If I asked you what most defines Donald Trump supporters, what would you say? They’re white? They’re poor? They’re uneducated?
You’d be wrong.
In fact, I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.
That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow.
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.
Not all authoritarians are Republicans by any means; in national surveys since 1992, many authoritarians have also self-identified as independents and Democrats. And in the 2008 Democratic primary, the political scientist Marc Hetherington found that authoritarianism mattered more than income, ideology, gender, age and education in predicting whether voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. But Hetherington has also found, based on 14 years of polling, that authoritarians have steadily moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party over time. He hypothesizes that the trend began decades ago, as Democrats embraced civil rights, gay rights, employment protections and other political positions valuing freedom and equality. In my poll results, authoritarianism was not a statistically significant factor in the Democratic primary race, at least not so far, but it does appear to be playing an important role on the Republican side. Indeed, 49 percent of likely Republican primary voters I surveyed score in the top quarter of the authoritarian scale—more than twice as many as Democratic voters.
Political pollsters have missed this key component of Trump’s support because they simply don’t include questions about authoritarianism in their polls. In addition to the typical battery of demographic, horse race, thermometer-scale and policy questions, my poll asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.
Based on these questions, Trump was the only candidate—Republican or Democrat—whose support among authoritarians was statistically significant.
So what does this mean for the election? It doesn’t just help us understand what motivates Trump’s backers—it suggests that his support isn’t capped. In a statistical analysis of the polling results, I found that Trump has already captured 43 percent of Republican primary voters who are strong authoritarians, and 37 percent of Republican authoritarians overall. A majority of Republican authoritarians in my poll also strongly supported Trump’s proposals to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, prohibit Muslims from entering the United States, shutter mosques and establish a nationwide database that track Muslims.
As every verbal bully can tell you, simply slathering your adversary with insult is never enough to drive him publicly, humiliatingly into the ditch. If you’re going to wound, the insults have to contain some truth—often just a seed of truth, enough to nurture injury’s bitter fruit. So in calling Jeb Bush “low energy” again and again and again and again, Donald Trump is not dishing a random taunt at his opponent. The insult works because Bush does look low-energy, perhaps because the rapid loss of 40 pounds has left him looking wan and feeble, like a skinny guy sloshing around in a fat man’s skin.
Besides containing its seed of truth, the low-energy insult sticks because Bush can’t really refute it. What’s he going to do—drop down and give the press corps 50 push-ups? Release his schedule as Florida governor to show he works like a lab rat on amphetamines? Having bored a hole through Bush’s skull with the gibe, Trump soon repurposed it by calling Ben Carson “lower energy than Bush.” Truthwise, this one had more than a seed: Not since man encountered the first three-toed sloth and realized it was actually alive has such an observation been more appropriate. Carson is a human tortoise, a creature with the metabolism of a jar of molasses on a freezing day, an elderly starfish scraping through the sand with a walker. If the United States were attacked with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, it would take Carson a week to walk over to the nuclear football to execute the counterattack codes.
Trump blasted out of the campaign gate, tossing flinging insults at all the candidates in the field, as this piece from late July in the Hill attests. Former George W. Bush? “Didn’t have the IQ [to be president].” Hillary Clinton? “The worst Secretary of State in the history of the United States.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.)? “What a stiff, what a stiff,” and “an idiot.” Rick Perry? “He needs a new pair of glasses to see the crimes committed by illegal immigrants.” In each case, Trump lands his jab to tender spots, points of weakness that even supporters of Trump’s targets recognize, bloodying up what was previously a healing bruise.
Besides containing an element of truth, the classic Trump insult burns so hot because it can’t be easily rebutted without drawing additional attention to the problem. Like scratching at a dug-in chigger, it only makes the wound redden and swell. What’s Graham supposed to do when he’s called a “stiff”? Show off his Fred Astaire moves? Can Carson reclaim his honor by challenging something to a foot race? Perhaps a garden snail?
Like all accomplished bullies, Trump understands that the real target is his opponent’s honor. Obeying the maxim that you haven’t gone far enough until you’ve gone too far, Trump slagged Bush’s wife last July, using Twitter to post a quotation from a tweet that said Bush “has to like Mexican Illegals because of his wife.” Trump deleted the tweet, which implied that Columba Bush was not in the country legally. Bush took personal umbrage over the tweet, which was deleted 24 hours after it was posted. “He’s doing this to inflame and incite and to draw attention,” Bush sputtered in the manner of someone whose honor has been wounded. The point of Trump’s tweet was to lure Bush into defending Columba, his Spanish-speaking wife and the mother of his three children, thereby boxing him in as conflicted over immigration. It was a brilliant bully move.
When discussing the art of the verbal bully, you really can’t spend too much time on honor. The bully undermines his foes by stripping them of whatever esteem, standing and face they may have acquired. When a man’s mother, wife or daughter is disparaged in most cultures, he must defend her honor or risk losing his manliness. This prompted only more Bush sputtering that Trump must apologize to Columba; Trump’s response (“I won’t apologize, I didn’t do anything wrong”) sliced Bush’s cojones right out of his trousers.
Bush could always bully the bully back. In fact, he has tried, but as noted, a taunt must contain a damaging element of truth to offend. Bush is telling the truth when he calls Trump “unhinged,” “Twitter-drunk,” the “chaos candidate” who would be a “chaos president,” and a “jerk,” but the shots arc and fall before they reach the target because Trump is proud of being unhinged, Twitter-drunk, and a jerk. I would advise Bush that to clean Trump’s clock, he must play dirtier, but he comes from a clan far too chivalrous and patrician to name-call effectively. There might be some truth to Trump’s observation that Bush is “dumb as a rock,” especially for telling Trump you can’t “insult your way to the presidency” when that seems to be exactly what he’s doing.
So how do you beat a verbal bully? We’re actually starting to see it happen. Stanley Elkin sketched a strategy in his 1964 short story, “A Poetics for Bullies.” In it, a young bully named Push torments and leads all the kids in the neighborhood until he is undone by a princely newcomer John Williams, whose accent can’t be mocked, whose skin has no blemish, whose intelligence is impervious to insult.
Nobody would ever mistake Ted Cruz for John Williams. No Adonis, he looks like a broken-nosed character actor in a film noir. He even whines when he talks. But inside his own head, Cruz is John Williams. He has been polishing the Cruz act for his entire life, making himself a perfectly smooth, unchanging object upon which no New York bully can get a grip. Although Trump may have bested Cruz on several topics in last night’s presidential debate as they fought toe-to-toe for the first time, the mogul seems unable to get under Cruz’s skin the way he has with Bush, Carson, Rand Paul (ridiculing him for being short, just 5’8”!), and the other candidates.
Like Trump, Cruz commands an alpha male’s ego. When towel-snapped, he does not shriek. When denigrated or teased, he does not frown or wince. He does not have to be perfect because he already thinks he’s perfect, which is just one of the reasons why the rest of Congress despises him.
The best way to beat a trash-talking bully is to convincingly pretend you cannot hear him. Donald Trump, you have met your John Williams.