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Tuesday, 19 January 2016 00:00

Key Attraction to Trump Is His Authoritarianism, Study Finds

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aaaaaaaaaaaaaaatrumphandWhen authoritarianism comes to the United States, it may be wearing a pinstripe suit. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

A poll conducted by University of Massachusetts PhD candidate Matthew MacWilliams found that the most frequent reason supporters back Donald Trump is his authoritarianism. In an opinion piece in Politico, MacWilliams describes the methodology and conclusions of his poll:

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.

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.

MacWilliams' findings are consistent with many well-known theories, which hold that a climate of intense fear and discontent is prime ground for appeals to authoritarianism. Add a fear of "terrorism" to a fear of economic decline, and the kindling is created for the rise of an authoritarian leader who offers harsh, iron-fisted solutions to real and ginned-up dismay, agitation and fear.

This summer, writer Rick Salutin speculated in an article in rabble.ca that Trump's ascendancy in the Republican Party (as well as among some independents, and even Democrats) has much in common with the rise of European dictators in the '30s:

[Trump] helps us picture how the anti-democratic, right-wing, personality-driven movements of the 1930s came to power. Those movements are usually characterized as fascist though they were diverse, and the term itself is hellishly hard to define....

He's about his own strength and power, as were those movements. His favorite word is strong; the "guys" he'll recruit to beat back the Chinese and Japanese are "killers," it's an upbeat version of Nietzsche's will to power. He mocks weakness in opponents; his code word for it is "low energy." He'll restore national greatness, which was lost due to "stupid," weak leaders....

It's only when the individual meets a desperate demographic which embraces him that catastrophe erupts.

Catastrophe, however, preceded Trump's arrival on the demagogic stage of the 2016 GOP primaries. First, he has taken advantage of the "terrorism" and desperate refugee blowback from post 9/11 US militarism. These inevitable results of US military devastation in the Middle East have spread panic and inflamed religious bigotry in a significant segment of white Americans. Secondly, Trump has taken advantage of the growing economic inequalities in the United States to blame non-whites for the deteriorating financial condition of many members of the white working class. Thirdly, he has championed white Christian privilege and alleged "virtue"- in both coded and non-coded ways - at a time that the nation is in the midst of demographic transformation. Whites are poised to become a minority population in many states in the coming years, as they already have in California, and the nation is becoming more religiously diverse.

This leads to Trump truculently asserting that he will "restore the American Dream," which is another way of offering reassurances to reclaim white privilege and ratchet up an already bellicose, trigger-happy US empire.

The unchallenged occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed white invaders symbolizes how white-firsters are being catalyzed by Trump, according to an article in the Guardian US on January 18:

The motley crew at the wildlife refuge – mixing anti-Islamic ideologues, armed men from the patriot movement and religious conservatives – mirrors the way that different strands of far-right ideology have found common cause online.

One of the things that has brought them together in recent months is the candidacy of Donald Trump. The advocacy for his candidacy on Twitter includes large swathes of the far right.

Trump is the United States' version of a caudillo. He's the billionaire reality TV show candidate who knows how to dispense sensationalistic tweets and sound bites every news cycle that are irresistible to the corporate media, which depend upon a large audience share to increase advertising dollars. Trump can get away with statements made with a reckless disregard for the truth, because he is not running on a platform of informed policy. His appeal is based on selling his singular, patriarchal self-proclaimed omnipotence.

Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, among other authoritarians, didn't wear pinstripe suits. They, however - particularly Hitler - knew the power of spectacle and incendiary propaganda. Their strategy as tyrants was to appeal to emotion, not reason.

MacWilliams - unlike many in the US who view Trump as a blustering, bombastic carnival barker - considers the New York billionaire's climb to the top of the GOP field ominous. MacWilliams warns that those who dismiss Trump as a vulgar, cartoonish candidate do so at peril to the nation:

Take activated authoritarians from across the partisan spectrum and the growing cadre of threatened non-authoritarians, then add them to the base of Republican general election voters, and the potential electoral path to a Trump presidency becomes clearer.

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.

It can happen here.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.