What’s the primary feature of a Donald Trump supporter? It’s not what you might guess:
If I asked you what most defines Donald Trump supporters, what would you say? They’re white? They’re poor? They’re uneducated? You’d be wrong.
In fact, I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism. […]
In a statistical analysis of the polling results, I found that Trump has already captured 43 percent of Republican primary voters who are strong authoritarians, and…in a general election, Trump’s strongman rhetoric will surely appeal to some of the 39 percent of independents in my poll who identify as authoritarians and the 17 percent of self-identified Democrats who are strong authoritarians.
This isn’t just an arbitrary measure: It’s the finding of a national poll of registered voters conducted through the University of Massachusetts.
The study found that demographic factors like age, race, and religion didn’t significantly correlate with voters’ 2016 preferences among the GOP field. What did matter was how much they were afraid of terrorism and, more importantly, how much they gravitate toward authoritarianism.
In this context, “authoritarianism” is all about obedience—submission to government authority even at the expense of personal freedom. You could think of it as the opposite of libertarianism, which values government only insofar as it protects liberty. Or here’s how Matthew MacWilliams, the political scientist who conducted the poll, explains the concept (emphasis added):
Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.
It’s not surprising that Trump supporters from across the political spectrum are all about obeying authority: Previous polling has found that Trump backers care more about whether their candidate is “strong” or “decisive” than whether he’s compassionate, principled, or honest.
The problem here is that decisive authority alone is not enough to make a good president—not even close. On the contrary, when decisive leadership is placed in isolation from compassion, principles, and honesty, it takes on an authoritarian character, which is exactly what this study reflects.
All of this is bad news for the Republican Party and American politics, broadly. It suggests that Trump’s support is not, as has been widely argued, an expression of frustration with the Washington establishment. That frustration is real and is evidenced by other political movements and candidates, but Trump is not its product.
His supporters don’t want government to leave them alone; they want it to be omnipotent.
Finally, as Leon Wolf points out at RedState, this authoritarian correlation also explains why Trump’s supporters are so loyal: “To an authoritarian, showing respect for the authority figure because they are the authority figure is important, regardless of whether they are right or not.”
That’s a dangerous impulse to indulge. It’s bad enough on the campaign trail, but enshrined in the White House this default to obedience can only foster an even more imperial presidency, marked by a cult of personality and unchecked by the rule of law.