THE BLOG
09/04/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2016

Demystifying the Trump Coalition: It's the Authoritarianism

Ever since Donald Trump surged to the lead in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination, pundits have struggled to understand the Trump phenomenon. His somewhat eclectic views - he's a conservative apostate on tax increases for the wealthy, for example - and the particular intensity of the anger from which he seems to have drawn and stoked, often directed at conservative mainstays themselves, have all contributed to a sense that Trump is hard to place politically. Trump and his supporters, it seems, are not so clearly anchored in any identifiably traditional conservative constituency like, say, evangelicals, or white working-class voters (an issue to which I'll return).

But the basis of Trump's support isn't all that much of a mystery. In fact, his appeals are crafted - intentionally or not - to appeal to a bulwark of the contemporary Republican Party. That constituency is authoritarians.

As Marc Hetherington and I explained in our 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, one of the key dynamics underlying the growing political chasm in the United States over the past generation has been the sorting of people with very different worldviews - anchored in polar personality types - into the two major political camps in America. As recently as 1992, when Bill Clinton first won the presidency, authoritarian-minded voters were about as likely to vote Democratic as they were to vote Republican. That is no longer the case. By 2004, white voters with an authoritarian bent had stampeded to the exits of the Democratic Party and joined the GOP. Conversely, the once large number of non-authoritarians who formerly supported Republicans had largely shifted their support to Team Blue. Those trends have only intensified since then, particularly in the age of Barack Obama. This development, the product in significant part of a decades-long shift in party appeals and changing demographics has fueled a bitterly acrimonious political divide characterized by fundamental and irreconcilable differences in worldview between the average Republican and the average Democrat.

While authoritarians have become central to the contemporary conservative coalition, they are not coterminous with it. In our book, we showed that Republicans, driven by the growing number of authoritarians in their ranks, had become increasingly intolerant of outgroups, including African Americans, gays, and Muslims. Likewise, a strong preference for black-and-white thinking in resolving major issues - like using military force to resolve global conflicts - had become characteristic of mainstream Republicanism, again influenced by the swelling numbers of authoritarians among their number.

So far, this sounds like a description of Republicans generally. But we also found that authoritarians were less reliably conservative on other key issues associated with the GOP. For example, the conservative economic agenda resonated less well with authoritarians than with other conservatives, quite consistent with how Trump is positioning himself. And though he's now pro-life, it's evident that Trump's newly minted views on that issue are half-hearted. As it happens, those scoring high in authoritarianism were themselves not especially distinguished in their support for the pro-life position. Those are two critical planks of the modern conservative platform and on neither are authoritarians particularly adamant, as a group.

What most fundamentally distinguishes authoritarians, as we explained in detail in our book, are three inter-related sets of attitudes about which they are, collectively, adamant: 1) an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and a concomitant intolerance of outgroups perceived as threats to America's existing social fabric; 2) projecting strength in the most straightforward, uncompromising way possible; and 3) the related perils following from the breakdown of law and order.

That, in a nutshell, is Trump's campaign.

In recent polling, the firm PPP asked GOP voters about President Obama's citizenship status. Overall, fully 44 percent of Republicans said they were convinced Obama was not born in the United States. That's a high number, to be sure, for a patently false and repeatedly debunked claim. But among Trump voters, the number rises to an astonishing 61 percent. Likewise, while a slight majority of GOP supporters believe the President is a Muslim, an extraordinary 66 percent of Trump supporters deem Obama a Muslim. Trump, of course, previously championed birtherism, so it's not altogether surprising that so many of his supporters deny Obama was born in America. But it's also precisely the kind of position that is emblematic of, above all, the authoritarian worldview. That view is predicated on an especially acute vigilance about who is a legitimate member of the American community and who is alien to that community. Whether focused on his place of birth or his (presumptively nefarious) religious affinities, Barack Obama is "other" personified for this group.

It's worth noting something else important about the Trump coalition and the personality-based divide that has become so important to understanding American politics today. When pundits talk about the role of "white working class" support for the GOP, they are, to some degree, making an analytical mistake. As we showed in our analysis of the Clinton/Obama primary fight in 2008, in our book, as well as in analysis of election data from 2010 and 2012, what distinguishes Democratic from Republican voters among whites isn't education level or income level. It's authoritarianism. The data are consistent in this - low authoritarian white folks with less than a college education, or who earn less than the median income, overwhelmingly support Democrats. Conversely, whites with high incomes and high education levels but who also score high in authoritarianism strongly support Republicans. In other words, it's not "working-class whites" per se, who support very conservative candidates. It's authoritarians, whether they are working class or not. This, too, is consistent with the composition of the (not-so-mysterious) Trump coalition.

There is, to be clear, more to the story of political polarization than personality type. Straight-up partisanship - pulling for your team and its positions no matter what - is a basic fact of political life on both sides of the American political divide and has become only more so in recent years. But it is possible to cut through a lot of the confusion surrounding the appeal of Trumpism if one recognizes that differences in fundamental worldview, anchored in basic personality differences, are a driving force in contemporary politics.

The question isn't what's in Trump's head. That's not really knowable, nor is it all that important. What is important is understanding what has galvanized support for him.

As noted, it's true that Trump has refrained from bashing Planned Parenthood, and also not jumped on the bandwagon of GOP orthodoxy in other ways either. That could change next week. Regardless, those aren't positions he's made a centerpiece of his campaign. The issues he has hammered away at, the points of emphasis on which he has built the Trump brand, are what matter for understanding his broad appeal. There is lots of evidence to suggest that when it comes to those linchpins of his campaign - the bombast, the nativism, the relentless focus on strength and weakness, winners and losers -- he's hitting precisely the notes that authoritarians want to hear. And since they do make up a key block within the GOP, Trump may well be more than a passing fancy. Indeed, he's speaking to concerns vital to what has become the heart of the Republican base.

And he's doing so with an approach shorn of some of the wonky policy details or other distractions that prevent other candidates, including other rabidly conservative ones, from asking the most basic question a political community has to answer: who's in, and who's out?

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