A Trump Presidency Can Happen, and Here’s Why

A groundswell of authoritarianism could make President Trump a reality.

Posted Jan 22, 2016

Pundits have been discussing  "typical profiles" of Trump supporters. Terms like blue collar, male, lower income, lower educated, and older have been offered up for our consideration.  But statistical results tell a different story.

A recent article in Politico points to two traits that best predict whether you are a Trump supporter: Authoritarianism, and fear of terrorism. Matthew MacWilliams found that Trump’s bump in the polls is connected to support from “Americans with authoritarian inclinations.”   But what is authoritarianism? Adorno et al. (1950) offered an explanation for how the masses of Germany blindly submitted themselves to the Nazi authoritarian regime. Adorno posited that authoritarianism manifests in a willingness to submit to social authority, as well as the need to subject “weaker” others to one’s own authority. Correlates of authoritarianism include attributions of favorable characteristics to one’s own person or group, and ascribing unfavorable characteristics to “weaker” others. In short, authoritarian personalities obey, follow strong leaders, and tend to respond very negatively, and aggressively, to outsiders, like immigrants, Muslims, and visible minorities. When they feel threatened, persons inclined to authoritarianism support any policy that they think will help keep them “safe”.  You know, build a wall, ban Muslims, establish a database to track Muslim American citizens, which is totally unconstitutional. That kind of stuff.

But hold on, you say. Aren't authoritarian attitudes and policies the domain of only the hard right?  Not necessarily.  People on the far left and far right can be given to varying degrees of authoritarianism, and MacWilliams stresses that not all authoritarians are Republicans. For example, back in 2008, Democrats or Independents who scored higher on authoritarianism were more likely to support Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama (MacWilliams, 2016; Hetherington & Weller, 2009). This gets into other correlates of authoritarianism, such as militarism (being “hawkish”), and nationalism (“my country is the best in the history of the world”), not solely the domain of the right. Again, if you support a strong military, and believe your country is the best ever, you are more likely to justify use of that military might against persons or countries whose policies or actions work against the national interests of your country. “Carpet bombing” (killing civilians in the effort to kill one’s enemies) and torture become legitimate options to those who score high on authoritarianism and zeal, and score low on critical thinking (Killian, 2007). The trend over the last decade and a half has been authoritarians moving in droves from the Democratic to the Republican parties.  As Democrats continue to support the rights of various groups (e.g., civil rights, gay rights, the rights of Dreamers, equal pay for equal work, etc.), there is less emphasis of one group being naturally stronger, better, or more deserving than other (or Other) groups; hence, the shift of authoritarians further to the right of the political spectrum.

Here’s the danger: A lot more persons from the political middle can join the authoritarian column and end up supporting the Donald.  How? As folks on the hard right continue to fear monger, and fan the flames of prejudice and suspicion, more Americans are expressing fears of imminent terrorist attacks (i.e., they feel threatened).  For instance, MacWilliams reported that 52% of voters who expressed the greatest fear that another terrorist attack will happen in the US in the next year were non-authoritarians. That is, they are susceptible to Trump’s campaign themes, and messaging.  Scary? Yes. Inevitable?  No.  But folks must engage in considerable soul searching, and invest in political organizing, if they want to stop it from happening. We must stop thinking of Trump supporters as a “small, pitiful band” of older, uneducated, white malcontents, and acknowledge that Trump is riding the crest of a burgeoning wave of authoritarianism. Once we wake up to this powerful and prevalent force in the current American scene, we can work to challenge it, and "appeal to our better angels."

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press, and co-editor of Time, Temporality and Violence in International Relations (2016).


Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & R. Nevitt Sanford. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Hetherington, M.J. & Weller, J.D. (2009). Authoritarianism and polarization in American politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Killian, K. D. (2007). The psychology of terror: Relationships among xenophobia, zeal, critical thinking and (in)security in the post 9/11 era. In Kostas A. Fanti (Ed.) Psychological Science: Research, Theory and Future Directions (pp. 91-98). Athens, Greece: ATINER.

MacWilliams, M.  (2016). The one weird traits that predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter. Retrieved January 22, 2016 from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/donald-trump-2016-authori...