Throughout and after the 2016 presidential campaign, political observers and scholars have debated theimportance of “authoritarianism” in affecting whether Americans supported Donald Trump in both the Republican primary and the general election.
But a single-minded focus on Trump is limiting in a crucial respect: Any impact of authoritarianism on American elections goes well beyond Trump. The central story is how much more aligned authoritarianism has become with both partisanship and political ideology. This may have helped Trump win, but it was not solely a consequence of his campaign.
What is authoritarianism?
This term has been in use in scholarly research for over 50 years. That research has argued that authoritarianism is an important influence on political behavior. As currently defined, authoritarianism refers to how much people prefer conformity to authorities and norms within the groups with which they identity. Authoritarianism does not mean that people want to live in a totalitarian state.
But at the same time, people with a stronger predisposition toward authoritarianism are less likely to tolerate those who violate the norms or challenge the authorities they believe are important. Thus, research in political psychology has found that measures of authoritarianism are correlated with racial and ethnic prejudice and heightened nationalism — as well as support for candidates who emphasize these themes. The apparent impact of authoritarianism is stronger when people feel that the social order is threatened or undergoing rapid change.
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