By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The current political campaign season is not just a source of entertainment or concern (depending on your level of seriousness about it); it is also a source of education on persuasion. One important new lesson comes from political consultant and public opinion researcher Mathew MacWilliams in a current essay in Politico. I will usually avoid articles with a title beginning with “One Weird Trick" or "Trait…”, but this one, "One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You're a Trump Supporter," piqued my interest. While many Americans might dismiss the charismatic billionaire's support as coming from an unsophisticated and possibly racist rabble, it turns out that statistically, it isn't education, race, ideology, religiosity, or income-level that predicts support for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Instead, based on MacWilliams' national poll of 1,800 registered voters this past December, there were only two statistically significant predictors of Trump support. One was a fear of terrorism, and the other -- by far the more significant contributor -- is authoritarianism. That word "authoritarianism" has a political connotation, with those on the right negatively associating it with socialism or communism, while those on the left negatively associate it with facism. But the term doesn't just apply to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Kim Jong-un. In this context, it is a psychological trait, albeit one that can carry the political implication of helping people like those listed leaders gain or keep support. As MacWilliams explains, "Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened." Based on his analysis of the survey, that personality dimension is the single best explanation for Trump's support.
That isn't to say that all Trump supporters, much less all Republicans, are high in authoritarianism: they aren't. At the same time, the patterns are clear. Among those surveyed, MacWilliams found that 49 percent of likely Republican primary voters scored in the top quartile of authoritarians (which is more than twice the ratio of Democratic voters). For those voters, Trump is the only candidate for whom the degree of authoritarianism is a significant predictor of support. So one scenario leading to a President Trump might involve the candidate locking in not only the 49 percent of Republicans, but also the 39 percent of independents, and possibly the 17 percent of Democrats who are also high authoritarians. That, aided by some nonauthoritarians who simply fear terrorism (and respond by seeking out the most brash and bellicose personality in the race), could conceivably equal a majority. Now, before anyone gets too excited or too depressed about that scenario, it remains true that Trump is still America's least-popular candidate. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage and the plurality-lead in a crowded Republican field, Nate Silver explains that Trump's unfavorability rating -- 58 percent across the boards -- remains far higher than anyone else's, and it would take a dramatic change to the playing field for Trump to be electable in a general election. Still, the authoritarian angle provides a way of understanding the Trump phenomena. That understanding means not being dismissive of supporters, but instead understanding a bit more about the personality dynamic that Trump appeals to. This post takes a brief look at the authoritarian personality as well as its implications to litigation.