Why Recent Violence Is Unlikely to Increase Support for Donald Trump

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Fear tends to drive voters to the right, but, especially this year, the equation is more complicated.

By Tom Jacobs

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Donald Trump. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

As the shock wears off following the recent wave of high-profile killings, two questions come to mind: Have these tragedies pushed us together, or pulled us farther apart? And, on a practical, political level, have they shaken Americans to the point where they’re more likely to support a strong-man leader such as Donald Trump?

Pacific Standard turned to a number of political scientists and social psychologists, who offered a rough consensus on both issues: First, they see us stumbling our way toward some sort of majority opinion on the difficult issues of race, violence, and policing — or at least making a good-faith effort to do so.

Second, they argue that, while an increased atmosphere of threat may intensify support for Trump among those who already back him, it’s unlikely to expand his appeal.

Which is not to say the newly professed “law and order candidate” won’t benefit if an increasing number of Americans view the social fabric as tearing. Fear is, after all, still the atmosphere in which authoritarian figures thrive.

“There is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that threat leads to greater support for authoritarian and charismatic leaders,” says Matt Motyl, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois–Chicago. “Some early experimental research that has not yet been peer-reviewed replicates that finding, showing that reminding people of death and terror leads to greater support for Trump.”

“Other research suggests that, when we feel threatened, we prefer simple solutions,” Motyl says. “Given Trump’s simple proposals to build a wall or ban immigration for all Muslims are likely more appealing when people are feeling threatened, or when they are thinking about these horrific shootings happening around our country and the world.”

While an increased atmosphere of threat may intensify support for Trump among those who already back him, it’s unlikely to expand his appeal.

Jesse Graham, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, agrees: “Decades of studies have shown strong links between perceptions of threat and authoritarianism. And several studies have experimentally manipulated threat and shown this to cause changes in leader preferences.”

“I also think uncertainty may be as important as threat here,” Graham adds. “A sense of not knowing what’s going on in America, or what’s going to happen next, may increase the appeal of an authoritarian leader — particularly one who claims to be 100 percent certain at all times.”

Jonathan Haidt of New York University, who is well-known for his work on the different moral universes inhabited by liberals and conservatives, touches on these same issues in a just-published essay on the psychological fallout of the Brexit. Referencing the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, he notes that “authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait.”

“It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat,” Haidt writes. “At those times, they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”

Haidt believes the killing of those Dallas police officers is just such a button-pushing event. “Killing the police should be a bigger trigger of authoritarianism (in those prone to it) than even a terrorist attack,” he says. “Killing the police is a very direct threat to the moral order.”

(Haidt’s opinion is not universally held. Another psychologist, who preferred not to be quoted, suggested it would take another major terrorist attack to trigger that sort of fear response.)

Also, note Haidt’s parenthetical phrase: “In those prone to it.” The proclivity to respond to fear by embracing authoritarianism is not universal. Stony Brook University political scientist Stanley Feldman reports there is no way of knowing what percentage of the population reacts this way, but he offers a good thumbnail definition of who they are:

There are people who worry about the fragility of society. For them, social order requires strict adherence to common norms and, if necessary, the enforcement of those norms. Non-conformity, especially rapid social change, is threatening to them. So they look to institutions and leaders to re-assert those common norms and punish norm violators.

The United States is undergoing a lot of rapid change right now: White Anglos are soon to be a minority of the population, power is shifting away from white males, gender roles are in flux, etc. This is extremely threatening for who are afraid that social change could lead to chaos. It’s certainly not a world they understand. It is also problematic for people who see their political and economic power slipping away. If they don’t see institutions dealing with this well enough they can turn to a leader who promises to fix the problems.

Of course, Trump has been targeting these people, and exploiting such fears, from the beginning of his campaign. Most are probably already on board. Feldman argues that “we are probably seeing Trump picking up most of the voters who are strongly predisposed to authoritarianism right now.”

“I can also imagine a worst case scenario where fear increases enough to push more people in that direction. But I don’t think that’s very likely in the U.S. right now,” he adds, pointing to the candidate’s problematic personality. “Do people think that Trump is really the best person to deal with this? Is his rhetoric reassuring to people? Does he have any credibility on this issue?”

Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is thinking along similar lines. He agrees that threat tends to move people to the political right.

But “Trump is a pretty atypical tribune of the traditional notion of conservatism,” he notes. “It’s just my opinion, but I get the sense he’s seen more as the (metaphorical) bomb thrower than the safe pair of hands who can keep the calm when people start throwing bombs.”

“If the presumptive nominee was Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, I’d be pretty confident in saying that they would more likely see an increase in people leaning their way given recent events, but with Trump, who knows?”

“While I’m generally a cynic about how contentious issues get played out along big social fault lines, I do think there is some grounds for cautious hope that some good might come out of all this tragedy.”

Robert Mather, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, has conducted research suggesting there is an authoritarian streak in a significant number of Bernie Sanders supporters (some of whom see the future in equally dire terms as Trump supporters, although their policy prescriptions are far different).

He notes, however, that, according to Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, liberals are primarily driven by concerns about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, which hardly lead Trump’s agenda. This suggests very few will ultimately support him.

Of course, the issues of violence, race, and guns will continue to be debated, regardless of who becomes president. All in all, the post-Dallas discussion has been remarkably nuanced, with most commentators (including many on the right) expressing both support for the law enforcement officers, and empathy for the tough job they do, along with acknowledgement that racial bias persists in policing.

“It is certainly encouraging that partisans on both sides are talking more about injustice in the justice system and excessive, sometimes deadly, force being used by the police,” Motyl says.

Graham also sees reason for hope.

“My social media feed is a combination of mostly conservative friends from childhood and mostly liberal academic friends and colleagues, and it’s long been a total split between Black Lives Matter and all (or blue) lives matter messages,” he says. “But since Dallas I have been seeing a lot more messages expressing both sides (we don’t want either of these kinds of shootings), which seems a necessary first step for moving forward.”

“I do see this both-sides message a lot more from liberals than from conservatives,” he adds. “My conservative friends are more often still just expressing blue lives matter or showing images of black men as armed thugs. I really wonder if they had just called it #blacklivesmattertoo (which is basically what #blacklivesmatter means, but doesn’t allow for the misreading #onlyblacklivesmatter) would they have appealed to more moderates and conservatives?”

Smith expressed similar thoughts. “While I’m generally a cynic about how contentious issues get played out along big social fault lines, I do think there is some grounds for cautious hope that some good might come out of all this tragedy,” he says.

“Rather than disappear into dueling corners, prominent people from both ends of the spectrum do seem to be groping toward some sort of middle ground, a recognition that African Americans are being treated differently by law enforcement and that needs to change, but also that there needs to be a recognition that cops have a really tough job and most of them doing it pretty well,” Smith says. “That recognition is not going to make any solutions easier to find, but at least it might make them possible.”

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