Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson recently asked the question that baffles countless people about Trump’s supporters: “How can you defend a president who is a danger to democracy?” Stated more broadly, why do so many Americans support Donald Trump who not only is singularly unqualified for office, but who presents a clear danger to our democracy? Appropriately, Gerson says the issue would benefit from psychological study.
In fact, over the last six-plus decades that study has largely been done. Social science has studied (and continues to study) both authoritarian leaders, and people who support such leaders. Clear answers have emerged, although we are addressing only a few that Gerson raises. For example, the motivations of the wealthy conservative funders Gerson mentions are not the same as the evangelicals, who are Trump’s largest group of supporters. The overriding answer of why these people support Trump can be stated briefly, albeit bluntly: There are a lot of Americans who do not care for democracy (Altemeyer, 2006 at www.theauthoritarians.org). They do not mind that he fails to follow the Constitution, or that he poses a danger to democracy. In fact, surveys of these people show they would prefer a demagogic autocrat who will “stomp out the rot,” which they believe infects society. Because most Americans see the world differently, this finding may be difficult to accept. It is, however, based on solid science.
The research to which we refer began during World War II and has, over the decades, produced a clear understanding about Americans who are highly submissive to authority, how they became that way, plus a great deal about how they think and maintain their beliefs. This body of science is well known in academic circles, and it is essential to understanding the Trump presidency and his supporters. Yet it is being largely ignored. (Go to Google Scholar, type in “authoritarianism,” and you will find a small sampling of a few thousand studies.)
One very noticeable feature of the personalities attracted to such autocrats, for example, is their aggressiveness, evident in their being found among the most highly prejudiced people in the country. Experiments show their aggression is often triggered by fear of a disintegrating society and released by a profound sense of self-righteousness. These “authoritarian followers,” as social science labels them, are also highly ethnocentric, thus frequently racist, nationalistic, deeply partisan, and threatened by “the other.” It is no accident that such people would want to build a wall that they foolishly believe will solve a problem. Other testing shows these people are also highly defensive, not to mention almost totally unaware of their own proclivities. Thus, people who are not at all like such authoritarian followers will read this paragraph and conclude we are not talking about them. So will the people who are authoritarians—precisely the people we are talking about.
This is not the place we can profile the authoritarians who have been attracted to Trump’s chest-pounding alpha-male politics, because the literature is vast. We are calling attention to this information because it explains both Trump and his supporters, the people who would literally tolerate his shooting someone on 5th Avenue and still vote for him. The absence of this information from most all political discussion of Trump is on our minds because we are sifting, sorting, and summarizing these studies as they relate to Trump and his followers. The times of Trump cannot be understood without this information. This research was undertaken in anticipation of the eventuality of the current situation, because it can help preserve and protect our democracy.
Trump is America’s first authoritarian president since Richard Nixon. Unlike Trump, Nixon was largely able to hide his authoritarianism from public view, and this characteristic was only later revealed on his secret recordings of his White House conversations. Trump’s authoritarianism is conspicuous. Although some commentators have noted his “autocratic” and “authoritarian” style, they have not taken the next step to understand what that means or to examine the half-century of study devoted to understanding why someone like Trump was elected and is tolerated by the Republican Party and other supporters, notwithstanding his undemocratic behavior. In a word, authoritarianism explains Trump and his followers, and the dangers they pose that are far more grave than those presented by the Nixon presidency.
Editor’s Note: Dean and Altemeyer are currently collaborating on a work explaining authoritarianism and the Trump presidency.