A commenter already flagged this, but this comment from Julia Azari at 538’s debate live blog (a model for the format, BTW — Nate has quietly assembled a very impressive group of journalists and scholars) is very smart:
I’ve seen three compelling analyses of what explains the support for Donald Trump so far. There’s the authoritarianism argument, which suggests that what distinguishes Trump supporters from other Republican voters is their preference for strong leadership and intolerance for deviation. Then this week, two political scientists wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog arguing that Trump supporters are not authoritarians but populists who identify with those out of power.
And on Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction blog (where I am a regular contributor), Lilliana Mason and Nicholas Davis find that Trump supporters have a fully “sorted” Republican social identity — that is, strong identification with all three groups associated with the Republican Party: whites, traditional Republicans and conservative Christians.
Can these theories all be true? Perhaps one explanation will emerge as the correct one. But I wonder if this also suggests that Trump supporters simultaneously embrace authoritarian values when it comes to those who don’t share their politics, race and religion, and have a healthy populist suspicion of power for themselves and those like them. This would be consistent with research on the tea party that suggests its appeal is not so much about limiting government programs, but limiting programs that provide for undeserving outsiders.
Trump is a buffoonish figure with an embarrassingly thin grasp of policy, but (as I was slower to recognize than some others) he is very politically shrewd. Has lack of ties to the party allowed him to appeal directly to where the party’s voters are. Yesterday’s intentionally low-key, frontunner-appropriate debate performance is further evidence that he knows exactly what he’s doing.