Explaining Trump: An Appeal to Authoritarianism

telephone town hallsThe vast majority of GOP insiders, pundits and indeed Democratic political professionals dismissed Donald Trump early in the race for the White House. And as we all grapple to understand and explain Trump’s ascendancy, it is helpful to consider recent work on Authoritarianism in American Politics.

Academics have studied authoritarianism since WWII, defined here as a voter’s desire for order and a fear of outsiders. But the research was limited by the challenge of getting honest feedback from voters on many sensitive, highly politicized question. How many of us would voluntarily self-identify as bigots or homophobic? 

About twenty years ago SUNY Stonybrook professor Stanley Feldman reasoned that Authoritarianism  was a personality profile rather than just a political preference. He set about developing a short battery of questions that could predict how people value hierarchy, order and conformity over other values.   

Feldman’s survey has been accepted as the best tool we have in the efforts to “map the authoritarian gene.” 

We restate his questions below and encourage our readers to self-test.   

  • What is more important for a child to have—independence or respect for elders?
  • Which is more important for a child to have—obedience or self-reliance?
  • Which is more important for a child—to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Which is more important for a child to have—curiosity or good manners?

 Neither Feldman nor his colleagues in this study of American Authoritarianism suggest that we all fall neatly into one camp or the other. And to our knowledge, neither the voter file gurus at Catalist nor the research team at the Analyst Institute has perfected a model to score voters on their authoritarian tendencies. For a more detailed discussion, we recommend the book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, by professors Marc Hetherington (Vanderbilt) and Jonathan Weiler (UNC). 

We will discuss in our next report some of the most recent scholarly evidence and a strong argument that it would be foolish to dismiss the appeal of Donald Trump as a passing fad. 

As always, please join our conversation on social media with #chismstrat.


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