How Republicans Go From Hold-Your-Nose Support for Trump to Crypto-Fascism

My latest Verdict column opens with a description of the controversy over South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's story in her new memoir about how she shot and killed her 14-month-old dog Cricket because Noem is bad at training dogs. That's not how she describes her reasoning, of course. Noem says that Cricket was "untrainable," but presumably that means untrainable by her.

In the column, I explain that Noem and other Republicans who have run into trouble for abusing animals over the last couple of decades deserve scorn but--you knew there would be a "but"--that what Noem and the others did to their pets or other animals was really not very different from what the vast majority of people do several times each day when they participate in a food system built on the suffering, exploitation, and killing of animals as innocent as Cricket.

The column doesn't offer a psychological explanation for the selective outrage at Noem and her ilk, but it is not difficult to locate one. In expressing shock at Noem for killing Cricket or at a bubbly Sarah Palin for blithely babbling about the Alaska state budget while a man slaughters turkeys a few feet away, Americans who might have just eaten a turkey's flesh manage their cognitive dissonance by telling themselves that they're not cruel. Participants in our unjust food system can point to Noem or Michael Vick and think "they're animal abusers; I'm not." Externalizing and projecting guilt onto a villain is a coping mechanism deployed by people who call themselves animal lovers despite what they eat and wear.

That is not to say that there are no distinctions. People like Noem, Palin, and Vick manifest cruelty or utter indifference to animal suffering, whereas the ordinary folks who are trying to manage their cognitive dissonance provide an opening. Hypocrisy being the tribute vice pays to virtue, they offer at least the possibility of persuasion.

Readers who saw the title of today's essay and haven't yet given up in exasperation while cursing me as a preachy vegan are no doubt by now wondering what has any of this to do with Trump and crypto-fascism. Wonder no more. I'll get there eventually by pivoting around the concept of cognitive dissonance.

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How do we explain the fact that Trump is about to be the Republican nominee for the third consecutive Presidential election and that despite a reasonably strong economy, he has a pretty good chance of winning it? By that, I don't mean to ask how we account for Biden's political weakness, which is easy enough to explain due to his age, lingering impacts of inflation, the Gaza war, and so forth. I mean something more like the comparative judgment that roughly half of voters who have a preference are making.

I'll repurpose and veganize a joke I've heard a few times now to dramatize the puzzle: The waiter says "we have two items on the menu today: pasta in tomato sauce or a plate of shit. The customer asks "what kind of pasta is it?"

The people who will or might order the political plate of shit fall into three camps. First there are MAGA true believers, whose cult-like devotion to Trump is best explained by the likes of Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Second are hold-your-nosers who dislike or at most tolerate Trump's antics but will vote for just about any Republican running for President based on the correct assumptions that any Republican President will almost surely appoint much more conservative judges and pursue lower-tax/less-regulatory policies than any Democratic President. Third are what I'll call crypto-fascists--the kind of people who in politically mixed company do not necessarily divulge their attraction to Trumpism but are nonetheless attracted by his bullying and are resentful of the social changes of the last six decades.

The outcome of the upcoming election and future elections (assuming there are any) in which Trump or a Trumpist candidate is on the ballot could turn in part on the relative numbers of hold-your-nose Trump voters and crypto-fascists. Hold-your-nosers are more persuadable, especially if they're libertarians, because they could be made to see that Trump has given power to social reactionaries and his only longstanding commitments (other than to personal enrichment and his own fragile ego) are to policies that have potentially disastrous economic consequences: aggressive protectionism and bullying the Fed to keep interest rates low at all times.

Ex ante, it's not all that easy to predict who will become a hold-your-noser versus a never-Trumper. It's also not that easy to distinguish a hold-your-noser from a crypto-fascist.

My pessimistic suspicion is that there are more crypto-fascists out there than one might think. Consider a May 2020 New Yorker article by Evan Osnos titled How Greenwich Republicans Learned to Love Trump. Osnos grew up in Greenwich and describes it as somewhat less prim than commonly assumed by outsiders but nonetheless a center of country-club Republicanism. What he found when conducting interviews in 2020 was that some of its residents thrilled to Trump even from the beginning, while others who initially disdained Trump went from holding their noses to fully supporting Trump, even if they did so quietly. Osnos writes that the members of

the executive class of the Republican Party are wealthier, more conservative, and more politically active than their forebears, in ways that . . . helped Trump reach the White House [in 2016], survive impeachment, and fortify his bid for reĆ«lection [in 2020] during the anguish of the coronavirus pandemic. Understanding how he retains the overwhelming support of Republicans requires an accounting of not only what he promised Americans at the bottom but also what he provides Americans at the top.  
. . . [A] corporate insurance broker who has been involved with Republican politics for fifty years told me that many of his friends are “below the radar screen.” He went on, “In a sense, I’m one of them. I’m out there in the public domain, so people know where I stand, but in 2016, for the first election ever, I did not put a bumper sticker on my car.” He worries how strangers will react. He said, “I still have two ‘Make America Great Again’ hats at home, wrapped in plastic.”

The admittedly anecdotal evidence Osnos provided in 2020 jibes with polling data. Much has been made about Trump's appeal to the white working class, but in 2020 he won white male voters with a college education by 51-48, although he lost white college-educated voters overall because Biden did better with women. Even so, Trump still garnered 45 percent of white female voters with a college degree. The point is not who edged whom but that there are a great many well educated (and given the correlation between education and income, financially secure) white voters who went for Trump in 2020 and presumably would do so again. Depending on where they live, many of those people would likely be reluctant to support Trump vocally.

To be sure, a Trump voter could be reluctant to express their political opinion vocally whether they're a hold-your-noser or a crypto-fascist. Either way, they might want to avoid the opprobrium of other elites. But the private conversations Osnos reported in 2020 suggest that a substantial number of those silent supporters are crypto-fascists.

Moreover, someone could go from hold-your-noser to crypto-fascist (or overt fascist) over time. One sees evidence of this phenomenon most clearly among evangelical voters. Here is how Hannah Rosin put it in the introduction to a December 2023 interview of Tim Alberta for The Atlantic: 

Trump needed evangelicals [in 2016] and, eventually, they held their noses and voted for him. Now the dynamic is very different. In this election, evangelical support is no longer a question. In fact, so popular is Trump that some evangelical leaders have come to think of him as a kind of messiah, the leader they have always been waiting for.

A similar dynamic may be in play for the other pillar of the modern Republican Party, the business class that Osnos described in 2020.

Literally holding your nose is uncomfortable. So is figurative nose-holding. It leads to cognitive dissonance. If I really think this guy is so awful, why am I voting for him? If human beings were purely rational creatures, the response would be to change how one votes. However, we are mostly rationalizing creatures and so, faced with tension between our beliefs and our actions or our perceived self-interest, we adjust our beliefs.

I became a vegetarian twenty years ago and a vegan eighteen years ago. Before that transformation, I didn't think much about the morality or immorality of what I ate. If I had been pressed to explain why I thought it was acceptable to eat animals, I'm sure I would have said something. Maybe I would have said that the animals I eat are dead already so I'm not harming them, or that they wouldn't have existed at all if not for the demand for animal products, or that humans are natural carnivores. I don't find any of those claims remotely persuasive now, but the point the younger me would really have been making would not have been anything I said by way of rationalization. The point would really have been I do it and I don't intend to stop, so I need to believe something that seemingly justifies it.

Rationalizations are not impervious to arguments or evidence. People who adjust their beliefs to conform to their behavior or perceived self-interest can re-adjust. Thus, a hold-your-noser who became a crypto-fascist could transform into a never-Trumper, given the right circumstances and approach. Whether that happens in sufficient numbers and in time to rescue our democracy remains to be seen.