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Inside the Minds of Hardcore Trump Supporters

New research finds the president's earliest and strongest followers embody a particularly belligerent strain of authoritarian thinking.
About 700 people gathered at the Minnesota capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 4th, 2017, to show support for Donald Trump.

About 700 people gathered at the Minnesota capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 4th, 2017, to show support for Donald Trump.

Given the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, and the ill-defined phenomenon known as Trumpism, it's vital that we understand the psychology that attracted Americans to the real estate mogul in the first place. Research suggests such voters are driven by a combination of racial resentment and authoritarianism.

Sociologist David Norman Smith cited both in a just-published paper, in which he argues hardcore Trump supporters "target minorities and women" and "favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases."

And yet, there's something puzzling about that equation. If authoritarians, by definition, revere authority, why would they support an anti-establishment candidate like Trump? And why are they OK with his administration slandering bedrock American institutions as the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

A second recently published study provides an answer: There are different strains of authoritarian thinking. And support for Trump is associated with what is arguably the most toxic type: authoritarian aggression.

The study suggests the bulk of his supporters, at least in the Republican primaries, were not old-fashioned conservatives who preach obedience and respect for authority. Rather, they were people who take a belligerent, combative approach toward people they find threatening.

The notion that there are different types of authoritarians was proposed in the 1980s by University of Manitoba psychologist Robert Altemeyer, and refined in 2010 by a research team led by John Duckitt of the University of Auckland. In the journal Political Psychology, that team defined right-wing authoritarianism as "a set of three related ideological attitude dimensions."

They are:

  • "Conventionalism," a.k.a. "traditionalism," which is defined as "favoring traditional, old-fashioned social norms, values, and morality."
  • Authoritarian submission," defined as "favoring uncritical, respectful, obedient, submissive support for existing authorities and institutions."
  • "Authoritarian aggression," defined as "favoring the use of strict, tough, harsh, punitive, coercive social control."

Duckitt and his colleagues created a survey designed to measure each of these three facets. It was measured by participants' responses to statements such as "The old-fashioned ways, and old-fashioned values, still show the best way to live" (traditionalism); "Our country would be great if we show respect for authority and obey our leaders" (submission); and "The way things are going in this country, it's going to take a lot of 'strong medicine' to straighten out the troublemakers, criminals, and perverts" (aggression).

A research team led by psychologist Steven Ludeke of the University of Southern Denmark used those scales to try to tease out why some studies link Trump support to authoritarianism, while others do not.

It discovered the problem with the latter is they tend to either heavily or exclusively focus on the "submission" dimension, which has traditionally been studied in the context of child-rearing (as in, "Do you expect your children to unquestioningly obey their elders?").

As it turns out, that's the facet of authoritarianism that has the least to do with support for Trump.

Ludeke's study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, featured 1,444 participants recruited online in April of 2016. They responded to 18 authoritarianism-focused statements—six for each facet—and indicated who, among the presidential candidates remaining in the race at that point, they supported.

"Consistent with Trump's representation of the world as a dangerous place requiring harsh treatment of deviant minorities," they write, "Trump supporters were high on authoritarian aggression."

Strong support for conventionalism/traditionalism was also linked to support for Trump, but high scores on the submission category—that is, respect for authority, and obedience to superiors—was not.

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Smith's analysis of data from the American National Election Study reaches a similar conclusion. He reports "enthusiastic Trump voters are also enthusiastic about domineering leaders, and that they are not especially enthusiastic about respectful children."

Authoritarianism in the Trump era "is not the wish to follow any and every authority but, rather, the wish to support a strong and determined authority who will 'crush evil and take us back to our true path,'" Smith and his co-author, Eric Hanley, conclude.

Participants in Ludeke's study also completed surveys measuring Social Dominance Orientation—the belief that one group has the right to dominate others. Replicating previous research, they found this philosophy, which often accompanies authoritarianism, correlated with support for Trump.

So the very things a majority of Americans find disconcerting, if not disqualifying, about Trump—his need to dominate, his thinly veiled white supremacism, and his blunt, bullying language—is precisely what appeals to his hardcore fans. They are very likely stand to by their man, whatever scandals might emerge.

That said, these results suggest Democrats have a decent chance of peeling away a different slice of the Republican-leaning electorate—if they can defend liberal policies while embodying a more traditional respect for authority. Those "submission"-oriented voters don't have a natural affinity for Trump. They may prefer candidates who embody a traditional sense of dignity—people they can feel comfortable looking up to.

That possibility aside, the picture painted in both of these studies is pretty bleak from a progressive perspective. Smith's paper, the lead article in the March 2018 issue of Critical Sociology, concludes this way:

Most Trump voters cast their ballots for him with their eyes open, not despite his prejudices but because of them. Their partisanship, whether positive (toward Trump and the Republicans) or negative (against Clinton and the Democrats), is intense. This partisanship is anchored in anger and resentment among mild as well as strong Trump voters.

Anger, not fear, was the emotional key to the Tea Party, and that seems to be true for Trumpism as well. If so, the challenge for progressives is greater than many people have imagined. Hostility to minorities and women cannot be wished away; nor can the wish for domineering leaders.