Authoritarians get into power by understanding the mass psychology of perceived authority/legitimacy. They know it’s a cultural coordination game and that all the other stuff—positions on issues, etc. —only matters insofar as it’s instrumental to getting people to reject rivals and rally to your banner. So the key to campaigning is to (1) relentlessly puff up your public image in a way that signals authority to the most numerous part of the demos. It helps enormously if that demographic happens to feel exceptionally anxious and put-upon. (2) Relentlessly delegitimize the opposition’s claim to authority in any way possible to minimize the probability that enough of the public will coordinate around them.
The thing that has really thrown everyone this election season, I think, is Trumps no-holds-barred delegitimatizing tactics. If possible, he’ll go directly for the throat. If this were a monarchy and Trump were taking part in a succession battle, he’d accuse his rivals of being secret bastards out of the line of succession. In America, “birtherism” serves that function. Obama isn’t a legitimate president. Canadian Ted Cruz isn’t qualified to be president. Or Hillary Clinton deserves to be in jail, might even end up being in jail, so how can she be president? Etc. If you can’t directly undercut legitimacy like that, relentlessly “brand” your opponent in a way that shows them to lack natural authority (“little” flop-sweat Marco, “low-energy” Jeb, the listless nancy) or sows questions about legitimacy (“lyin” Ted, “crooked” Hillary). But the really ballsy tactic is going just straight-up cuckoo, like insinuating Rafael Cruz had something to do with JFK’s assassination. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would be disqualifying, but Trump uses his mendacious brazenness, and his ability to slough off criticism for it, as a qualifying signal of authority. It’s like a peacock’s tail. The fact that he manages to thrive despite such a showy liability simply underscores his fitness. Scary!
Hillary Clinton is Trump’s dream opponent because she comes pre-weakened by a decades-long Republican de-legitimation campaign, which Bernie Sanders was able to take advantage of, and is still taking advantage of, leading large segments of the rival party to actively undermine Hillary Clinton’s claim to legitimate authority. Trump’s taking it relatively easy on Hillary and will as long as Bernie’s still doing damage for him. But as soon as Bernie stops poisoning Hillary’s electoral well, Trump’s going to give us a spectacular masterclass in shameless demagogic de-legitimating tactics. She can’t be authoritative because she’s a woman. She’s too authoritative, so she’s barely a woman at all. What’s the point of a woman trying to act like a man when you can just get yourself a man? She’s ugly. If she can’t stand up to her rapist husband, she’s too weak to stand up for you. She’s a shameless opportunist who put up with humiliation for power, but people who will put up with humiliation don’t deserve power. She’s in the pocket of the Saudis. She’s in the pocket of the banks.
He’s going to have a field day. And I’ve stopped feeling sure that he can’t win in large part because many of the people who understand fully how awful Trump is have also spent so long actively cheering on anti-Clinton de-legitimation campaigns that the idea of coordinating around her produces knockout levels of cognitive dissonance. Hillary needs anti-Trump people to actively promote her claim to legitimacy, but so many of them are so invested in her lack of it that they prefer to work for Trump instead by reinforcing the fact that Hillary, like Trump, is unacceptable and unworthy of support. Trump understands how this works and knows this antipathy to HRC work to his advantage, even if it comes from people who say they like him even less. This is the dynamic that has me worried.