Donald Trump and Ted Cruz argue during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre in Detroit on Thursday. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Watch out, the authoritarians are coming!

That’s been the alarm, after recent reports that scoring high in authoritarianism was the strongest predictor that someone would support Donald Trump. “Authoritarian” has some strongly negative connotations. So it’s no wonder that anti-Trump pundits from Nicholas Frankovich to David Brooks have been quick to repeat this finding. What better way to equate Trump with Hitler?

But in our research, we find no evidence that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than those who like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Instead, Trump’s supporters are distinctive in another way: They are true populists.

What’s the difference between authoritarians and populists?

Authoritarianism and populism are easy to conflate, but they actually refer to very distinct tendencies.

Authoritarianism, as understood by political psychologists, refers to a set of personality traits that seek order, clarity and stability. Authoritarians have little tolerance for deviance. They’re highly obedient to strong leaders. They scapegoat outsiders and demand conformity to traditional norms.

Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:

  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity

Of course, authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism. But they do have profoundly different perceptions of authority. Populists see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds. Authoritarians see themselves as aligned with those in charge. This difference sets the candidates’ supporters apart.

Here’s how we measured this.

This is evident in a national online survey of 1,044 adult citizens we conducted in the Friday through Thursday spanning Super Tuesday. For this analysis, we utilize four scales.

  • Authoritarianism. As others have, we gauge this with a battery of items measuring preferences on child-rearing (such as whether it is better for children to have independence or respect for elders, curiosity or good manners, obedience or self-reliance).
  • Anti-elitism. What separates populists from authoritarians is their alienation from political elites. We measure this with statements like “It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties,” “Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”
  • Mistrust of experts. Populists often fear not just political elites and billionaires, but anyone who claims expertise. We measure this with questions like “I’d rather put my trust in the wisdom of ordinary people than the opinions of experts and intellectuals” or “Ordinary people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what’s true and what’s not.”
  • American identity. Populists identify themselves as part of “the people,” a noble group that needs protecting. We measure this with questions like “I consider myself to be different than ordinary Americans” or “How important is being an American to your sense of self?”

In the figure, we depict the average factor scores for each of these scales by the candidate  respondents chose. The scales are constructed to be similar in range with the average score set to zero.


Two big points immediately leap out.

1. Trump voters are no more authoritarian than supporters of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

In fact, they score slightly lower on these scales than Cruz’s voters. Why? Partly, this is because scales measuring child-rearing correlate very highly with fundamentalist Christian beliefs. By these measures, most Republicans look like “authoritarians” because so many are conservative Christians who advocate strict child-rearing practices. This is also why Bernie Sanders’s supporters are so much less authoritarian than Hillary Clinton’s — “Berners” are much less religious than other Democrats.

2. What really differentiates Trump’s voters from the other Republicans is the populism. 

Trump voters are the only ones to score consistently high on all three populist dimensions. Cruz and Rubio’s supporters, for example, don’t express high feelings of anti-elitism. In fact, on this scale, they are strongly anti-populist, identifying with authority rather than rejecting it.

Trump supporters share anti-elitism with only one other group: Sanders’s voters.

But where Trump is a populist, we would argue that Sanders is not. Despite the fact that Sanders often gets called a populist, his voters do not conform to the populist stereotype. They generally trust experts and do not identify strongly as Americans. A better way to describe them would be cosmopolitan socialists. They see the system as corrupted by economic elites. But they don’t trust ordinary Americans and show only light attachment to Americanism as an identity.

What does all this mean?

Granted, we don’t have a lot of other measures of authoritarianism, such as an attraction to strong leaders or intolerance of ambiguity. It may be that Trump’s supporters are more swayed by these traits than other Republicans.

But by the most commonly accepted measures, the voters who look most authoritarian are not those following Trump but those following Cruz. Not only do they score highest on the authoritarian scales, they also have that combination of populist elements correlated most strongly with authoritarianism. They are mistrustful of intellectuals and experts, highly nationalistic, yet strongly aligned with political and economic elites.

In other words, if the establishment is really afraid of authoritarianism, they should worry more about Cruz than Trump.

Eric Oliver is professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Wendy Rahn is professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.