There are two ways of looking at the results of a recent University of Massachusetts study showing that Donald Trump’s supporters are authoritarians: we can assume that they’re too weak-minded to discern the reality of the regime they support or we can use this trait to shame them into seeing the truth. For the sake of the Republican party and the United States, I’m hoping the latter is true.
The study, which finds that a potent trait among Trump’s supporters is a willingness to bow down to authoritarian control, points to a psychological component that seems to be spreading across America. To understand this, we have to look at the four qualities of authoritarianism as put forth by sociologist and political scientist Juan Linz;
- “limited, not responsible, political pluralism“; that is, constraints on political institutions and groups (such as legislatures, political parties and interest groups)
- a basis for legitimacy based on emotion, especially the identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognizable societal problems” such as underdevelopment or insurgency
- neither “intensive nor extensive political mobilization” and constraints on the mass public (such as repressive tactics against opponents and a prohibition of anti-regime activity)
- “formally ill-defined” executive power, often shifting or vague
Based upon this understanding, we should all be terrified. It’s clear that the acceptance of authoritarianism contributed greatly to both of President Obama’s election wins. It’s also clear that those who support Donald Trump want to be told how to think and what to do. This would explain why it’s so hard to reach them. Being driven by emotion and unwilling to look below the very superficial surface of Trump’s proposals may be traits that are impossible to overcome.
The drumbeat regarding immigration has been very purposeful because it’s the type of proposal that appeals to an authoritarian. This is a basic concept, very carnal, and allows him to hold other liberal policies like progressive taxes, “fair” trade, eminent domain, increased government spending, and Democratic cronyism without his supporters even knowing what it all means. As authoritarians, they don’t care about such things. They trust that his economic plan is good because he’s rich. They trust that he won’t increase spending even when his own math on infrastructure and military expansion demand trillions of dollars more than even President Obama has spent. They believe in his foreign policy because, as authoritarians, they like when he gives kudos to his authoritarian counterpart in Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Republicans can look at this psychological trait and give up hope that his supporters will ever think for themselves, or we can use it as a rallying cry for them to wake up and smell Trump’s liberalism. At the very least, knowing what makes them tick can alleviate our frustration over their lack of discernment.