The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a catastrophic failure, with researchers at Oxford University estimating that its mismanagement of the crisis resulted in nearly 60,000 preventable deaths.
Why is that?
A new book by a psychology professor and a former lawyer in the Nixon White House argues that Trump has tapped into a current of authoritarianism in the American electorate, one that’s bubbled just below the surface for years. In “Authoritarian Nightmare,” Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean marshal data from a previously unpublished nationwide survey showing a striking desire for strong authoritarian leadership among Republican voters.
They also find shockingly high levels of anti-democratic beliefs and prejudicial attitudes among Trump backers, especially those who support the president strongly. And regardless of what happens in 2020, the authors say, Trump supporters will be a potent pro-authoritarian voting bloc in the years to come.
Altemeyer and Dean define authoritarianism as what happens “when followers submit too much to the authorities in their lives.” They measure it using a tool Altemeyer developed in the early 1980s, called the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) scale.
The “right-wing” label refers not to left and right political leanings as they’re popularly understood today, they write, but rather to a more legalistic sense of “lawful, proper, and correct.” It’s used to identify authoritarian tendencies among people of any political persuasion — supporters of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, for instance, would have scored high on the scale despite having decidedly leftist economic and political views. The scale remains one of the most widely used measures of authoritarianism to this day.
Altemeyer’s scale measures respondents’ agreement or disagreement with 20 statements, such as: “Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us” and “It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.”
For each statement, a respondent can select an answer on a sliding scale ranging from 1 (total disagreement) to 9 (total agreement). The final score on the 20-question survey ranges from 20 (total opposition to authoritarianism) to 180 (total support).
The authors enlisted the help of the Monmouth University Polling Institute to pose these questions to 990 American voters in fall 2019. They asked participants to answer the questions on the RWA scale, as well as some separate measures of authoritarian beliefs and prejudice toward minority groups.
They found a striking linear relationship between support for Trump and an authoritarian mind-set: The stronger a person supported Trump, the higher he or she scored on the RWA scale. People saying they strongly disapproved of Trump, for instance, had an average RWA score of 54. Those indicating complete support of the president, on the other hand, had an average score of 119, more than twice as authoritarian as Trump opponents.
Many fervent Trump supporters, Altemeyer and Dean write, “are submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life’s threats. They divide the world into friend and foe, with the latter greatly outnumbering the former.”
Trump’s personal authoritarian bona fides are well-established, with experts across numerous academic fields warning that his attacks on basic democratic principles present a clear danger to the American political system. But his beliefs and actions are toothless without the support of millions of followers.
“Donald Trump only has the power to flaunt American institutions, treaties, and laws because he has a large, dedicated base who will believe whatever he says and do whatever he wants,” Altemeyer and Dean explain.
Other researchers have reached similar conclusions using very different methods. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, for instance, recently used YouGov survey data to find that many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes. Researchers have also consistently found that separate measures of authoritarian belief, such as a short survey of attitudes toward child-rearing, are reliable predictors of Trump support.
Not all of the president’s supporters fall into the “authoritarian” category, however. Monmouth’s polling director Patrick Murray, who administered the survey, recently wrote that about 23 percent of strong Trump supporters scored in the middle or bottom of the authoritarian scales used in the survey. Moderate Trump supporters, meanwhile, are split roughly 50/50 between “high” and “moderate to low” on the scales.
Many, however, express extremely authoritarian viewpoints. Roughly half of Trump supporters, for instance, agreed with the statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within,” which Altemeyer and Dean characterize as “practically a Nazi cheer.”
Among people who disapproved of Trump, just 12 percent agreed with that statement.
“Trump’s supporters are much more inclined to stomp out the people they dislike than Trump’s opponents are,” Altemeyer said in an email. “This reflects the authoritarian aggression that is a central part of the RWA personality.”
One common criticism of the RWA scale is that it could simply be a proxy for generic conservative or religious beliefs, such as respect for tradition or a deference to religious authority. Murray tested this idea by running the scale without questions touching on religious identity and sexual norms. He found the different versions of the scale produced findings that were nearly identical to the original 20-question battery, suggesting the scale is measuring a distinct psychological attribute that can’t be explained away by religiosity or political ideology.
Contemporary discussions on authoritarian backsliding in the United States tend to focus on Trump and his allies in Congress. But Altemeyer and Dean’s work is a reminder that his followers will remain a potent force in American politics for years to come.
“Even if Donald Trump disappeared tomorrow,” they write, “the millions of people who made him president would be ready to make someone else similar president instead.”
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