A social scientist with the University of Massachusetts conducted a study last week designed to identify trends among the supporters of the leading political candidates for the 2016 race. With respect to Trump’s supporters in particular, the study found that the main statistical variable that could be used to predict whether someone was a Trump supporter was not race, age, religion, income, or education. It is, rather, an impulse towards authoritarianism.
My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.
Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.
I’m inherently skeptical of the work of social scientists, but this particular study passes the eyeball test as well. As I wrote last week, the way that Trump has started dealing with protesters at his events (with the enthusiastic backing of his supporters) has taken on shockingly authoritarian undertones. Consider this eerily fascistic rhetoric, which got actual applause:
Trump: We’ll get more and more angry as we go along, is that okay? [crowd cheers] And by the end I’ll say, “Get them the hell out of here!” And then, by the way, by that time, the security will be so tough and so nasty, and you know what’s going to happen when that happens? You’re not going to have any more problems. You’re not going to have any more problems. Did you notice the first group, the security guys are going, “Oh, please come with us,” and they’re screaming, “please come.” Alright. Second group, they’re [unintelligible]. Now, the last time they’re starting to get nasty. Pretty soon they’re going to get so nasty that we’re not going to have any more protesting, you know that, right? Don’t give him his coat! Don’t give him his coat, keep his coat, confiscate his coat! You know, it’s about ten degrees below zero outside.
This study helps explain a couple of things, including the mystery of Trump’s appeal in the first place – especially given that he lacks a coherent political ideology, and frequently is either ignorant of policy or contradicts himself on points of policy within the span of 24 hours.
What Trump says or believes or proposes is quite beside the point, and always has been. Likewise, the excuse that “Trump is a reaction to the fecklessness of the establishment” is also false, even though many Trump supporters claim it. All things, including Trump’s position on immigration, are just excuses for the fact that a large number of voters (sadly, especially on the Republican side) gravitate towards the person who is perceived as the strongest leader.
It also indicates why Trump’s support has refused to leave him in spite of an avalanche of gaffes and embarrassing moments. To an authoritarian, showing respect for the authority figure because they are the authority figure is important, regardless of whether they are right or not. The mode of attack against Trump this entire time has been wrong because people have not understood why Trump has the support that he has.
The only way anyone will get Trump’s supporters will be to out-Trump Trump. This doesn’t mean being more hardline on immigration than he is, or insulting handicapped reporters, or anything of the like. It means projecting the air of a confident leader who is never wrong.
And it means, also, that if Trump ever loses his lead in the polls, a huge window of opportunity will open up. There is a reason that Trump cites polls showing him in the lead as evidence that he is right on policy questions – this is the number one thing his supporters respond to. If he loses that lead, he will likewise lose his support.
This also indicates why it’s so important for Trump to be defeated. Indulging this impulse in someone who seeks the increasingly-powerful office of the President can portend nothing good for the direction of our country as a whole – either from the standpoint of civil liberties or the stability and peace of he world at large.