Behavioral economists have long recognized a cognitive bias known as “loss aversion.” For example, when asked to estimate the price of a coffee mug someone else has, people will offer figures significantly lower than if they are asked to price a mug that is in their possession. People respond more forcefully to what they may lose than to what they may gain, even if the value of what they could add to their well being equates to the cost of losing something. They’ll fight for what they have.
This tendency is on full display in the world of Republican politics. Across red America, Trump voters are fervently grasping for the privileges of race and creed that they long believed were a given for white Christian Americans. They’re responding to challenges to their status that have materialized since 2008, just like earlier generations of GOP voters swarmed to George Wallace and Richard Nixon out of reaction against the social revolutions of the Sixties. That explains the high Republican turnout in Virginia last month.
To understand the intensity of their motivation, it helps to assume the mindset of a Republican base voter. The overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters are white and evangleical; most of them are middle aged or older, and a disproportionate number are rural. The last 20 years have been a cultural disaster for white rural evangelicals. Since the peak of religiously conservative influence with the election of George W. Bush, same-sex marriage has become law, trans people have made significant gains in visibility, organized religion has diminished across the board, attitudes toward premarital sex and cursing have continued to liberalize, and a Black man has held the presidency of the United States. From a position of secure hegemony, white evangelicals have fallen into a minority position in our culture.
And the evangelical core of the Republican Party simply cannot accept being a patch in the country’s multicultural quilt. In white evangelical circles, the conviction that America belongs to them holds enormous power. Partly this is because of the insularity of their communities. Many evangelicals have never encountered people who don’t share their worldview or life experiences–and that makes the cosmopolitan images they see in the media seem like a monstrous Other. But the more important factor driving the evangelical faith that America is theirs is a kind of Jacksonian nationalism. “Real” Americans are white, Christian, provincial, and employed in making things. Any other type of person who happens to inhabit the country is at best a guess in the Jacksonian household.
So, seeing their perceived ownership of the country slip away, Republican base voters have thrown themselves wholesale into the arena of political combat. Increasingly, they are opting for bullying, authoritarian politicians like Donald Trump and Madison Cawthorn, through whom they experience the vicarious satisfaction of seeing Democrats smack down. With these men leading them and Fox News tending to the fires of grievance, Republican base voters can be expected to come to the polls in heavy numbers for the foreseeable future. Fasten your seat belts.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.