The results of the 2016 Presidential Election blindsided many in the press and academia. Pollsters and pundits cast their lots for an easy, painless victory for the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor, was no different.
But as vote counts from key swing states continued to roll in through the long night, Hibbing—and many in America—had to come to terms with a fact thought unthinkable just one year before: Donald Trump would lead America for four years. Hibbing said he also noticed some friends and family eagerly repeating Trump’s talking points.
He wondered why. Hibbing’s research on the topic led him to write his book, “The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Trump’s Base and Why It Matters for the Post-Trump Era,” which was published on Sept. 1.
“This idea sprang from family and acquaintances, people who I admire and respect, who are die-hard Trump supporters,” Hibbing said. “I wanted to understand the depth and devotion of support for him. I think everyone needs to try to understand that.”
Hibbing’s thesis boils down to his view of political foundations. Our seething divisions, he said, are not unique to America, nor are they all merely symptoms of the times.
“The big idea is that at the core of all political divisions is the dispute between those who want to keep outsiders away, the securitarians, and those who want to give them a great big hug, what I call unitarians,” he said.
Hibbing said the primal dispute animates everything from heated Thanksgiving dinner discussions to the current and coarse nature of national political discourse. Unitarians, as Hibbing terms them, don’t think in terms of separating their in-group from their out-group, but for securitarians, Hibbing said that framework is a matter of survival.
“I think threats from other human beings, especially the tribe over the other hill, are the biggest we’ve faced throughout our history,” he said. “It makes sense to me that it might have a heightened place in a fairly large slice of the population.”
Trump supporters don’t tend to see COVID-19 or climate change as a serious threat for precisely that reason, Hibbing said. Those issues aren’t driven by in-group or out-group dynamics; they’re concerns of health and science, he said.
Hibbing’s findings have contradicted the conception that conservatives are simply more fearful and anxious.
Hibbing said conservatives—and especially the lockstep supporters of Trump—don’t so much as fear threats as attend to them. They find meaning and purpose in protecting those they consider to be in their in-group; they aren’t motivated by anxiety or precarity, he said.
“They don’t even need to feel threatened by immigrants,” he said. “Some Trump supporters actually think immigrants improve American society. But even they wanted immigration to stop. Their view is something like, ‘America for Americans and Bolivia for Bolivians.’”
Kloee Sander, a sophomore broadcasting and advertising major from Lincoln, said she doesn’t feel any disdain for migrants seeking a better life in the United States but does think the immigration system needs a hard reboot.
“We can’t treat immigrants inhumanely,” said Sander, who is taking Hibbing’s class covering the election. “But our immigration system is a mess and needs to be reset.”
R.J. Haskin, a senior political science major also enrolled in Hibbing’s class, said he feels America’s immigration system needs a drastic improvement. For Haskin, originally from Overland Park, Kansas, a wall is about national sovereignty and identity.
Both Sander and Haskin said they sometimes struggle to square their religion and morals with Trump’s bellicosity. Trump has had a history of accusations of racism and sexism, with his recent comments telling the violent Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by” at the end of a long list.
“My vote for Donald Trump is not an endorsement of his character,” Haskin said. “It’s an acknowledgement that his overall policies and the people he surrounds himself with more closely align with my morals.”
Despite the many conservatives and securitarians in Nebraska, polls show Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional district is leaning blue. The Democratic Party’s nominee Joe Biden could be the first to pull a Nebraskan electoral vote since Barack Obama’s 2008 run.
Biden wasn’t Brady Klein’s first choice, though. Klein, a senior computer science major and an avid supporter of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, is backing Biden as a matter of “harm reduction.”
Hibbing has no doubt that the stakes of the election are historically high this year. He predicts that Biden will win, but he said he fears a narrow margin of victory. Any hint of doubt about the election could muddle the process and call into question its results, he said. This fear is especially prominent among many Americans given the concerns that Trump may not accept the election results.
But no matter how the election ends, Hibbing said the foundational issues—and the bitter divides—will stick with people long after November.
“Whether liberals like it or not, Trump supporters aren’t going anywhere,” Hibbing said. “And whether Trump supporters like it or not, liberals aren’t going anywhere. Trying to understand each other has got to be better than what we’re currently doing.”