Many people, including I, have labeled Donald Trump an authoritarian leader. But they are honestly baffled by the loyalty of his followers. The decades of research on authoritarian followers provide some answers.
Donald Trump received 46.7 percent of the vote in the 2016 election. An aggregation of public opinion polls available at https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/ shows that he maintained this level of support until March of 2017, when his failure to repeal Obamacare produced a drop to 40%. Difficulties in fulfilling other campaign promises, such as building “the wall” and “locking up” Hillary Clinton may explain why the rating slid to a nadir of 36.4% in December 2017.
But since then Trump has regained about half of the ground he lost. He was back to 40% in February 2018 and since then about 41-42% of the public has approved of his performance. Considering all the things he has done in the past six months, that is astounding. But if you look at the poll results over this time and try to find some kind of reaction when (to cite recent examples) Trump began the trade wars with friend and foe alike, or absolved Putin in Helsinki of interfering in the 2016 election, or separated children from their parents at the Mexican border, you won’t find any! His base has been very loyal. I doubt he will lose more than a percent or two of his national support, and probably not even that, as a result of the August 21st “Tuesday Afternoon Massacre” (of Trump). And whatever he loses, he will soon get back.
In a sense, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Has any president since Lyndon Johnson kept his campaign promises as energetically as Donald Trump has in his first 18 month in office? He has strenuously advanced his base’s causes, from all the executive orders he has signed to his nominations to the Supreme Court. And when he failed to achieve what he promised, he always blamed others for not supporting him, including the Democrats. And while economists warn it is too early to tell, Trump has received credit for the vibrant economy.
In another sense, however, the fidelity of Trump’s base remains astounding. He has made so many unforced errors because of his lack of understanding and low problem-solving intelligence, his vast ignorance, his enormous, never-ending dishonesty which seems as reflexive as his breathing, his explosive hostility, his uncontrollable vanity, his despicable demeaning of women, his squalid vulgarity, the stupidity of his stereotypes, the shabbiness of his thinking, the buffoonery of his parading, his attacks on the institutions he needs most to safeguard the country, his incredibly poor judgment about the character of those whom he has brought into his administration, his equally mind-numbing lack of judgment about foreign leaders, friend and foe, and his willingness to inflame Americans’ disagreements and turn them into conflagrations which make us that deeply divided house which the Gospels and Abraham Lincoln warned against—how can his supporters have stood so solidly behind him? You’d think they’d be having some second thoughts at least.
The main reason, I submit, is that most of Trump’s backers are authoritarian followers—people who submit too much to the leaders they consider legitimate, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want. “Well yeah,” you might say. “But that’s like saying an apple is an apple because it’s an apple.” And it would be golden delicious example of a rhetorical tautology except social scientists have had a good, independent way of measuring this kind of authoritarianism since the 1970s. And it was clear from the first studies that political “conservatives”—from ordinary voters to elected officials—tended to score highly on this personality test (Chapter 6 of The Authoritarians, the book on this website). We can gain considerable insight into Donald Trump’s supporters from the research on authoritarianism.
Why Authoritarian Followers Believe What They Believe
Compared to most people, studies have shown that authoritarian followers get their beliefs and opinions from the authorities in their lives, and hardly at all by making up their own minds. They memorize rather than reason. Religion provides a good example of this: authoritarians tend to believe strongly in whatever religion they were raised, the result of having had their religion strongly emphasized to them while they were growing up. But at some point in their youth—typically in early to mid-adolescence—they usually have doubts about what they have been taught. When this happens they typically go to their parents for guidance, or clerics, or scriptures, or friends who profess strong belief. They are mainly seeking reassurance, and not surprisingly, they keep their beliefs.1
Persons who grew up in homes where religion was not stressed as much also develop doubts about the things they had been taught when they reached adolescence. But they are much more likely to do a two-sided search for the answers, such as reading Genesis and learning about the theory of evolution, talking to believers and nonbelievers, and so on. Some then keep their faith, but others become “weak believers” or even apostates.)
By the way, the failure to do a two-sided search for the truth of their beliefs leaves scar tissue on the psyches of authoritarian followers. A “very safe survey” revealed that most of the followers in a large sample of university students had doubts about their religious beliefs, which you would never have guessed from their answers to normal surveys. And most of these doubters said that no one whatsoever knew they had these doubts. They were a deep secret.2
Consensual Validation and Ethnocentrism
When your beliefs are memorized copies of other people’s opinions, you don’t really know why they are right. That means you don’t know IF your professed truths really are true. So how do you maintain your beliefs should events and discoveries contradict them?
Researchers discovered decades ago that people validate their social opinions socially to a certain extent by selecting news outlets, friends, and so on that will tell them they are right. This produces an illusion of consensus, at least among all the “right” people like themselves. Almost everybody does this, but authoritarian followers do it much more because they don’t have many ideas of their own, beliefs they have worked out for themselves and can defend. And they are much more likely to expose themselves only to sources of information that tell them what they want to believe. Getting only one side of a story raises the chances you will get it wrong, but as Ralph Peters, formerly the military analyst at Fox News, said recently, “People that only listen to Fox have an utterly skewed view of reality.”
The creation of an in-group in the lives of “right-thinkers” goes back to followers’ early childhood. The earliest such example most of them can recall involved the family religion (as opposed to say their gender, or race, or nationality). Their parents divided the world for them into people of their own faith, and an out-group consisting of everybody else. This “Us vs. Them” ethnocentrism appears to lay the foundation for many later prejudices and xenophobia.
Ethnocentrism comes naturally when we identify with a group, but authoritarian followers are profoundly ethnocentric. Whereas some people will deliberately expose themselves to different ideas, experiences, cultures to avoid living in an “echo chamber,” followers want to live smack dab in the middle of one and are glad to do their part of the echoing. Surrounding themselves with people who agree with them, clapping together, chanting together, cheering together, and marching together is convincing evidence for them that their beliefs are right.
Susceptibility to Liars
One consequence of the followers’ strong need for consensual validation, experiments have found, is that they will trust someone who says things they believe, even if there is a lot of evidence that the person does not really believe what he says. They’re just so glad to hear their views coming back to them, they ignore solid reasons why the person might be insincere or outright lying. Relatively UNauthoritarian people, on the other hand, are downright suspicious of someone who might have ulterior motives for reinforcing their beliefs.
It is therefore much easier to “con” authoritarian followers, as many a TV evangelist, radio shock-jockey and flag-waving politician knows. It’s no accident that Donald Trump, who had only loosely organized and not particularly right-wing political beliefs, became a Republican politician when he decided to declare war on both the Democrats and Republicans. That’s where the “suckers” are most concentrated, the people you can fool all of the time. (It’s another story, but the GOP largely brought this on itself by deliberately courting these folks.)
There’s a hidden danger to authoritarian leaders in all this. When they discover their followers will believe anything they say, even things that contradict something they said earlier, they get sloppy with their lies. Maybe Donald Trump always was careless with the truth. But it seems that over the past two years he has become downright reckless. His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind.
The trouble is, for him and the future of his presidency, Truth happens. Constantly. It may be seen differently by various folks, but things did happen as they happened, not something else. You can only ignore the truth so long, and then reality will inevitably catch up with you. It will destroy you if you have been massively denying it.
Dogmatism comes rather naturally to people who have copied other people’s beliefs rather than figure things out for themselves. When you don’t know why your beliefs are true, you can’t defend them very well when other people or events confront them. Once you’ve run out of whatever counter-arguments your authorities have loaded into you, you’re done. But being flabbergasted doesn’t mean you change your beliefs. You can keep on believing as much as before if you want. You can even pat yourself on the back for believing when it seems clear you are wrong. Some people do this, and you know who taught them to.
That is dogmatism, and experiments show that authoritarian followers have two or three times the normal amount of it because they believe many things strongly, but don’t know why. When the evidence and arguments against their beliefs becomes irrefutable, they simply shut down. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said, dogmatism is the last resort of overwhelmed followers. Thus they agree with the statement, “There are no discoveries of facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most in life.” That says it all.
The Role of Fear
In case you haven’t noticed it, authoritarian followers are more fearful, in general, than most people. (And wannabe dictators have known that for a long time.) There may be a genetic basis for being extra scared, since thresholds for emotional responses might be set, in part, by some snippets of DNA. But there certainly is an “environmental” source of the fear. Followers report that they were taught the world is a dangerous place much more strenuously than most people are taught—a fact confirmed by the parents. Some of this is quite predictable, such as fear of attacks by racial minorities. But the fearing parents super-sized their children’s fear of being hit by a car, or kidnapped as well.
Accordingly Donald Trump was well-placed to gain the support of authoritarian followers as he was a large and seemingly fearless, powerful man. All he had to do was say he saw the dangers the followers felt and he would fight to protect them. So he did. He would build a wall over 1000 miles long to keep Mexican rapists out. He would stop immigration from certain countries to keep terrorists from getting in and killing everyone. He promised to protect people who feared their jobs were going overseas to countries that he said were stealing America blind. “I am your voice,” he said. He would fight for them with all of his great might. And that was just what threatened people who felt powerless wanted.
Donald Trump grew some of his positions as he went along. He discovered he was once again anti- abortion, although he had to be told he was against punishing women who had one. He assured the Libertarians he would defend the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it, even though it became clear he had very little idea what was in it. He pretended for the economic conservatives to be greatly concerned about the national debt, although he learned he couldn’t make it go away by declaring the United States bankrupt. And so on.
But the core connection between himself and his followers was their great fear of the future. As Ann Coulter, his strong promoter during the campaign and reputed source of his anti-immigration rhetoric, said “He had me with ‘Mexican rapists.’” Trump’s MAGA slogan resonated with masses of “forgotten Americans” who indeed felt America wasn’t great anymore. Everything was changing. All the old standards were being trashed. The things that gave them whatever precarious advantage they had in life, being white (and for most of them) being male counted for less and less. Instead the United States was filling up with bad people who would blow up your church, steal your jobs and get your kids hooked on drugs.
You can see all these forces coming together when the authoritarian leader and his followers come together at Trump rallies. Political parties hold rallies primarily to energize the faithful, and Trump supporters leave the arenas highly motivated to work for him. But they also get something from the event that (say) Hillary Clinton’s supporters did not need as much: reassurance that their beliefs are valid. Being in a crowd of True Believers and finding themselves reacting the same way as everybody else to whatever is happening tells them individually that they are right. And they do the same thing for the other people in the room with their contribution to the echo chamber.
Two powerful bonds are on display at Trump’s rallies: the followers’ bonds with the leader, and their bonds with each other. They feel they owe Trump big-time. He gave up his very glamorous, satisfying life, they believe, to fight for them. The least they can do is be grateful and supremely loyal to their “Voice.” It is their part of the deal, and in the early days of the 2016 campaign, until unfavorable comparisons with Hitler and other dictators made Trump stop it, the crowds insisted on taking a loyalty oath to him at the rallies.
The second bond, with one another, sustains their beliefs and enthusiasm afterwards. When they hear bad news about Trump, they tell each other the explanation that the president gave, and that is good enough. It doesn’t matter that it makes no sense or contradicts earlier things he said or promised. The important thing is they are hearing it from a fellow believer and it is their job to believe it and say it too. Research shows that authoritarian followers value group cohesiveness much more than other people do, and strongly condemn persons who stop believing what the group believes.
Beyond these bonds, while Trump supporters feel exposed and vulnerable on their own, they feel safe, strong, even powerful when they are members of a large, determined movement. They gain strength from the crowd, as surely as Trump himself does.
It seems clear that Donald Trump believes his best chance at remaining in power is to keep his base fired up. They are a minority in the country, by roughly 42% to 52%. But if they all vote, and enough of the majority does not, he will win.
So he doesn’t care what most of the voters think. He doesn’t care that critics can tear his positions and statements to shreds. He isn’t talking to them. He’s talking to his base.
Unfortunately for him, his devotion to his base, coupled with some abysmal choices of advisors and his own overwhelming hubris, have alienated a lot of Americans. Polls find that Democratic supporters are more enthusiastic about voting in the midterm election than Republican voters—the opposite of what he wants. Various by-elections show that while he has great influence over Republican primaries, he brings a sizeable anti-Trump reaction to the general election. So as he goes on feeding red meat to the masses that made him great again, he is infuriating a large group of electors who increasingly can’t stand him.
The very sizeable number of authoritarian followers in the United States have, in my view, joined together three times in recent history to endanger our democracy. They supported the war in Vietnam as it tore the country apart long after it was clearly lost. They supported Richard Nixon to the very end of Watergate and beyond. They will support Donald Trump long after it becomes indisputable that he is a felon and should be removed from office.
The good news is the Republic has survived the past crises, thanks largely to the honest reporting of the press that would not be intimidated, the division of powers enshrined in the Constitution, especially the independence of the judiciary, and the good judgment of most of the American people. And it can survive this latest threat for the same reasons. But the bad news is the authoritarian followers will remain, unwitting carriers of a cancer upon the nation that the next authoritarian leader will arouse and set marching.
I am not suggesting that people should exclude in any sense the most authoritarian elements in American society. With few exceptions, they are law-abiding citizens exercising their rights, and that should be respected and protected. But I do think their influence needs to be contained by outvoting them. And Donald Trump is betting that won’t happen.
The long run prospects encourage one. Trump has solid support among my generation of Americans, for example, especially men, but we are not going to last forever. Some suppose that people become more authoritarian as they age, and so one batch of old white men will just be replaced by another. But studies show that political opinions tend to be set in early adulthood and endure. Today’s youth, better educated and wonderfully less ethnocentric than their predecessors, give one great hope for the future of American democracy in the long run.
But this is like climate change. We were warned plenty that we were creating a disaster in the only atmosphere we’ve got, and we kept on doing it. Now we are facing the consequences. Whether American democracy endures could well depend on what happens at the polls in 2018 and 2020. Authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers have no great love of freedom and equality. Those who do had better organize and get out the vote, or they will make Donald Trump look like the super-genius he believes he is.
1 Altemeyer, Bob and Bruce E. Hunsberger (1997). Amazing Apostates. Why Some Turn to Faith, and Others Abandon Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, pp. 17-20, 32.
This is a good place for me to mention three limitations about the research I shall report. First, the results are always generalizations, i.e., overall differences between groups. So in this study some people who had a rigorous religious upbringing did make a two-sided search. (Most did not, however.) Second, the difference between “high” authoritarian followers and those whom I’ll call “low authoritarians” is relative, not absolute. The low authoritarians still have some inclinations to follow authorities, which can be ratcheted up by situational pressures. But it will be a much weaker inclination than that found in persons who have extra helpings of this trait. Finally, this study like most of the others I shall bring up was done in Canada. But there has been a very solid record of replication of Canadian findings about authoritarians when repeated in the USA, and vice-versa.
2 Altemeyer, Bob (1987). Enemies of Freedom. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, pp. 151-154.