Authoritarianism serves as a pathway between watching television and the level of support for Donald Trump, according to new research published in Public Opinion Quarterly. In other words, watching television can indirectly influence support for Trump by shaping or reinforcing authoritarian beliefs and attitudes in individuals.
Many critics have accused Trump of displaying authoritarian tendencies, and research suggests that support for him during the primary campaign was primarily driven by authoritarianism. Polls and surveys have shown that authoritarianism, rather than factors like education, income, or ideology, significantly predicted support for Trump.
The new study was based on cultivation theory, a theoretical framework that suggests heavy television viewing can contribute to the development of an authoritarian mindset. Television dramas often emphasize individual and heroic actions, including violence, to solve problems and protect against perceived threats. Cultivation theory argues that television, even in non-political programming, can subtly shape cultural attitudes and beliefs, potentially creating a climate conducive to the rise of leaders like Trump.
“Earlier media studies had found that overall, regular television viewing contributes to expressing authoritarian attitudes, and political research during the 2016 presidential election suggested that authoritarianism predicted support for Trump,” said study author James Shanahan, a professor at The Media School at Indiana University.
“During that campaign, we put these together and found that heavy (mostly non-political) television exposure predicted support for Trump through the cultivation of authoritarian outlooks. The present study was conducted to see if that earlier finding was a fluke or if it continued to hold four years later, in a very different media and political environment.”
The researchers conducted six surveys from August to November 2020, which included a total of 4,190 individuals, to gather information about respondents’ intended presidential vote, media use, and their responses to questions measuring authoritarianism. The surveys were not an exact replication of the previous study conducted in 2017, but they used similar methods and questions to compare and test the robustness of the original findings.
Vote preference was measured by asking respondents for whom they intended to vote or for whom they reported voting. The researchers analyzed support for Trump over Biden and other options, such as another candidate or being undecided.
Television viewing habits were assessed using a single open-ended question that asked respondents about the average number of hours they watched television each day, including live TV, DVR, on-demand, and streaming on different devices.
To measure authoritarianism, the researchers used a four-item scale called the Authoritarian Child Rearing Values scale. Respondents were presented with pairs of desirable qualities and asked to choose which quality they considered more important for a child to have. The first answer in each pair indicated an emphasis on autonomy, while the second answer reflected more authoritarian values.
In line with the previous study, Shanahan and his colleagues found significant associations between the amount of television viewing and authoritarianism, as well as between authoritarianism and support for Trump.
“The stories of fiction and drama we consume over time are not ‘mere entertainment’ – they help shape our images of the world and our beliefs in consequential ways,” Shanahan explained. “The more time people spend watching TV, the more they tend to hold authoritarian values. This, in turn, increased their support for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections.”
They also found that political ideology and gender moderated the associations. Liberals had a stronger indirect effect than conservatives, with moderates in between, and the indirect effect was stronger for females. However, education, age, and race did not significantly moderate the indirect effect.
While the effect of television does not appear to be decisive, the researchers said it is still an important factor to consider.
“In light of the profound social, political, and media differences between 2016 and 2020, revealing the same relationship between TV viewing, authoritarianism, and Trump support provides evidence that everyday television viewing is a consistent and stable piece of the puzzle regarding election outcomes, which can be particularly critical in the context of close elections,” Shanahan said.
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of their study, as it is based on cross-sectional data. However, cultivation theory assumes that the relationship between exposure and attitudes is not unidirectional. The replication of the pattern reinforces the idea that exposure to television plays a role in shaping political attitudes.
“The use of survey data and cross-sectional designs can help to confirm hypothesized relationships – in a statistical sense,” Shanahan told PsyPost. “However, the causal order among TV viewing, authoritarianism, and Trump support cannot be definitively determined. Still, we did test other causal models and none fit the data as well as the one showing the indirect effect of television viewing on support for Trump by way of the cultivation authoritarianism.”
“Our study provides more evidence of the value of studying the role of overall television viewing and everyday (non-‘political’) cultural stories in the construction and maintenance of political attitudes and behaviors. Despite the rise of social media, we still spend a great deal of time absorbing television’s messages and lessons, and its effects have not gone away.”
The study, “Television, Authoritarianism, and Support for Trump: A Replication“, was authored by Erik Hermann, Michael Morgan, James Shanahan, and Harry Yaojun Yan.