by Tom Jacobs Pacific Standard
Given the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, and the ill-defined phenomenon known as Trumpism, it’s vital we understand the psychology that attracted Americans to the real estate mogul in the first place. Research suggests such voters are driven by a combination of racial resentment and authoritarianism.
Sociologist David Norman Smith cited both in this paper, in which he argues hardcore Trump supporters “target minorities and women” and “favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases.”
And yet, there’s something puzzling about that equation. If authoritarians, by definition, revere authority, why would they support an anti-establishment candidate like Trump? And why are they OK with his administration slandering bedrock American institutions as the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
A second recently published study provides an answer: There are different strains of authoritarian thinking. And support for Trump is associated with what is arguably the most toxic type: authoritarian aggression.
The study suggests the bulk of his supporters, at least in the Republican primaries, were not old-fashioned conservatives who preach obedience and respect for authority. Rather, they were people who take a belligerent, combative approach toward people they find threatening.
The notion that there are different types of authoritarians was proposed in the 1980s by University of Manitoba psychologist Robert Altemeyer, and refined in 2010 by a research team led by John Duckitt of the University of Auckland. In the journal Political Psychology, that team defined right-wing authoritarianism as “a set of three related ideological attitude dimensions.”
- “Conventionalism,” a.k.a. “traditionalism,” which is defined as “favoring traditional, old-fashioned social norms, values, and morality.”
- Authoritarian submission,” defined as “favoring uncritical, respectful, obedient, submissive support for existing authorities and institutions.”
- “Authoritarian aggression,” defined as “favoring the use of strict, tough, harsh, punitive, coercive social control.”
Duckitt and his colleagues created a survey designed to measure each of these three facets. It was measured by participants’ responses to statements such as “The old-fashioned ways, and old-fashioned values, still show the best way to live” (traditionalism); “Our country would be great if we show respect for authority and obey our leaders” (submission); and “The way things are going in this country, it’s going to take a lot of ‘strong medicine’ to straighten out the troublemakers, criminals, and perverts” (aggression).
A research team led by psychologist Steven Ludeke of the University of Southern Denmark used those scales to try to tease out why some studies link Trump support to authoritarianism, while others do not.
It discovered the problem with the latter is they tend to either heavily or exclusively focus on the “submission” dimension, which has traditionally been studied in the context of child-rearing (as in, “Do you expect your children to unquestioningly obey their elders?”).
As it turns out, that’s the facet of authoritarianism that has the least to do with support for Trump.
Ludeke’s study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, featured 1,444 participants recruited online in April of 2016. They responded to 18 authoritarianism-focused statements—six for each facet—and indicated who, among the presidential candidates remaining in the race at that point, they supported.
“Consistent with Trump’s representation of the world as a dangerous place requiring harsh treatment of deviant minorities,” they write, “Trump supporters were high on authoritarian aggression.”
Strong support for conventionalism/traditionalism was also linked to support for Trump, but high scores on the submission category—that is, respect for authority, and obedience to superiors—was not.
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Smith’s analysis of data from the American National Election Study reaches a similar conclusion. He reports “enthusiastic Trump voters are also enthusiastic about domineering leaders, and they are not especially enthusiastic about respectful children.”
Authoritarianism in the Trump era “is not the wish to follow any and every authority but, rather, the wish to support a strong and determined authority who will ‘crush evil and take us back to our true path,'” Smith and his co-author, Eric Hanley, conclude.
Participants in Ludeke’s study also completed surveys measuring Social Dominance Orientation—the belief that one group has the right to dominate others. Replicating previous research, they found this philosophy, which often accompanies authoritarianism, correlated with support for Trump.
So the very things a majority of Americans find disconcerting, if not disqualifying, about Trump—his need to dominate, his thinly veiled white supremacism, and his blunt, bullying language—is precisely what appeals to his hardcore fans. They are very likely stand to by their man, whatever scandals might emerge.
That said, these results suggest Democrats have a decent chance of peeling away a different slice of the Republican-leaning electorate—if they can defend liberal policies while embodying a more traditional respect for authority. Those “submission”-oriented voters don’t have a natural affinity for Trump. They may prefer candidates who embody a traditional sense of dignity—people they can feel comfortable looking up to.
That possibility aside, the picture painted in both of these studies is pretty bleak from a progressive perspective. Smith’s paper, the lead article in the March 2018 issue of Critical Sociology, concludes this way:
Most Trump voters cast their ballots for him with their eyes open, not despite his prejudices but because of them. Their partisanship, whether positive (toward Trump and the Republicans) or negative (against Clinton and the Democrats), is intense. This partisanship is anchored in anger and resentment among mild as well as strong Trump voters.
Anger, not fear, was the emotional key to the Tea Party, and that seems to be true for Trumpism as well. If so, the challenge for progressives is greater than many people have imagined. Hostility to minorities and women cannot be wished away; nor can the wish for domineering leaders.
What do you call an organization where total loyalty to a charismatic but volatile leader is strictly enforced?
Retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) openly worried his party is “becoming a cultish thing” marked by forced fidelity to its mercurial leader. While he’s not the first to make the point, his insider perspective carried considerable weight.
But is his description hyperbole, or an accurate assessment? While cautioning that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump falls into the mindless-follower category, an expert on cults leans toward the latter.
“I think he has touched on something important,” says scholar and author Janja Lalich, who has extensively studied the phenomenon. “I think there are plenty of similarities—enough to be concerned about.”
She continues: “The people around Trump, and the Republicans in Washington, absolutely kowtow to him, either out of fear they’re going to anger him, or out of adulation. That behavior is very typical of a cult.”
Polling suggests the party has been shrinking, and its remaining members are solidly behind Trump, giving him a remarkable 87 percent support in a recent poll. Even the policy of separating immigrant parents and children, which directly contradicts thetraditional conservative belief in the sanctity of the family, was supported by more than half of Republicans before Trump rescinded it under pressure on Wednesday.
Is the decision to support the leader, even if it means ignoring long-professed moral precepts, cult-like behavior? Pacific Standard asked Lalich, a professor emerita of sociology at California State University–Chico. She has written or co-authored a series of books about the cults, including the infamous Heaven’s Gate sect that committed mass suicide in 1997.
You write that members of “totalistic” cults—those that consider their ideology the one true path—share four key characteristics. They 1) espouse an all-encompassing belief system; 2) exhibit excessive devotion to the leader; 3) avoid criticism of the group and its leader; and 4) feel disdain for non-members. That all sounds unnervingly familiar.
Doesn’t it? Charisma is a social relationship. It’s about how people respond to that person, and how that person takes advantage of that. There’s a kind of charismatic leader who is an authoritarian bully who rules by coercion.
I think you have to look at the effect of Trump’s behavior and language on his base. He readily ridicules and chastises people. He readily pushes people aside if they’re not worshipping him. We’ve all seen the videos of his aides praising him to high heaven. That’s the kind of adulation cult leaders expect and demand.
Are the big rallies he held during the campaign, and still conducts periodically, an important way for him to bond with his followers?
Yes. Cult leaders constantly need to rev up their people. That’s one of the challenges of being a charismatic leader. You have to keep people enchanted with you. Him holding these rallies is both a recruitment technique and a way to keep his followers happy.
He’s showing him in their presence—being there for them, talking to them, relating to them. All of that helps to solidify their cult membership, so to speak. It reinforces the idea that they’re a special group of people following this very special man. With Trump, it’s not a religion, but there’s the same kind of fervor.
Political scientists point out that President Barack Obama was also a charismatic leader who arguably had a cult-like following. But for the most part, he was carrying out policies Democrats have long championed, while Trump’s policies often defy traditional Republican doctrine. What happens when a cult leader’s dictates clash with the convictions of his followers?
Trump is happily making these pronouncements and expecting everyone to go along with him, and he’s not getting much flack. Most of his followers have bought into his fear-mongering, which creates an us vs. them mentality that is typical of a cult.
Is that emphasis on real or perceived enemies one way cult leaders keep control over their adherents?
Absolutely. It breeds fear and paranoia in his followers, which leads them to think, “I’d better stick with him to be safe.” His constant criticism and ridiculing and attacking “the other” also makes people feel superior. This sets up extreme polarization, which is always how cults have survived.
Separating the cult from the rest of the world is pretty much what all cults do. That doesn’t mean you have to live in a compound. It just means that, in your thinking, you’re part of this special elite, separate from the unworthy.
And you close yourself off from any information that might conflict with that.
Exactly. Once you internalize that, you’re done for.
Can cult leaders override members’ fundamental sense of morality? I’m thinking of his policy of separating children from immigrant parents, which he has now rescinded following intense, widespread criticism.
Well, he’s not breaking up white families. He’s breaking up families of immigrants. He ran on that tough-on-immigrants line. He already planted the seeds for this. So while it looks harsh and cruel and extreme from many people’s point of view, including mine, for his followers, he’s carrying out what he said he was going to do. Other of his followers, who aren’t as hard core, are following suit because of the sway that he has. Their minds are closed to anything that challenges what Trump wants them to do, say, or believe.
So how do you get out of a cult? What typically has to happen to break free?
On an individual level, it’s generally family and friends who do an intervention. When we have something like this on a national scale, it’s much more difficult. I know many people who have argued and argued with members of their family, and then given up. Rational conversations at this point aren’t going to work.
Now, if Trump continues with this egregious, inhumane behavior, some of his people may actually wake up. Some of the churches that have been supportive of him have come out to say, “This is too much.” When the cultic behavior is on a national scale, [breaking it up] is going to take a national movement.
At some point, the Trump era will end. What happens to a cult when its leader dies, or has to step down for whatever reason. Do they disband at that point? Do his followers emerge from their daze, or do they start looking around for a new leader?
For some people, that will jolt them into seeing the light and realizing how they have been taken advantage of. But some hard-core believers will stick with Trump no matter what. Warren Jeffs is in jail, but he still has thousands of followers who believe in him.
Often, splinter groups will form, as when Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon, the leader of the Moonie cult, died. His three sons now have splinter groups. The followers split up and followed the one they liked the best. That’s potentially something we could see.
That conjures up a surreal image of some Republicans aligning with Don Jr., while others gravitate to Eric, and still others to Ivanka.