The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The truth about many in the GOP base: They prefer authoritarianism to democracy

Insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump, one of whom is carrying a Confederate battle flag, inside the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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We want to believe that goodwill can foster a return to less contentious and hyperpartisan times. But what if one side adopts noxious views antithetical to democracy — and, worse, rejects the basic premise of America?

We have witnessed Republicans’ reflexive defense of the disgraced former president’s illegal and corrupt conduct. We have observed that the majority of the party accepts the “big lie” of a stolen election and seeks to use that as a basis for suppressing the votes of minorities.

And we know that, once more, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has committed himself to one objective: the defeat and failure of a Democratic president.

In short, they have taken themselves outside the small-d democratic compact that requires, at the very least, that we respect election results and abide by normative guidelines in defeat or victory.

It would be somewhat reassuring to think this is a problem of Republican officials, donors and activists. Alas, the authoritarian temptation is luring millions of Americans away from the democratic experiment. “A scale measuring propensity toward right-wing authoritarian tendencies found right-leaning Americans scored higher than their counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom,” a Morning Consult poll finds. “26% of the U.S. population qualified as highly right-wing authoritarian, Morning Consult research found, twice the share of the No. 2 countries, Canada and Australia.”

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This means that a large percentage of Republicans — that is, tens of millions of Americans — embrace an authoritarianism defined “as the desire to submit to some authority, aggression that is directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed.” This inclination to follow a demagogue and to reject democratic values is more pronounced than in other Western democracies.

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The most authoritarian-inclined Americans tend to be over age 45, live in rural areas and don’t have a college degree. This is the profile of the GOP base, not coincidentally. It follows that many authoritarian-minded Americans are willing to abide by the cult of former president Donald Trump and reject rational analysis. They burrow within right-wing media, refusing to confront facts and views that contradict their philosophy.

That authoritarian mind-set leads to a host of bizarre and dangerous articles of faith in the MAGA-infused GOP. Those with authoritarian beliefs are much more likely to conclude that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were justified in the attempt to violently halt the electoral count; they are much more inclined to think Trump should not have left office. Although more than half of the strong authoritarian right-wingers “disagreed that Trump should have refused to leave office, that paled in comparison to the approximately 9 in 10 liberal and low-[authoritarian] respondents who said the same.” The authoritarian-inclined are much more inclined to resist mask-wearing and get vaccinated.

The right’s descent into authoritarianism to a large degree is religiously-based. As NPR reported after the Jan. 6 insurrection:

In an open letter, more than 100 pastors, ministry and seminary leaders, and other prominent evangelicals express concern about the growing “radicalization” they’re seeing, particularly among white evangelicals.
The letter notes that some members of the mob that stormed the Capitol carried Christian symbols and signs that read, “Jesus Saves,” and that one of the rioters stood on the Senate rostrum and led a Christian prayer. The letter calls on other Christian leaders to take a public stand against racism, Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories and political extremism.

Robert P. Jones, the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” explains: “The most striking difference between right-wing politics in the U.S. and other countries such as Australia, Canada, and [Britain] is the dominance and influence of white evangelical Protestants, who have a theological proclivity toward authoritarianism.” He continues, “The evangelical worldview in America has historically been built on a set of hierarchies that have been defended as divinely ordained — Christian over non-Christian, Protestant over Catholic, white over non-white, men over women. In its strongest forms, this worldview is fundamentally anti-democratic and theocratic.” In what sounds like a perfect alignment with political authoritarianism, “It demands deference particularly to white male charismatic leaders (even when they themselves violate communal norms) and builds identity through a politics of aggression to a shifting array of perceived out groups,” Jones observes.

“Most notably,” he adds, “it gives no quarter to critical thought or dissent, defending its own views as divinely ordained and beyond question.”

If a significant faction of the Republican Party adheres to Christian nationalism rather than the democratic civic religion (equality, the rule of law and the aspiration to perfect the American experiment), the rest of us cannot embrace them as good-faith partners in democracy. As disturbing as it may seem, today’s GOP cannot be entrusted with power and cannot play the role of the “loyal opposition” if it continues to operate outside the democratic compact.

Moreover, if millions of Americans maintain an authoritarian fixation, our democracy will founder, and what happened on Jan. 6 may become a post-election pattern.

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