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Back in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both shot and assassinated within a two-month period. This horrific situation led me later to write a pro-gun-control piece detailing the available evidence for the New York Times Magazine (Pettigrew, 1970). 

        Soon I was inundated with hostile mail from angry pro-gun enthusiasts.  Almost all of the letters were from males, many were profane and a few were personally threatening.  About a third of the letters were almost identical; this suggests that some organization, such as the National Rifle Association, had issued a form letter to send out to any opponents.  Most of the non-form mailings had obviously been written by people who had had only modest educational opportunities.

        I responded to each of the letters that contained an address with the same message: “Thank you for taking time out from your busy life to contribute valuable data to my ongoing study of hate mail.”

        Now, a half-century later, a comparable situation has arisen. I published an analysis of Trump voters in an internet journal (Pettigrew, 2017). The article, "Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters" was published and soon the negative e-mails started to arrive – less this time but generally even more hostile and profane. There were more female critics this time, and the educational level of the writers seemed somewhat higher than 50 years earlier. Yet one message contained only two words – “Communist ass----.” A few were almost apologetic for having voted for Trump: “My vote for Trump was only to avoid having another Clinton president.”

        My analysis stressed four characteristics of many Trump voters: (1) high authoritarian, (2) social dominance and (3) outgroup prejudice scores together with (4) restricted contact with minorities and (5) a strong sense of economic relative deprivation (but not absolute deprivation as the media have wrongly emphasized).  Incidentally, this last factor – relative economic deprivation – is rather sympathetic to many Trump voters,

        I would have thought in advance that my critics would have especially resented the findings on high outgroup prejudice. But almost none have. Instead many seem especially incensed about the authoritarianism results. I can only speculate why.  They do not know the social psychological theory, although it is briefly explained in my article.  Rather I suspect the term is associated in their thinking with authoritarian rulers, especially Adolf Hitler. Indeed, in another context, Hitler is mentioned in the article.

        Unfortunately, I never conducted that promised study of hate mail. But someone should. And when social psychologists publish on the internet articles touching on controversial subjects, they should be braced for the hostile reaction sure to follow. They should look upon these responses as data, as an opportunity to study how those who reject social scientific research think. We need to learn this if the discipline is to be helpful in the needed effort to help bring the nation’s two hostile political divides back to a reasonable rapprochement.

Thomas F. Pettigrew

University of California, Santa Cruz

References

Pettigrew, T. F. (1970). Our society is violent not by nature but by structure. New York Times Magazine, April 28th, 112-113.

Pettigrew, T. F. (2017). Social psychological perspective on Trump supporters. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 5(1),107-116.

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