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Why So Many Trump Supporters Are OK With the President's Lies

Authoritarianism has long been linked to support for Donald Trump. New research finds people with that mindset are less likely to care that a political leader is lying.
President Donald Trump hosts a roundtable on February 6th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

New research suggests that Trump supporters' endorsement of authoritarianism helps explain their willingness to tolerate his lies.

As of mid-February, the Washington Post's fact-checking staff had tallied 8,718 false or misleading public statements by President Donald Trump since he assumed office. Yet his popularity, while low overall, remains very high among his base—a demographic dominated by evangelical Christians, who are taught lying is a sin.

Why are they so willing to discard the core principle of not bearing false witness? New research suggests the Ninth Commandment is subject to amendment when you hold an authoritarian mindset.

The research, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, finds Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to consider overt lying on the part of a politician morally acceptable behavior. This difference is largely driven by Trump supporters' endorsement of authoritarianism.

While relatively few Americans find it acceptable, "these results suggest that right-wing individuals are more tolerant to the spreading of misinformation by politicians," write Jonas De keersmaecker and Arne Roets of Ghent University in Belgium.

The researchers describe two studies that support that thesis. The first featured 254 Americans recruited online who began by completing surveys measuring their level of right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation.

People who score high on the first scale support socially conservative values, respect for authority figures, and punitive punishments. Those who score high on the second favor a hierarchy-based social structure, with their group on top. Both tendencies have been linked to support for Trump in 2016.

Participants were then given three vignettes in which a politician lied about an upcoming increase in the unemployment rate. Depending upon the specific scenario, the lie was either overt, by omission, or a matter of "paltering"—using a truthful statement to mislead. They rated each statement on three scales: ethical to unethical, dishonest to honest, and immoral to moral. Finally, they indicated their political party affiliation.

The result: People who had high scores on right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation were more tolerant of all three varieties of lying. "These associations can be considered moderate to large," the researchers note.

In addition, self-declared Republicans were significantly more tolerant of overt lying or paltering than Democrats (and slightly more tolerant of lying by omission). The researchers found this could be traced to their much higher levels of right-wing authoritarianism.

A second study largely replicated these results, and confirmed that the attitudes of political independents on this issue are much closer to those of Democrats than Republicans.

The results provide new evidence that our current political polarization reflects deep-seated differences that extend far beyond individual issues. "Right-wing authoritarianism captures the tendency to defer to legitimized authority," the researchers write. If, in your mind, your leader can do no wrong, it follows that he can lie with impunity.

Relatedly, people who score high in social-dominance orientation "consider the social world as a competitive jungle," they add. It's easy to see how lying would be viewed as acceptable if you hold what the researchers describe as "the dog-eat-dog worldview where everyone does whatever is needed to get ahead."

The researchers caution that these findings should not be overstated: Lying on the part of politicians was considered morally wrong by most people across the ideological spectrum. But people on the political right were far more likely than those on the left to disagree with this consensus, and this difference may allow Trump to lie without fear of losing their support.