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Trump appeals to the authoritarian within: Vanderbilt researcher

by Apr. 19, 2016, 3:15 PM

Many of Donald Trump’s supporters share a view of the world as a chaotic, threatening place that is changing too rapidly, says a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, and this authoritarian outlook may be what’s drawing them to the strong rhetoric of Trump.

In this political context, authoritarianism is a psychological profile where people desire order and fear outsiders. Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science Marc Hetherington says Trump’s rhetoric is hitting right on target with these those with that personality trait.

“Trump suggests we live in this chaotic world and we need to make America great again,” says Hetherington. “If ISIS is a threat, he’s going to knock the hell out of them and he’s going to kill their leader’s parents and children. If people are concerned about outsiders, he’s going to build a wall.”

Measuring your level of authoritarianism

“Authoritarian” means something very specific the way Hetherington is using it. It is not about authoritarian leaders. The concept is designed to measure which people might find such a leader attractive. It is measured in an odd, but interesting way, namely asking people to answer a series of questions what characteristics they, as parents, would want their children to have.

Some of the questions are:

  • Would you rather your children be independent or respect their elders?
  • Would you rather your children be obedient or self-reliant?
  • Would you rather your children be curious or have good manners?

Authoritarians choose for their children qualities like respect for their elders, obedience and having good manners under those conditions.

“As crazy as it sounds, these parenting questions seem to work well in identifying people who are more authoritarian,” Hetherington says. “The answers to these questions are highly predictive of whether people support torture, oppose gay rights, have negative attitudes about racial and ethnic minorities, and a range of other political relevant topics.”

Hetherington introduced the concept with Jonathan Weiler in 2009 in their book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Cambridge University Press).

Authoritarianism and the GOP

Republicans cornered the market on the authoritarian vote decades ago, Hetherington says.

“It starts way back when Republicans for decades had been getting their brains beaten out from the (Franklin) Roosevelt years and then again very spectacularly in the (Lyndon) Johnson versus (Barry) Goldwater election in 1964. When you are a losing party, what you do is start to look for new issues that will make you a winning party.”

Issue of race

The issue Republicans found, Hethertington says, was race.

“Really, over the course of many decades, Republicans have been talking in various ways – either explicitly or implicitly – about race,” he says.

Over the years issues such as feminism (against), gay rights (against) and safety from terrorists (in favor of) have been added to the Republican mix. Add some stress from economic woes in the not-so-distant past and you get a whole lot of people frightened by the changes going on in the United States, Hetherington says.

History repeating itself

Trump’s popularity as the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary race has much in common with the presidential bid of George Wallace in 1968 and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” hunt for Communists in the 1950s, says Hetherington.

Wallace, McCarthy and Trump all have or had an appeal to people with an “authoritarian” view of the world, according to Hetherington. Wallace resisted the civil rights movement when he famously called for “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” when he was sworn in as the governor of Alabama in 1963, while McCarthy traded on the fear of Communist infiltrators to ruin others while promoting his own career in the 1950s.

“One thing that is important to keep in mind is that people who score high in authoritarianism are not that uncommon. And people who are not so authoritarian should not look down on them either. When people are under a lot of stress, everyone is susceptible to authoritarian appeals,” Hetherington says. “But the thing that puzzles me is, ‘Why now?’”

Why now?

“The United States truly is the hegemonic power in the world. So the big question is, ‘Why do Americans feel such worry and fear right now, whereas we didn’t see something like this happen in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, when kids were ducking beneath their desks?’”

Media pushing fear

Part of the answer may lie with the media.

“Republicans are complaining an awful lot that they can’t control Donald Trump,” Hetherington says. “But keep in mind that Trump’s advantage is the amount of anger and fear and discontent that people are experiencing.

“This is exactly what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been giving us for 10 or 20 years. It’s turned on and the Republicans can’t turn off the switch. They’ve opened Pandora’s box.”

For a thorough overview on Hetherington’s theory on authoritarianism, see this recent story on Vox.

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