Sure To Rise? The rather alarming conclusion of a recent Politico article by Matthew MacWilliams is that Trump’s support among American voters has yet to peak, and may be much larger than the political pundits have so far been willing to admit. His research indicated that “a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.”
JUST OVER A MONTH AGO, the American website, Politico, ran a fascinating article about the supporters of Donald Trump. Matthew MacWilliams, a political communications specialist working his way toward a PhD in Political Science, noted a curious fact about Trump supporters. His research indicated that “a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.”
The “Authoritarian Personality” has been the subject of scholarly interest since the 1930s. The German sociologist, Wilhelm Reich, led the way with his ground-breaking book The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). Reich’s study examined the role of sexual repression in the development of authoritarianism – linking the rigid moral system of the German family with the German people’s dangerous affinity for the Nazi Party worldview.
In the United States, academic refugees from Nazi Germany contributed to a highly influential book, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). At the heart of the book was a psychological profiling tool which its creator, Theodore Adorno, called the “F-Scale” (the “F” stood for “Fascist”).
The F-Scale reflected the experiences that contributed most to the development of an authoritarian personality. The authors took a Freudian view of character formation, arguing that: “Excessively harsh and punitive parenting was posited to cause children to feel immense anger towards their parents; yet fear of parental disapproval or punishment caused people to not directly confront their parents, but rather to identify with and idolize authority figures” (Source: Wikipedia entry on The Authoritarian Personality)
MacWilliams’ article reveals that the voters most likely to support Donald Trump for President are the people who pick the first option in the following four propositions pertaining to child-rearing: “whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.”
The rather alarming conclusion of MacWilliam’s article is that Trump’s support among American voters has yet to peak, and may be much larger than the political pundits have so far been willing to admit:
“So, those who say a Trump presidency ‘can’t happen here’ should check their conventional wisdom at the door. The candidate has confounded conventional expectations this primary season because those expectations are based on an oversimplified caricature of the electorate in general and his supporters in particular. Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity. And the institutions – from the Republican Party to the press – that are supposed to guard against what James Madison called “the infection of violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or are asleep on the job.”
The Politico article raises some interesting questions about the psychological drivers of voter behaviour in New Zealand. How pervasive is the authoritarian personality in New Zealand society? Might its prevalence in any way be inferred from the extraordinary reaction of so many New Zealanders to the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation? Was the extent and vehemence of that reaction an indication – both of the incidence of authoritarian attitudes within the New Zealand population, and their ultimate cause? Are parental violence and repression the defining characteristics of a majority of Kiwi childhoods? And, if they are, does that suggest that a worryingly large number of New Zealanders are likely to score highly on the F-Scale?
We might also ask ourselves whether the following three “attitudinal and behavioural clusters” are readily recognisable in right-wing New Zealand voters?
Authoritarian submission – a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
Authoritarian aggression – a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
Conventionalism – a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one’s society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
The important point to note about authoritarian character traits is that they occur on both sides of the traditional political divide. American sociologists found that, in the United States, authoritarians were among the most vociferous supporters of the prevailing capitalist system. In the Soviet Union, by way of contrast, the authoritarian personality manifested itself in unwavering support for the communist regime. For authoritarians, what the people in charge believe matters much less than the enduring reality of their control.
Donald Trump’s (or, for that matter, John Key’s) bluster and bullying is thus a critical factor in his political success. By signalling that he is in control: that he is bigger and stronger and smarter and more powerful than his political rivals; he convinces his authoritarian followers that he is the only legitimate leader on offer. He will never compromise with, or apologise to, his opponents; nor will be kowtow to the news media; because he knows that the slightest sign of equivocation will immediately call into question his claim to the allegiance of his authoritarian followers.
And if the trajectory of the Trump campaign (and the enduring popularity of John Key’s National-led Government) is anything to go by – it’s those authoritarian followers who win elections.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 24 February 2016.