Authoritarianism at the Heart of the GOP Is Driving Trump's Support

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

With every new outrage, Donald Trump's support not only fails to abate, but seems instead to gain fresh traction. Whatever Trump believes or doesn't believe about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, or banning Muslims from entering the United States, he'd be little more than a curiosity were it not for one undeniable fact - a lot of people, at least for now, support him.

In other words, Trump is not a sui generis phenomenon. The motor propelling his appeal is authoritarianism, which has in recent years - and long pre-dating Trump - emerged as a dominant force in the Republican Party. Failure to understand that undeniable political development will continue to leave pundits, politicians and ordinary folks alike clutching at straws in understanding how *it* could be happening here.

As Marc Hetherington and I explained in our 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, polarization in the United States over the past generation has resulted, in significant part, from 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.

What most fundamentally distinguishes authoritarians, as we explained in detail in our book, are three inter-related sets of attitudes that distinguish highly authoritarian individuals: 1) they tend to see the world in black and white terms, with little room for nuance or shades of gray; 2) they possess an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and are intolerant of out-groups - these days including gays, African Americans and Muslims - they perceive as responsible for the unraveling of America's existing social fabric; 3) they believe in the necessity of projecting strength in the most straightforward, uncompromising way possible.

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

Polling in recent months suggests that Trump supporters are, among other things, more likely than other GOP voters to believe 1) Obama was not born in the United States, 2) that he is a Muslim, 3) that all undocumented immigrants should be deported and 4) that Syrian refugees should be barred from the United States. To be sure, Republicans generally hold conservative views on deportation and barring refugees. But within that conservative eco-system, Trump supporters stand out. Though we don't yet have polling on Trump's call yesterday to ban Muslims, I think we can safely guess that Trump supporters will distinguish themselves in their support for that position as well. These positions, notably, are consistent with the authoritarian worldview, rooted in an especially acute vigilance about who is a legitimate member of the American community and who is alien to that community.

Some of Trump's eclecticism relative to GOP orthodoxy - on issues like planned parenthood and taxes on the wealthy - are quite consistent with our analysis of authoritarianism, since on those issues authoritarians are not notably adamant.

But as I wrote in September, what drives Trump's appeal is:

the bombast, the nativism, the relentless focus on strength and weakness, winners and losers...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?

Therefore, to understand the continuing appeal of Trump, it's less important to focus on what makes Trump tick, or what the man really believes, than it does to understand what galvanizes so many GOP voters. Authoritarianism is a critical source of what's fueling their fire.