Over the four years during which he has dominated American political life, nearly three of them as president, Donald Trump has set a match again and again to chaos-inducing issues like racial hostility, authoritarianism and white identity politics.
Last week, at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, the winner of the best paper award in the Political Psychology division was “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies.”
The paper, which the award panel commended for its “ambitious scope, rigor, and creativity,” is the work of Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, both political scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, and Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple.
It argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to “chaos incitement” and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media.
. . .
The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.
Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
. . .
The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.
. . .
The phrase “like to see the democratic system go down” is chilling — and raises the question: How worried should we be about a fundamental threat to democracy from the apparently large numbers of Americans who embrace chaos as a way of expressing their discontent? Might Trump and his loyal supporters seek to bring down the system if he is defeated in 2020? What about later, if the damage he has inflicted on our customs and norms festers, eroding the invisible structures that underpin everything that actually makes America great?