News & Politics

Do Trump's Voters Even Want to Live in a Democracy?

A new study reveals a staggering percentage would simply prefer a "strong leader."

Photo Credit: uplift_the_world / Shutterstock.com

Donald Trump is a giant in the political forest: loud and destructive, incapable of subtlety, and utterly transparent in his intent. Trump is in fact a clumsy authoritarian, which is one of the things preventing him from implementing a full-on fascist regime. It certainly isn't our elected officials, the will of the American people or the news media that is stopping him.

What has Donald Trump wrought over these last few days in his relentless assault on America's democratic norms, rules and institutions?

To consolidate power Trump is continuing his purge. The most recent "victim" is former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was apparently fired on Twitter. (And then reportedly got a phone call from White House chief of staff John Kelly while on the toilet.) It is now rumored that  national security adviser H.R. McMaster will also be removed from his position.

Like most authoritarians, Trump views an independent judiciary as a threat to his power. To that end he pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (one day before the latter's planned retirement). This was done in an obvious effort to short-circuit the investigation into how Trump and his inner circle may have colluded with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, and then obstructed justice to conceal the crime.

Through his attorney and also directly via Twitter, Trump has continued to mull the potential firing of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Such an action would likely provoke a constitutional crisis, but will also further consolidate Trump's power: The Republican Party, its captive media and its voters will rally around their president, proclaiming him the victim of a conspiracy by the so-called deep state and the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, Trump would not be president without the support of tens of millions of (white) Americans. As such, his authoritarian movement is a symptom of a much deeper social and political rot in the United States. A new report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, "Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism," explores the dimensions of this problem. Its findings include the following:

  • Thirty-two percent of Trump primary voters support a “strong leader” who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. Support for this option is especially high (45 percent) among those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
  • Nearly a quarter of Americans say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections would be “fairly” or “very good,”and 18 percent say that military rule would be “fairly” or “very good.”
  • The highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership are found among those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative and hold negative views towards racial minorities.

There is some hope to be seen amid the ruins, however. The Democracy Fund report also found that an overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy, and that most of those who express negative views about it are also opposed to authoritarian alternatives. In fact, the report finds no relationship between dissatisfaction with democracy and support for an authoritarian system in which a strong leader doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.

These findings speak to a broader social and political moment in which nearly one in 10 Americans express some degree of sympathy or support for Nazism and other radical right-wing ideologies, and where we have seen a noteworthy increase in right-wing political violence and domestic terrorism (including murder) that began as a backlash against Barack Obama and has now been nurtured by Donald Trump.

I recently spoke with the authors of the "Follow the Leader" report about its broader implications as well as how to make sense of those voters who switched from Barack Obama in 2012 to supporting Donald Trump in 2016.

How do you explain the much-discussed "Obama-to-Trump voters" and their apparent embrace of authoritarianism? Could this be tied to white racial resentment and a backlash towards Obama?

Joe Goldman: We don’t have data on what Obama-to-Trump supporters thought about democracy back in 2012 when they were Obama voters, so it is hard to say. I actually suspect that these voters held authoritarian attitudes back in 2012. In our survey, we saw an increase in authoritarian attitudes among Republicans, while there was a decline among Democrats. One possibility is that authoritarian Democrats became authoritarian Republicans when they switched from voting for Obama to Trump.

Of note, there is a previous Voter Study Group report from political scientist John Sides which demonstrated that negative attitudes towards racial minorities played a role in why these voters switched from Obama to Trump.

How does this solid core of approximately 30 percent of Americans who consistently support authoritarianism compare to Europe and other developed and stable democracies? 

Larry Diamond: The proportion supporting a "strong leader" in the United States is 24 percent. This is about the same as what a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found in the United Kingdom and Israel. it is lower than in Japan (31 percent), but a lot higher than what Pew found in several other peer democracies such as Canada (17 percent), France (12 percent) and Germany (6 percent). The 18 percent of Americans who support "army rule" is about the same as in France and Italy, but considerably higher than in Canada (10 percent) and Germany (4 percent), and also a lot higher than in Israel (10 percent) and South Korea (8 percent). The latter are significant, of course, because they are two countries that face existential security challenges and depend on the army in a more immediate way for national security.

One of the repeated findings by political scientists is that the American voter is not "ideological." Given your findings, do you think that this may be changing? Are American voters increasingly polarized and starting to think about politics in a coherent way?

Diamond: The recent (October 2017) Pew survey of American public opinion shows growing ideological distance between people who identify with the Republican Party and people who identify with the Democrats. And it suggests that these party identifiers are in fact becoming more coherent in their views. I am persuaded by my colleague Morris Fiorina that the problem of polarization is much more serious among the political class -- and in the Congress -- than it is among the mass public.  But mass public opinion is moving in that direction as well.

Lee Drutman: The political science literature on a non-ideological public shows that ideologies are not consistent — they change in response to what partisan leaders say they are. If Republicans are becoming more pro-authoritarian, it is because Trump is aligning being Republican with being pro-"strong leader."

What concerns you the most about these findings? What do these trends reveal about Trumpism and the direction of the Republican Party?

Goldman: I was quite surprised by the partisan flip in authoritarian attitudes that took place after 2016. We’ve been living in a climate for some time now where few things are able to escape hyper-partisan conflict. It was surprising to see something like the NFL turn into a partisan issue this past year. But it is far more concerning for democracy itself to become fodder for partisan conflict. Our republic cannot survive if one of our two main political parties turns against democracy.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.