You know the score about Donald Trump, right? He "is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations," says Ph.D. student Matthew MacWilliams in Politico, who cites the way Trump voters rally around, among things, proposals to ban Muslims and deport illegal immigrants.
"Authoritarians obey," writes MacWilliams, who sampled 1,800 voters back in December. "They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened."
Not so fast, say political scientists Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver, who did their own survey and argue that Trump's followers aren't particularly authoritarian but populist in inclination.
Authoritarianism, as understood by political psychologists, refers to a set of personality traits that seek order, clarity and stability. Authoritarians have little tolerance for deviance. They're highly obedient to strong leaders. They scapegoat outsiders and demand conformity to traditional norms.
Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous "people" against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:
- Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
- Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
- Strong nationalist identity
Rahn and Oliver conclude that Trump voters are less authoritarian than Ted Cruz's followers and about as authoritarian as Marco Rubio's (note: the standard way of testing for authoritarianism is to ask questions about child-rearing).
As interesting (to me, anyway) are the other dimensions Rahn and Oliver scope out. Bernie Sanders' voters are highly anti-elitist but relatively trusting of experts, while Hillary Clinton voters and Ted Cruz share the same relatively tepid embrace of American identity as a big deal.
Rahn and Oliver stress that authoritarian and populist traits can and do overlap, but I think they're onto something when stressing Trump as populist.
Judging from various interviews and snippets with Trumpists, they don't seem particularly motivated by social issues such as gay marriage or abortion. Indeed Trump's kind words for Planned Parenthood, which drove establishment conservatives and the other GOP candidates stark, raving mad, had no effect on his vote totals so far.
No, the Trumpists are pissed at people in power less because nobody should hold power and more because they are incompetent. The lure of The Donald in this reading isn't that he is the reincarnation of Mussolini (i.e., the best at everything he does and worthy of a cult of personality) but that he will hold people accountable and, more important, bring in the "best" people to negotiate this or that trade deal and finish big projects. Think about it: Trump is constantly bragging about who he knows (Carl Icahn, for Christ's sake!) and who they will get results that have otherwise gone begging. He is quite openly a harbinger of chaos and mess, in politics and everything else. He has definitely drawn massive us against the world lines, but he is curiously inclusive. After his Nevada caucuses win, he was absolutely delighted to win the (albeit tiny) Hispanic vote.
Compare that with Ted Cruz's profile as sussed out by Rahn and Oliver. Cruz is more focused on people having the same values that he has—and he plainly believes all "real" Americans share them too. He's hauled out his "New York values" slag multiple times against Trump, and it's hard not to read that as an attempt by the conservative Christian—who supported Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples—to paint The Donald as a moral degenerate. Forget about the multiple marriages and forsaken defense of abortion and general lack of interest in inveighing againt the gay lifestyle, just living in the Big Apple is proof of that, isn't it?
In fact, neither Trump nor his voters seem overly concerned with social or moral norms very much, even as Cruz is quick to inject piety and Judeo-Christian values into most of his stump speeches. After winning in Iowa, for instance, Cruz's opening line in his victory speech was "To God the glory" and elsewhere he's insisted that starting every day praying on bended knee is a prerequisite for the presidency. At the same time, Cruz, who has a multi-Ivy League pedigree and a wife who worked for Goldman Sachs, seems more comfortable with the notions of elites (or, in religious terms, the elect) as long as they earned their position or come from the right populations. You'll never hear a Cruz loving the "poorly educated" the way Trump did after his win in Nevada. In fact, love is not really in Cruz's lexicon. He channels a vengeful god.
It's fascinating, too, to look at the way Sanders' voters shake out. They are the most anti-elitist yet the most trusting of experts, which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a "democratic socialist." He doesn't like groups who are able to amass power but he depends on experts to run all aspects of society, right? (Good luck with that, by the way.)
Understanding Trump as a populist rather than an authoritarian helps explain why he can get away with sloppy, inconsistent thinking. Authoritarians may care about that sort of consistency and attention to established etiquette but populists couldn't give a rat's ass. When Ted Cruz (or National Review, for that matter) attack Trump as weak on immigration because he will let some of the Mexicans he just deported back into the United States, they think they've found his weak spot. He's for…amnesty after all! But The Donald's followers aren't looking for an ironclad, systematic view of the world.
They want someone who empathizes with them, who acknowledges their anger, and will move decisively to change things in clear ways. Rahn and Oliver note that it's Trump's anti-elitism that differentiates him from the other GOP candidates (and also links him to Sanders). Anti-elitists, they say, respond yes to questions such as "The system is stacked against people like me" and "Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful." Trump is drafting off of Republicans' politics of resentment—the media is against us! the universities are against us!—and unlike the Rubios, Cruzes, and Kasichs of the world, he's not pretending that the right elites just haven't been elected yet. He's following the logic to its endpoint, which is that anyone in the system is already inherently part of the problem.
That may not be authoritarian, but it is deeply subversive and where exactly it will end up is far from clear. Alone among the GOP candidates, Trump has talked about being "flexible" when it comes to policy and positions, a stance for which he's taken tons of abuse from his rivals. "I'm changing, I'm changing," Trump said at one debate, while acknowledging a need for increased H1-B visa limits. "We need highly skilled people in this country." That sort of compromising (or pandering?) isn't common to authoritarians but it may actually allow for more discussion on issues than the hyper-partisan, calcified positions emanating from Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and all the GOP candidates too.