Social scientists reject the “the great man theory of history.” This popular theory views history as made up of the actions of individual people with strong personalities. History is interesting when seen as the stories of individuals, but it is not understood unless also seen as the story of groups of people, who are influenced by social, economic, political, geographic, and let us add climate conditions.
Individuals do come into the picture as they react to these conditions in various ways. In fact, individuals often use conditions to their advantage, which may be for good or bad. One bad way to use conditions is as a way to gain personal power.
Conditions are constantly changing, but one particular social condition that is causing fear among many white people is the demographic changes in America. The majority population is Euro-American. However, many white people are afraid of becoming a minority and of losing the majority of the voting population or of some other way of losing influence. The fear of the changing demographic condition of America was seen by Donald Trump as a way of gaining power. As soon as he started running for president he started talking about the “invasion” from the South of mostly darker or brown people. This became a theme for his presidency, which he narrowly won in 2016 and then lost in 2020.
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The theme of Trump became “Making America Great Again” (MAGA), in other words, making the country like it was in the past or stopping the changing conditions of the population. Fear of the future and nostalgia are powerful emotions. When Trump lost the 2020 election, he blatantly and openly claimed he had won, even overwhelmingly, and the properly certified election of his opponent, Joseph Biden, was false. His false claim was strangely believed by many of his followers, who had developed an attachment to his bullying personality, but also feared what he had made them fear about being overwhelmed by immigrants. The fear of immigrants was not limited to America. Autocrats in Europe built on the same fear. Vicktor Orban of Hungary is an example of such a right-wing leader in Europe, who has been warmly received in America by the people who fear that white people will be “replaced” by darker-skinned people. Added to the fear of darker-skinned people is the old fear of Jews “taking over.”
This antisemitism has dark and tragic echoes from the past, especially the terrible Holocaust led by fascists in Europe. Hitler also built on fear of others (the Jews) who would take away what was good in the (Germanic) tradition they were familiar with. A turn toward violence is a natural tendency for those who build on fear. America had a large taste of violence in the Jan. 6 insurrection by the followers of Trump and violence is also continuing in the many threats by Trump supporters toward anybody associated with opposition to Trump, even ordinary election workers.
By building on both fear and nostalgia brought on by changing demographics, Trump discovered a way of gaining support from many white people, including those who might be turned off by his character or personality. That character was molded by a successful father who emphasized to his son to “not be a loser.” This obsession drove his boyhood and accompanied him to adulthood where he had to survive many suits for various reasons like not paying bills and exaggerating the value of his properties. In spite of his supporters, they were not quite enough for him to win the 2020 Presidential election. This was a great blow to his ego which hated being “a loser.”
It was also a great disappointment to his supporters who felt that they were losing control of “their” country. This was the tinder waiting to be lit and turned into the violent action we saw on Jan. 6. Thus, an American authoritarian demagogue used fear of demographic change as a path to power.
The violence of Jan. 6 and the continuing threats are a wake-up call to Americans to remain faithful to the democratic spirit and principles that have held our country together through many troubles and struggles, including a Civil War, discriminatory laws and customs, racial segregation, and personal threats. Fear of social change must be replaced by the optimism that our country can be a universal community with liberty and justice for all.
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Montgomery is a Presbyterian minister with a degree from Emory University in the Social Scientific Study of Religion.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Fear of changing demographic seen by Trump as a way to gain power