecurity are consistent with another finding of the research–the larger-than-expected number of participants who had been involved in episodes of domestic violence.
Research into the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s linked that rise not to impoverished people, but to people who felt that their positions were precarious–that they were losing status and power. The Post cited a 2011 study that found household income wasn’t linked to whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. “But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.”
Insecurity. Precarity. Fear of loss, and resentment of those identified as the cause or beneficiary of that loss. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it explains a lot.