Results from four scientific surveys indicate that supporters of Donald Trump in 2016 were more likely than supporters of other Republican candidates to exhibit signs of authoritarian aggression and endorse group-based dominance. The research was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“Trump’s success in the early primary season was surprising to many people, and I was interested in understanding his mainstream appeal to potential voters. It was an interesting cultural moment for America, but also an interesting moment for the testing of scientific theory,” said study author Jake Womick of the University of Missouri, Columbia.
“Before starting this research, I had observed a lot of speculation in the news, and in personal conversations, about Trump and authoritarianism. At the time, I was already working on several projects studying the relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and well-being. So, I realized that I was well positioned to empirically address the question of whether Trump held authoritarian appeal.”
“The question of whether or not Trump was especially likely to appeal to voters with authoritarian dispositions could not be answered during the general election, because supporters of Republican candidates generally score higher on right-wing authoritarianism,” Womick said.
“As such, it was important to conduct our research in a way that facilitated comparisons within each political party. So, it was the Trump campaign’s early success that really provided a fruitful opportunity to formally test theoretical relationships between authoritarian personality traits and real-world behavior.”
The study examined two ideological traits: Right Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait that describes the tendency to submit to political authority and be hostile towards out-groups, and Social Dominance Orientation, a measure of a person’s preference for inequality among social groups.
The researchers conducted four studies throughout the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which included a total of 5,255 individuals. They found that submissiveness to authorities, adherence to social norms, and anti-egalitarianism attitudes did not distinguish Trump supporters from supporters of other Republican candidates.
But the researchers found that aggressiveness directed against outgroups and group-based dominance was more common among Trump supporters compared to backers of other Republican candidates.
“Researchers have long been interested in psychological features that predict support for different political candidates. This question has almost always been considered in the context of support for Republican vs. Democratic candidates. And, the research has consistently shown that right-wing authoritarianism is associated with support for Republicans over support for Democrats,” Womick told PsyPost.
“What was interesting about our current research was that we were able to measure variables that predicted support for one Republican candidate over other Republican candidates. In this way, we were able to test whether or not Trump was truly an atypical candidate for President. With regard to general right-wing authoritarianism, and anti-egalitarianism, he was not atypical.”
“Overall right-wing authoritarianism and anti-egalitarianism did not distinguish support for Trump from that for other Republican candidates (including Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Bush). Rather, support for Trump was, in a unique way, associated with authoritarian aggression, and group-based dominance,” Womick explained.
In other words, Trump supporters were more likely to agree with statements such as “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups”, “What our country needs instead of more ‘civil rights’ is a good stiff dose of law and order”, and “Some groups of people must be kept in their place.”
“So, compared to supporters of other Republicans, Trump supporters were more likely to endorse group-based hierarchies, and the use of violent means to maintain them. In many ways, Trump’s campaign was consistent with these themes. While those themes were shocking to some Americans, they were consistent with the values of his supporters,” Womick noted.
The study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“As with any psychological research, there are many important caveats,” Womick explained. “One of the most important things to consider about this research is that we cannot conclude, based on these data, that Trump is an authoritarian. We can only say, with a relatively high level of certainty, that authoritarian aggression, and group-based dominance predicted support for Trump in the 2016 primaries. So, it is important to realize that this research is about Trump supporters, not the President.”
“Another caveat is that this was correlational research, so we cannot really speak to the causal effects of whether or not authoritarian aggression and group-based dominance caused people to support Trump. We only know that they were related to support for him during the Primaries, over other Republican and Democratic candidates.”
“I think the last major caveat I would note is that the models we ran, predicting Trump support from authoritarianism and social dominance orientation only explained a portion of the variance in Trump support,” Womick added. “That means that there are other existing factors that we did not measure, and did not include in our models, that would help explain why people supported Trump over other Republican candidates.”
The study, “Group-Based Dominance and Authoritarian Aggression Predict Support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election“, was authored Jake Womick, Tobias Rothmund, Flavio Azevedo, Laura A. King, and John T. Jost.