Last week, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump admired one another’s leadership styles. After Putin praised Trump as “very talented,” Trump responded by calling that designation “a great honor.” Soon after, when Trump appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” co-host Joe Scarborough pressed Trump on whether he meant to praise someone who “who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries.”
Trump responded simply that “[Putin’s] running his country, and at least he’s a leader.”
Right now, Trump has a double-digit lead in the GOP primaries. Putin’s approval rating is around 90 percent in Russia.
All that support, for both Putin in Russia and Trump in the U.S., implies that citizens are seeking what I call “strong leaders,” or state leaders who will take bold action without concern for checks and balances. Trump supporters expect a President Trump to overwhelm Congress to enact policies that legal scholars debate as questionably constitutional, like banning foreign-born Muslims from entering the U.S. In Russia, Putin has been consolidating discretionary power since he first became president in 1999.
Why do citizens support the “strong leadership” proposed by Trump or provided by Putin? My research shows citizens across the world — not just the U.S. and Russia — prefer this kind of leader when they are afraid of a serious threat to national security or economic livelihood.
When feeling threatened, more citizens want strong leaders
I argue that when a country is facing urgent threats from the outside, citizens want a head of state who can take immediate action. Citizens under direct threat want a leader who can and will guarantee their security. They want that leader to be able to keep them safe without being constrained by the opposition.
Which threats make citizens most eager for a strong leader? After analyzing two waves of World Values Survey data, I found that citizens especially support a “strong leader” when the nation’s territory is threatened. In India, for instance, the desire for a “strong leader” increased by 59.7 percent between 2006 and 2014, after combat with Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Russians support Putin so much right now for precisely that reason: because they feel deeply that an unstable Ukraine threatens Russia. Many outsiders think of Russia’s foray into Ukraine as opportunism or as a way to divert public attention from a corruption scandal during the 2014 Winter Olympics. But just as important was the Maidan revolution—and Russian citizens’ fear of an unstable Ukraine, given the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, the large Russian population on the Crimean peninsula, and the territory’s former history as Russian.
Putin’s popularity soared after he intervened in Ukraine, which is what observers would expect from a “diversion.” But that’s not all: support for a “strong leader,” unconfined by checks on power, also increased. According to the Levada Center, support for democratic freedoms in Russia fell by eight points and support for consolidation of power in one set of hands increased by four points in October 2015 from a poll conducted in 2011.
External security threats do not just boost approval ratings. They also change political attitudes about how much authority the head of state should have, as we have seen in Russia.
When the economy is bad, many people want a strong leader
You could say that Trump’s supporters want a strong leader because of anxieties about terror threats and what they see as a virtual invasion of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. But Trump supporters seem to be less concerned with security than they are with the economy.
Economic threats are just as likely to push people to want strong leaders, as I show elsewhere. When inflation, unemployment, and income inequality rise, so does support for “strong leaders” – while support for democracy falls.
The market economy is confusing and complex to most people, here in the United States and across the world. What people do understand is that the economy is worse now than it used to be—and that threatens their daily lives. They may not know why. Yet, they want to trust someone who promises to take care of them, and to give that leader whatever authority he or she needs to fix the economy. This, too, is true worldwide, not just in the U.S.
This fits what we know about Trump supporters. Trump supporters are mainly older white men, half of whom have a high school education or less. The recession hit this demographic particularly hard. Jobs are disappearing for them while the wage gap between workers and wealthy is increasing. For them, economic prospects are grim. That builds into support for the kind of “strong” leadership that Trump proposes.
Steven V. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at Clemson University, and is on Twitter @stevenvmiller.