At that point — to the surprise to many observers — Trump’s approval rating on March 24 rose to the highest level he had attained since becoming president. Why did his approval rating go up, even as medical experts described his performance handling the pandemic with terms ranging from “poor” to “abysmal?”
Here’s one explanation. In a recent book, “Cultural Evolution: Peoples’ Motivations are Changing, And Reshaping the World,” I explain how threats to survival trigger what I call the “authoritarian reflex.” Here’s how this plays out.
In insecure times, people want a strong leader
For most of history, survival was insecure. Populations would rise to meet the food supply and then not grow further, because of starvation, disease and violence. Under these conditions, societies emphasized strong in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, rejection of outsiders and obedience to strong leaders.
In situations of extreme scarcity, xenophobia becomes a realistic scenario. If there is just enough land to support one tribe and another tribe tries to claim it, survival becomes a zero-sum struggle between “us” and “them.” Under these conditions, a successful survival strategy is for the tribe to close ranks behind a strong leader, forming a united front against outsiders.
The authoritarian reflex is kicking in
This explains the strategy that I call the authoritarian reflex — in reference to presidential support, it is sometimes called a “rally-round-the-flag effect.” This reflex includes a yearning for strong leaders in dangerous times, and it helps explain the relatively muted criticism and rising support we are currently seeing for top political leaders in most countries.The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how a threat to survival affects people’s worldviews. When businesses, schools and public events closed and people were restricted to their homes, they suddenly realized that the pandemic was a life-threatening event. This provoked deep-seated fears.
According to the argument, these fears should make people yearn for a strong leader who can lead them to safety. And this is what appears to have happened. The pandemic has generated economic and physical anxieties that brought rising support for many countries’ leaders, including Trump.
But in other countries, the pandemic evoked even greater surges of support for other heads of government than it did for Trump. Over similar periods, the pandemic approval boost for Italy Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was 27 points; for France’s Emmanuel Macron, it was 15 points; for Germany’s Angela Merkel, the boost was 11 points. For Trump, the boost in March was five points, according to Gallup polling — though polls in early April suggested this bump was temporary.
The pandemic approval boost extends to other levels of authority. Within the United States, New York has become the pandemic’s epicenter — and an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers say that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is doing a great job. In a recent survey, 87 percent of eligible voters approved of how Cuomo was handling the outbreak.
These numbers suggest that frightened people yearn for strong leaders. The strength of the reaction is also influenced by perceptions of how good a job the leader is doing, but in times of crisis, the authoritarian reflex is pervasive.
This may lead to a political shift
But will deference to authority encourage xenophobia and other forms of intolerance? This is not a new concept. A book from the 1950s, “The Authoritarian Personality,” viewed authoritarianism as a personality trait caused by harsh child-rearing practices and made this idea prominent. The underlying Freudian theory and the measurements used to test it have been superseded, but over the past seven decades, scores of studies have confirmed that there is a strong tendency for deference to authority to be linked with xenophobia, intolerance and conformity to group norms.
This tendency can have large-scale consequences. The rise of fascism during the Great Depression seemed to reflect a deep-rooted human reaction to insecurity. Authoritarianism, xenophobia and conformism tend to go together, reflecting an interaction between 1) some individuals’ enduring predispositions to intolerance, and 2) changing levels of threat to society.
There are also generational effects. Given generations of people tend to have relatively high or low levels of authoritarianism, according to whether they have been raised under low or high levels of existential security.
The relatively liberal politics of the past several decades reflected how people grew up in an era in which they could take survival for granted. This relative safety, many studies find, led them to become increasingly open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups.
Accordingly, the unprecedentedly high level of existential security that developed democracies experienced after World War II brought an intergenerational shift. We began to see a greater emphasis on freedom of expression, democratization, environmental protection, gender equality and tolerance of foreigners, people with disabilities and people within the LGBT community. Rising inequality and large-scale immigration interacting with the coronavirus are reversing this trend, demonstrating what happens when a global pandemic brings survival fears to the forefront of people’s concerns.
Ronald Inglehart is the Amy and Alan Lowenstein Professor Emeritus of Democracy, Democratization and Human Rights at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies. He founded the World Values Survey and is the author of “Cultural Evolution: Peoples’ Motivations are Changing, And Reshaping the World” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).