A flawed but noteworthy bit of data from a new survey by PRRI and Brookings. The flaw is in the phrasing of the question: It’s one thing to support a leader who “breaks some rules,” it’s another to support one who breaks some laws. The phrase “breaking the rules” doesn’t even carry negative connotations in many circumstances. Anyone who watched Trump win the primaries with a skeleton campaign staff, a minimal ground game, and perfunctory spending on ads would concede that he’s broken all of the rules of presidential campaigning. But that’s not a criticism. It’s a compliment. It means he had the talent and insight to find an unconventional path to victory. The same goes for his brand of political incorrectness. If by “rules” all you mean is convention and politesse, being willing to break the rules will often be a virtue. It’s why people think Trump might have a unique ability to reform Washington. The first “rule” of modern government is that special interests get taken care of before the average voter does. Some rules were made to be broken.
Some of the people who answered yes to this question surely have that informal meaning of “rules” in mind. But … surely some don’t. Some are equating “rules” with “laws.” How many? PRRI doesn’t bother to ask but it’s kind of important to know. Trump has, after all, showed a willingness at times to break not just rules but laws; on other occasions he’s suggested changing laws in ways that would almost certainly be ruled illegal. How many Americans are so discontent with the state of the country that they’re willing to back an authoritarian president who’d ignore the rule of law in order to enact the reforms they want? Maybe we’ll find out in the next survey.
Another obvious question here: How much of this partisan split is due to simple partisanship? Democrats have been in control of the White House for seven years; frustration on the right with that fact may be inspiring a “do something, anything!” urgency to undo Obama’s policies that’s driving the “break some rules” response here. Because Democrats are satisfied with O’s policies, more or less, their support for drastic reform is less urgent. If Trump were to win in November and Republicans started passing legislation, the numbers might well flip. Democrats also have the luxury of Obama’s policies being seen as “the rules” themselves rather than as breaking of the rules, even when he’s obviously broken the rules. Case in point: His executive amnesty. A divided Supreme Court affirmed a Fifth Circuit ruling yesterday that, yep, Obama probably broke the “rules” of the Administrative Procedure Act when he tried to hand out legal status and work permits to illegals unilaterally. Would the average liberal agree with that description of what happened, though, or would they say that O had made a “rule” and the stupid Court had simply disagreed? That is to say, the party in power has an ideological interest in believing that everything their guy does is within “the rules.” It may be that the numbers are always lower for them on this question than for the out-party. I sure hope so. If not, the right has reached an ominous stage in its flirtation with Caesarism. Frankly, it’s ominous no matter what the reason.
Relatedly, here’s some more data from PRRI. Bear in mind before you read that the way they define “authoritarian” isn’t the way you might think. It’s a temperamental, not political, definition. They asked people questions like whether it’s more important for children to have respect for elders rather than independence, to demonstrate good manners rather than curiosity, and so on. Essentially, they wanted to gauge whether people instinctively preferred social rules to guide kids’ behavior or whether they favored a less structured approach. If you prefer rules, you’re “authoritarian.” If you don’t, you’re “autonomous.” With that as background, some correlations:
Nearly seven in ten (69%) Republicans have an authoritarian orientation, including four in ten (40%) who register as highly authoritarian. Political independents and Democrats are less likely to have an authoritarian orientation (55% and 51%, respectively). Notably, Trump supporters (66%) are not any more likely than Republicans overall to hold an authoritarian orientation.
A majority (54%) of white Americans have an authoritarian orientation, although there are substantial differences by class. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white working-class Americans have an authoritarian orientation, compared to fewer than four in ten (39%) white college-educated Americans…
Most notably, Americans who have a highly authoritarian orientation are more than twice as likely as those who have a highly autonomous orientation to say the country needs a leader who is willing to break the rules to set things right (58% vs. 22%, respectively).
It is … odd that those more inclined to set and follow rules would crave a leader who’s willing to break rules, but there you go. If there’s something to that correlation then presumably my theory about partisanship driving the “break some rules” data is wrong. You should see Democrats less willing to endorse that position and Republicans more willing to endorse it even with a Republican in the White House.
If you have the time, I recommend skimming the rest of the poll as there’s plenty of interesting policy-specific data too. Try this one on for size:
The white working class is nearly a mirror image of blacks on that question, although large minorities of college-educated whites and Latinos agree. The perception that whites face discrimination of their own is not a boutique phenomenon that exists exclusively among blue-collar whites. As for economics, two strong notes for Trump here:
Trump’s been all over on the map on taxes but he’s got a green light from 54 percent of Republicans to tack left and demand more taxes on the rich. That was unthinkable five years ago with Paul Ryan types in charge of Republican policy in Congress, but Trump’s populist movement has freed some righties to embrace class warfare a bit more openly. He’s not going to get to Hillary’s left on this, but maybe he can get far enough to the center to put more independents in play. And given the free-trade numbers here, he might be able to get to her left on that.