How Authoritarianism Took Over the GOP and Allowed for the Emergence of Emperor Trump

Election '16

Editor’s Note: Using a recent national survey of American voters, Matthew C. MacWilliams finds that GOP fears that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination, leading the party to an electoral disaster in November, are well-founded. Trump’s strongman rhetoric has activated and energized American authoritarians to his candidacy, providing him with a large and loyal base of supporters in the upcoming Republican contests. An inclination toward authoritarianism is a major predictor of the likelihood of voting for Donald Trump over other GOP candidates. Moreover, Trump voters are ready to suspend constitutionally guaranteed rights such as habeas corpus, reject the protection of minority rights and support the abridgment of religious freedom through the closure of mosques across the U.S.

In her State of the Union response to President Barack Obama, South Carolina’s Republican governor Nikki Haley warned her party and the nation to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.” The angry soloist to whom Haley was referring is Donald Trump. As my recent national survey of 1,800 American voters reveals, Haley’s caution is well founded.

Trump’s strongman siren call has electrified Americans disposed to authoritarianism, rallying them to his banner as they follow his lead. As Trump joked last weekend, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody. And I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK. It’s like, incredible.”

My survey, conducted under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses a simple battery of four questions to identify authoritarians. These are the same questions that leading political scientists, including Marc Hetherington, Jonathon Weiler and Karen Stenner, have employed since 1992 to measure individual disposition to authoritarianism. The results of my poll show that authoritarianism is one of only two variables that is a statistically significant predictor of Trump support among likely Republican primary voters. The other variable is fear of terrorism. Other variables included in the model are sex, educational attainment, age, church attendance, evangelicalism, ideology, race, and income.

The authoritarian inclinations of Trump voters are abundantly clear when the predicted probability of supporting Trump is arrayed across the authoritarian scale (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Support for Trump by Authoritarianism


When it comes to authoritarianism, Trump supporters are also distinct in their attitudes from the followers of the other Republican candidates for president. Support models for Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush that are run among likely Republican primary voters and include the same set of independent variables tested for when analyzing Trump find that authoritarianism has no effect on support for Trump’s opponents.

The difference between the predicted authoritarian support for Trump and all other Republican candidates is readily apparent when combined into one chart (Figure 2). When looking at this chart, it is important to remember that authoritarianism is only a statistically significant variable for Trump. Thus, while the difference between the predicted value of Trump’s support among authoritarians and non authoritarians is statistically meaningful, any variation in support across the authoritarian scale for the other candidates is not.

Figure 2. Support for Trump, Cruz, Carson Rubio and Bush by Authoritarianism


A common question raised by skeptics of the four-question authoritarian scale is that the child-rearing qualities it measures are not accurate estimators of an individual’s disposition to authoritarianism. One simple way to test this question and answer skeptics is to assess whether Trump voters express authoritarian attitudes on questions that theoretically should engage their authoritarianism. In other words, if Trump voters really are authoritarians, more often than not they should behave like authoritarians.

Several questions in my survey were designed to test for authoritarian behavior. These questions spring from a robust literature that begins with Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, spans seven decades and details both authoritarians’ fear of the Other and antipathy for Madisonian democracy and the protection of minority rights from majority tyranny. As such, the questions probe survey respondents’ attitudes toward bedrock Democratic values that are the foundation of constitutional government and civil society.

On most of these questions, Trump voters exhibit statistically significant and substantive authoritarian attitudes. For example, Trump voters are statistically more likely to agree that other groups should sometimes be kept in their place. They support preventing minority opposition once we decide what is right.

Trump supporters kick the fundamental tenets of Madisonian democracy to the curb, asserting that the rights of minorities need not be protected from the power of the majority. And they are statistically more likely than Trump opponents to agree the president should curtail the voice and vote of the opposition when it is necessary to protect the country —though a plurality still opposes this exercise of presidential power.

Trump voters are also ready to suspend the constitutionally guaranteed writ of habeas corpus by empowering the police and law enforcement to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone in the United States who is suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization. And, as you would suspect, Trump supporters agree that mosques across the United States should be closed down – a clear abridgement of the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Attitudes of Trump Voters on Bedrock Democratic Questions


By comparison, on each of these questions, the attitudes of the supporters of Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and Bush were statistically insignificant. Thus, supporters of Trump express authoritarian attitudes on a wide range of important questions, while supporters of his Republican opponents do not.

Last week the National Review, which some pundits consider the American conservative movement’s most influential publication, warned that Trump was “a free-floating populist with strongman overtones.” My data indicates that the 20 conservatives who argued Trump must not become the Republican nominee got their description of him half right. His rhetoric is that of a strongman’s. But his doctrine isn’t populism, it is authoritarianism. The difference is quite important and may explain why Trump’s Teflon candidacy continues to exceed conventional expectations.

After analyzing 14 years of national polling data from 1992 to 2006, Hetherington and Weiler concluded that authoritarianism was driving political polarization in America. While authoritarians can be found among self-identified Democrats and Independents, their slow but steady movement over time to the Republican Party may have created the conditions for a candidate with an authoritarian message like Trump’s to emerge.

Trump’s support is firmly rooted in an American version of authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force to be reckoned with. And until quite recently, the institutions and leaders tasked with guarding against what Madison called “the infection of the violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or derelict in performing their civic duty. Trump’s authoritarian support may be too solid and his momentum too strong to stop his march to the Republican nomination.

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