[Overview] Trump Voters VII – Authoritarianism

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


Now that we’ve seen what Trump voters believe in, and seen that they aren’t much motivated by conservatism, I’ll close by looking at some overarching theories that attempt to tie everything together. Judging by Facebook shares, one of the more popular theories out there is that Trump voters are authoritarians in some sense, that they crave strongman leadership. The first major article on this was a January piece by Matthew MacWilliams in Politico, who found that having an authoritarian personality predicted Trump support:

My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.

A second study from Vox found similar results:

Trump has 42 percent support among Republicans but, according to our survey, a full 52 percent support among very high authoritarians.

Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close. And as Hetherington noted after reviewing our results, the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.

Trump support was much lower among Republicans who scored low on authoritarianism: only 38 percent.

Vox also found that non-authoritarians who nevertheless felt afraid of foreign threats were also more likely to vote for Trump. I’m not sure why the relationship reverses for authoritarians:


Striking findings, especially considering all of the ways that we’ve seen Trump supporters stand out from other Republicans. Are all of those other factors incidental? Is authoritarianism the only thing that really matters? First, here’s what researchers mean by authoritarianism and how they measure it. MacWilliams says:

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.

This personality trait comes to the fore when people feel “threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.” Authoritarianism only becomes obvious when people feel frightened, otherwise it’s “latent”.

How is this measured? Obviously you can’t straightforwardly ask people “Are you an authoritarian?” and expect to get an honest answer. Political scientists have a standard set of indirect questions they ask to measure authoritarianism, based on attitudes towards child rearing:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Giving the second answer marks you as more authoritarian. The theory behind this being that people who value order and hierarchy in one domain will value it in others. These questions have been standard for over two decades now. lot of people are authoritarian according to this measure:

Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare….

Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.

These people aren’t all salivating for a dictator, but (so the theory goes) they are likelier to desire authoritarian leadership when they feel threatened. (So it makes sense that non-authoritarians who are also worried about foreign threats are also more likely to support Trump.)

Now, I think it’s important here to distinguish between authoritarianism the supposed personality trait they’re trying to measure and authoritarianism the attitude towards child rearing that is hopefully correlated with the personality trait. So what else is this measure correlated with, beyond support for Trump? A lot of things, many of them similar to characteristics of Trump voters we’ve already discussed:


This all sounds, to be honest, suspicious. How much can a few questions about child rearing tell us? How much use is a test that finds 44% of people to be authoritarian? There are, I think, good reasons for skepticism. For instance, this test of authoritarianism may only work in whites:

Using a scale of child rearing preferences, scholars find that African Americans are far more authoritarian than Whites. We argue that this racial gap in authoritarianism is largely a measurement artifact. The child rearing scale now used to measure authoritarianism is cross-racially invalid because it draws heavily on a metaphor about hierarchy. Akin to someone who favors enforcing conformity in a child, the authoritarian is thought to be inclined toward enforcing conformity in social subordinates. In both cases, one’s perspective is drawn from a position of relative power. We believe this metaphor is effective among members of a majority racial group because individual dominance at home meshes with group dominance in society. For members of a racial minority, we believe this metaphor breaks down. Using multi-group confirmatory factor analysis, we establish that Blacks and Whites construe the child rearing items differently. Consequently, authoritarianism correlates highly with the things it should for Whites, but rarely so for Blacks.

I believe that in both polls only whites were queried, so this isn’t a direct mark against them. The problem is that the test’s validity is culturally contingent, and the test could be invalid for reasons other than race:

After all, the new index measures approval for some old-fashioned ideas about raising children. These ideas were once widespread, but have become more characteristic of the working class, especially in the South. To be “authoritarian”, in other other words, means little more than endorsing the folk wisdom of a class and place that many academics find alien.

You might also ask how “real” these values are. People often respond to surveys by giving what they regard as the appropriate answer, rather than the one that most accurately reflects their behavior. This “social desirability bias” helps explain why people report voting and going to church more often than they actually do them.

So people who express authoritarian attitudes may not be more authoritarian in practice than anyone else (they may even endorse authoritarian values precisely because their lives are disordered).

Might these tests be picking up cultural variation instead of psychological differences? Maybe at least in part. In fact, researchers writing at the Washington Post polled the same questions and found that, while Trump voters were more authoritarian than the average American, they weren’t even the most authoritarian-scoring group, more religious Cruz voters were:

In fact, they score slightly lower on these scales than Cruz’s voters. Why? Partly, this is because scales measuring child-rearing correlate very highly with fundamentalist Christian beliefs. By these measures, most Republicans look like “authoritarians” because so many are conservative Christians who advocate strict child-rearing practices. This is also why Bernie Sanders’s supporters are so much less authoritarian than Hillary Clinton’s — “Berners” are much less religious than other Democrats….

Granted, we don’t have a lot of other measures of authoritarianism, such as an attraction to strong leaders or intolerance of ambiguity. It may be that Trump’s supporters are more swayed by these traits than other Republicans.


According to Quinnipiac:

Agreement with the statement, “What we need is a leader who is willing to say or do anything to solve America’s problems” is 53 percent among all voters, 68 percent among all Republicans and 39 percent among Democrats. Trump backers agreement is highest with 84 percent….

There is a lower level of agreement, 64 percent, with the statement, “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change.” Agreement is 71 percent among all Republicans and 58 percent among Democrats. Agreement is highest among Trump supporters with 83 percent.

Among all American voters, 56 percent agree with the statement, “Leaders don’t worry about what other people say; they follow their own path.” Agreement is 65 percent among all Republicans, 46 percent among Democrats and 74 percent of Trump voters agree, the highest of any candidate.

Additionally, 96% of Trump voters believe that “America needs a powerful political leader that will save us from the problems we face”, versus 80% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats. Of course, that might be partly due to Trump voters being the most dissatisfied.

Forty-three percent of registered voters blame both sides, while 29 percent of voters think it’s the protesters who are mostly to blame for these incidents and 23 percent mostly blame Donald Trump’s supporters.

Fifty percent of Republican primary voters, and eight in 10 Trump supporters, approve of how Trump is handling the violence. By contrast, among voters overall two in three disapprove of how Donald Trump is handling these incidents.

Independent voters are more similar to Democrats. 81% of Democrats and 68% of independents disapprove of his handling of the violence. So there’s not much evidence that the incidents had a major negative impact among those who weren’t already opposed to Trump. Some of this is just a barometer for whether you approved of him already. However, hearing Trump’s actual words on the violence makes him much less popular:

Take the following statement Trump made in Iowa on the day of the caucuses: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

Just 16 percent of voters viewed Trump more favorably after reading that statement. But a whopping 61 percent said it made them view him less favorably, including 45 percent of Republicans.

That pattern held across a range of similar statements, including:

  • “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.”
  • “It was really amazing to watch,” in reference to seeing his supporters “taking out” a protester.


FiveThirtyEight took a interesting approach to test how tolerant supporters of a given candidate are towards groups they dislike. First they asked supporters of each candidate which group they liked least:

lewis-tolerance-3 (Source)

They then asked respondents if members of their least-liked group “should be banned from running for the U.S. Congress; should not be allowed to teach in public schools; should be outlawed; should be allowed to make a speech in this city; should have their phones tapped by the government; [or] should be allowed to hold public rallies here”. They found that “Trump supporters would grant about 40 percent of the rights asked about to the groups they dislike.” However, supporters of other candidates were statistically indistinguishable from those of Trump, including the Democrats, except for those of Kasich, who were a bit more tolerant. According to this at least, Trump voters are as likely to wish to curtail rights as anyone else.

There isn’t much polling on how Trump supporters view torture, but “82 percent of Republicans said torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified, compared with 53 percent of Democrats.”

Quinnipiac University released a poll testing the impact of associating a policy with Trump. One of the topics was torture. Some people were asked if they agreed with a plan “To broaden laws regarding the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists.” 71% of Trump supporters somewhat agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 24% of non-Trump supporters (including Democrats). Another group was asked “Trump would like to broaden laws regarding the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Is this something with which you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree?” When the policy was linked to Trump, 76% of Trump supporters agreed, versus 19% of non-Trump supporters.


The evidence that Trump voters have authoritarian personalities is weak, in my estimation. I’m not a statistician and I haven’t gone deep into the numbers, so please take my analysis with a grain of salt. But there are too many competing hypotheses and possibilities out there to endorse any of them with much certainty. But even limiting the analysis to more typical polling questions, one can find that Trump voters are more likely to support torture, more likely to approve of how Trump has handled violence at his rallies, and more likely to desire a strong leader. Whether these things do or do not indicate authoritarianism I leave to the reader.

Next: Are Trump voters best thought of as populists? And conclusions.

(Source for header image)

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