Political theories have done a poor job accounting for the rise of Donald Trump, leaving befuddled observers to turn to psychology in search of answers. This week, that field provided the best explanation yet for his appeal among a sizable segment of the electorate: The boorish billionaire's appeal isn't due to his inconsistent conservatism, nor his newfound religiosity. Rather, it's grounded in authoritarianism, an impulse that underlies both ideology and faith.
"Trump's electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations," political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote in Politico. In an online poll of 1,800 Americans, conducted in late December, he found an authoritarian mindset—that is, belief in absolute obedience to authority—was the sole "statistically significant variable" that predicted support for Trump.
Fear does activate our instinct to protect our own, but it doesn't necessarily make us want to submit to the whims of a strongman.
The authoritarian personality was first described by sociologist Theodor Adorno in 1950, who linked the mindset with simplistic thinking, intolerance of ambiguity, and racial prejudice. As Kathleen Parker colorfully described it in the Washington Post: "Big Daddy's the boss. What he says, goes. Case closed."
In their 2009 book, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler described authoritarianism's impact on politics, noting—in the words of 538's Tom Schaller—that "authoritarianism is really about order—achieving it, maintaining it, and affirming it."
This has obvious appeal in a changing, often frightening world. Indeed, research shows there are emotional benefits to holding such beliefs. A 2013 Canadian study found a link between authoritarian values and a subjective sense of well-being. As we reported:
Much previous research has tied conservatism to higher levels of perceived threat. It’s hard to reconcile how people can both feel threatened and have a strong sense of well-being. On the other hand, a strong sense of social hierarchy (the notion that everyone has their place) can arguably provide a coherent structure that makes the world seem less chaotic—and theoretically more controllable. That could, in turn, promote a sense of well-being.
There is also evidence that such beliefs are passed down from one generation to the next through parenting methods. A 2012 study looked at new parents who believed in teaching children "absolute obedience to whoever is in authority." It found their children were more likely to grow up into political conservatives.
Religious belief plays a role in authoritarian thinking, as one might expect. In a new study we just reported on last week, psychologist Kathryn Johnson noted that taking the Bible literally was linked to prioritizing authority-related concepts as obedience, respect for tradition, and a desire for the social order.
In his Politico piece, MacWilliams expressed concern that continuing incidents of terrorism may bring out the authoritarian impulses of otherwise reasonable people, perhaps adding to Trump's support. He cited a 2011 study that found "many average Americans become susceptible to 'authoritarian thinking' when they perceive a grave threat to their safety."
But other research throws doubt on that claim. A 2015 study looked at public attitudes in the U.K. following the July 7, 2005, terrorist attack on the London Underground. It found opinions did temporarily shift rightward, with a short-lived increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments, and a lessening of support for the concept of fairness for all.
Importantly, however, the researchers found the participants' views about obeying authority did not significantly change in the wake of the tragedy. This defied their prediction, and suggests attitudes toward authority figures are held deeply, and not significantly swayed by day-to-day events.
That may signal a ceiling to Trump's support. Fear does activate our instinct to protect our own, but it doesn't necessarily make us want to submit to the whims of a strongman.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.