Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?

By Eric Oliver (professor of political science at the University of Chicago) and  Wendy Rahn (professor of political science at the University of Minnesota)

I have commented recently on some pseudo-scientific research that claimed that Trump supporters are "authoritarian". The research relied on a measure of authoritarianism mostly attributed to Karen Stenner. I think I showed satisfactorily that the research concerned was absolute rubbish on several grounds -- but it has nonetheless got some press.

I am pleased to say therefore that I am not the only one to see that research as flawed. The methodologically more cautious research below comes to very different conclusions. Using a "Populism" questionnaire, they show that Trump supporters are the OPPOSITE of what the previous writers claim. Far from being pro-authority, they are ANTI-authority. They are incipient libertarians.

I pointed out in my previous comments that this could happen. The previous researchers used "forced choice" questions in their research and I have previously shown that doing that can lead to clearly wrong results -- results that are opposite to what more straightforward research reveals. So that has now been confirmed as applicable in Trump research.

Perhaps because they are political scientists, not psychologists, the latest researchers accept at face value the Stenner scale of alleged authoritarianism and use it in addition to their own "Populism" scale. But they miss one important point: The alleged scale of authoritarianism by Stenner probably isn't. For a start, its internal reliability is disastrously low. Where a coefficient alpha of .70 is normally required in a research instrument, the Stenner scale has shown alphas of less than .30. In normal psychometric practice, that indicates that a scale does not measure ANYTHING.

I published long ago a perfectly straightforward scale of attitude to authority that WAS internally consistent and valid so there is no good reason to rely on the badly flawed Stenner insrument. And there is also of course the Rigby & Rump (1979) instrument.

The Stenner scale is an inventory of child-rearing attitudes.  Whether such attitudes offer any substantial prediction of pro-authority attitudes is unknown.  I have been able to find no such evidence.  Leftists (Adorno, Lakoff etc.) have been asserting since the 1940s that certain child-rearing practices lead to authoritarianism but the evidence has not been kind to that claim. For instance:

1). Rigby & Rump (1981) found that respect for one's parents generalized to respect for other authorities only in early adolescence.  By late adolescence, the relationship had vanished entirely.  Since it is a central claim of both Lakoff and Adorno et al (1950) that a  generally pro-authority attitude is the outcome of parents insisting on respect for their own authority via  heavy discipline, this seems rather an important disconfirmatory finding, does it not?

2).  Elms & Milgram (1966.  See their "Results" section) found that it was rebellious rather than submissive children who came from strict parenting;

3). Baumrind (1983) found that children who had experienced firm parental control developed with better competencies than did children who had experienced less parental control;

4). Di Maria & Di Nuovo (1986) found that authoritative training and parental behaviour had very little influence in determining the dogmatic attitudes of children;

5).  Braungart & Braungart (1979) found that attitudes were most regimented in far-Left political groups;

6). Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen (1980) found that it was Leftists rather than conservatives who reported more conflict with their parents

7). Sidanius, Ekehammar & Brewer (1986) found that racism was unrelated to type of upbringing.

8).  Johnson, Hogan, Londerman, Callens and Rogolsky (1981), in a study of college students, found that ratings of "father" and "mother" loaded on a factor different from that loading "police" and "government".

9).  Lapsley, Harwell, Olson, Flannery and Quintana (1984) reported some correlation between ratings of "father" and ratings of "police" and "government" but no prediction at all from ratings of "mother".
10). Rigby et al (1987) were in the Lakoff camp in that they wanted to believe that attitude to authority generalized from parents to the world at large but from their Table 5 we can calculate that the average correlation between rebellion/submission to parents and attitudes to the Police and the law was less than .20.  That is negligible.

11). The twin studies  (Martin & Jardine, 1986; Eaves, Martin, Heath, Schieken, Silberg &  Corey, 1977; Eaves,  Martin,  Meyer & Corey, 1999; Bouchard, Segal,  Tellegen,  McGue, Keyes,  &  Krueger, 2003), show that the attitudes and personality of children are formed almost entirely by genetics, not by their childhood treatment.  Your Left/Right orientation is strongly genetically determined but little influenced  by your family environment.  The most striking of these findings is  the one by Eaves et al (1999)  showing that conservatism/Leftism is even more strongly genetically inherited than how tall you are.  But hard science like that will no doubt be totally lost on Leftists

12). Ray (1983) points out that the most widely used measure of authoritarian attitudes is just as prone  to generating high scores among Leftist voters as Rightist voters.

13).  Ray & Lovejoy (1990) and Lindgren (2003) have reported survey results showing that there is no such thing as a generalized attitude to authority anyway.  Conservatives might respect some authoritative institutions (such as the Army) but just try asking most U.S. conservatives at the moment what they think of the U.S. Supreme Court!

14). Ray & Najman (1987) showed in a general population survey that there was no overall relationhip between psychological disturbance and political orientation.

15. Krout (1937) showed that young Leftists saw their parents -- including mothers --as not favouring them and as having often nagged and ridiculed them.  And in consequence they did not want to be like their parents and seemed to have had very unhappy childhoods in general.

16. Peterson (1990) also found that it is conservatives who report the happiest childhoods.

Detailed citations for the above references are given here

So I would be most surprised if the childrearing attitude questions used in the Trump research did in fact have much to do with attitude to authority.

If the questions concerned tell us anything, they would appear to index old-fashioned values so the high scores on "authoritarianism" among Cruz supporters probably signify at most that Cruz supporters have more old-fashioned views about child-rearing. That could be due in part to the Hispanic element in support for Cruz.  Some polls have shown him getting around a third of the Latino vote

Rigby, K. & Rump, E.E. (1979) The generality of attitude to authority Human Relations 32, 469-487.

Watch out, the authoritarians are coming!

That’s been the alarm, after recent reports that scoring high in authoritarianism was the strongest predictor that someone would support Donald Trump. “Authoritarian” has some strongly negative connotations. So it’s no wonder that anti-Trump pundits from Nicholas Frankovich to David Brooks have been quick to repeat this finding. What better way to equate Trump with Hitler?

But in our research, we find no evidence that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than those who like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Instead, Trump’s supporters are distinctive in another way: They are true populists.

What’s the difference between authoritarians and populists?

Authoritarianism and populism are easy to conflate, but they actually refer to very distinct tendencies.

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

Of course, authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism. But they do have profoundly different perceptions of authority. Populists see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds. Authoritarians see themselves as aligned with those in charge. This difference sets the candidates’ supporters apart.

This is evident in a national online survey of 1,044 adult citizens we conducted in the Friday through Thursday spanning Super Tuesday. For this analysis, we utilize four scales.

* Authoritarianism. As others have, we gauge this with a battery of items measuring preferences on child-rearing (such as whether it is better for children to have independence or respect for elders, curiosity or good manners, obedience or self-reliance).

* Anti-elitism. What separates populists from authoritarians is their alienation from political elites. We measure this with statements like “It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties,” “Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”

* Mistrust of experts. Populists often fear not just political elites and billionaires, but anyone who claims expertise. We measure this with questions like “I’d rather put my trust in the wisdom of ordinary people than the opinions of experts and intellectuals” or “Ordinary people are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what’s true and what’s not.”

* American identity. Populists identify themselves as part of “the people,” a noble group that needs protecting. We measure this with questions like “I consider myself to be different than ordinary Americans” or “How important is being an American to your sense of self?”

In the figure, we depict the average factor scores for each of these scales by the candidate  respondents chose. The scales are constructed to be similar in range with the average score set to zero.

Two big points immediately leap out.

1. Trump voters are no more authoritarian than supporters of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

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.

2. What really differentiates Trump’s voters from the other Republicans is the populism.

Trump voters are the only ones to score consistently high on all three populist dimensions. Cruz and Rubio’s supporters, for example, don’t express high feelings of anti-elitism. In fact, on this scale, they are strongly anti-populist, identifying with authority rather than rejecting it.

Trump supporters share anti-elitism with only one other group: Sanders’s voters.

But where Trump is a populist, we would argue that Sanders is not. Despite the fact that Sanders often gets called a populist, his voters do not conform to the populist stereotype. They generally trust experts and do not identify strongly as Americans. A better way to describe them would be cosmopolitan socialists. They see the system as corrupted by economic elites. But they don’t trust ordinary Americans and show only light attachment to Americanism as an identity.

What does all this mean?

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.

But by the most commonly accepted measures, the voters who look most authoritarian are not those following Trump but those following Cruz. Not only do they score highest on the authoritarian scales, they also have that combination of populist elements correlated most strongly with authoritarianism. They are mistrustful of intellectuals and experts, highly nationalistic, yet strongly aligned with political and economic elites.

In other words, if the establishment is really afraid of authoritarianism, they should worry more about Cruz than Trump.


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