Using Authoritarianism to Defeat Donald Trump

How would you respond to this public opinion survey question?

Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have.

1. Respect for Elders or Independence?

2. Self-reliance or Obedience?

3. Good Manners or Curiosity?

4. Consideration for Others or Good Behavior?

For each of Respect for Elders, Obedience, Good Manners and Good behavior, give yourself 2 points (if you chose all of them, your score would be 8). For each of the other choices in the pair, give yourself a 0 if you selected it. For each pair, if you couldn’t decide which was more important or thought each quality was equally important, give yourself a 1. Now add up your score. You should have a number between 0 and 8. Divide by 8 and multiply by 100.

What you’ve just calculated is your “authoritarianism score.” The higher your score, the more “authoritarian” you are. You’re going to have to trust me on this, but this method of measuring authoritarianism has a relatively long history in contemporary political science. Skeptical political scientists have found, again and again, that this is a valid and reliable way of measuring the authoritarian dispositon.

Now, before I start getting complaints about character association, having a high authoritarianism score doesn’t necessarily indicate anything negative about you. It does not necessarily indicate that you prefer fascism to democracy, that you have pictures of Musselini or Hitler tacked up on your playroom wall or that you think Vladimir Putin or Kim Jung Un deserve the Nobel Peace prize. People with high authoritarianism scores may well be great admirers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Lincoln and our constitutional system of government. They are highly loyal and often very religious.

Calling this political disposition “authoritarianism” is somewhat misleading. Authoritarianism isn’t about the exaltation of dictators. It is, instead, an attitude that embraces conformity to group norms and emphasizes group solidarity.

It helps to thinks of authoritarianism as a dynamic attitude that requires different things under different circumstances. Political scientists Marc Hethrington and Jonathan Weiler found that even people with low authoritarianism scores will demand stricter “law and order” and group measures when their level of fear ratchets up. Karen Stenner, another political scientist, found that people with high authoritarianism scores will demand more “law and order policies,” not constantly, but when they perceive that the group or groups with which they identify are under attack.

Relying on some recent political science, New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall, published an interesting story about how the Trump campaign has found electoral success by activating a fear reaction within a portion of the electorate. Not only has his assault on “political correctness” invited whites who are feeling left out of the economy and displaced by America’s changing demographics to express their discomfort politically, but he has raised the spectre of crime and terrorism coming from Latinos and Muslims. Edsall writes

Trump’s entire campaign is premised on the primal assault of an in-group against an out-group. More brazenly than any major party presidential contender in American history, he promises voters the comfort, security and even happiness that autocratic leaders claim they can provide. He has based his presidential bid on the yearning for authoritarian leadership that he believes animates a majority of the voting public.

The impression all this gives is that authoritarianism is a Republican phenomenon. It isn’t. Figure 1 is a chart included in Edsall’s article. It shows

Figure 1

various subgroups in the electorate broken down by the percentages of the subgroups that fit in each of five authoritarianism score levels. As we might expect, Democrats, as a whole have a smaller percentage of identifiers with high or moderately high authoritarianism scores than Americans and Republicans as a whole have.

There are two important things to note about this chart. First, several key Democratic groups — Blacks and Hispanics — are among the groups that have the highest percentages of people with high and moderately high authoritarianism scores. Second, more than half of all Americans have high or moderately high authoritarianism scores.

Those two observations yield an obvious question: Why isn’t Donald Trump running away with this election? Without more data, it’s hard to say for sure, but I do have a few guesses.

First of all, there’s some karma associated with the authoritarian dynamic. It used to be that when perceptions of being a group under attack triggered authoritarian responses, there were discrete groups that could be blamed or scapegoated. Socialists, Jews, Blacks, gays and immigrants have all been the victims of authoritarian reactions from the dominant American group during hard times.

But the problem is that all of these groups, together with others who score low on the authoritarianism scale, have begun to band together under the Democratic banner. Democrats with high or moderately high authoritarianism scores may perceive themselves to be a group under attack by the Republican party. Because their numbers have increased over the years, punches thrown by Democratic authoritarians have become much more effective.

Second, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia did a fantastic job of linking American social identity to Democratic social identity. Because it is a big tent party, Democrats tend to submerge identities based on ethnic, gender and sexual orientations within an overriding political identity. For Democrats being white, straight, and Christian is no longer the essence of what it means to be American. For people who are not committed Democrats, the flag waving, patriotic displays, veneration of military heroes, the good faith attempt to compromise with the Bernie Sanders supporters, and the ubiquitous “stronger together” slogan was probably an antidote to any authoritarianism stimulus they may have received from the Republicans in Cleveland.

And finally, it could be that the Republican attempts to trigger authoritarian reactions in response to much of the needless death we’ve seen in the world over the last year have been ineffective. While it’s true that people aligned with ISIS and other terrorist groups have managed some spectacular bloodshed, most of it has taken place over seas. American killers tend to be homegrown and deranged. It could be that many people feel that despite what the Republicans are saying, they are still safer today than they’ve ever been.

If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d take these observations to heart. It’s more than possible to pour cold water on the fear Donald Trump is trading on simply by doing what most people want out of a president: leading us into an era of optimism, confidence and unity.