Childrearing Beliefs Were Best Predictor of Trump Support
A poll with four weird questions helps explain Trump’s surprising victory.
Posted Feb 01, 2017
Much has been written about Donald Trump’s narcissism. According to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual (DSM-IV and V), a person suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder if he or she regularly exhibits most of the following characteristics:
(1) has exaggerated sense of self-importance;
(3) believes he is "special;"
(4) requires excessive admiration;
(5) has a sense of entitlement;
(6) selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends;
(7) lacks empathy;
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him;
(9) shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes.
Other descriptions of narcissism include excessive concern with material wealth and especially the show of wealth; aggressive responses to criticism; denigration of those who are weaker, lower in status, or different; belief that the rules and norms that apply to others don’t apply to them; disregard for or rejection of facts that don’t support their inflated self-image; and (for men) a tendency to surround oneself with beautiful women for purposes of showing off one’s status.
It’s impossible to watch Trump, or read what people who know him have written about him, or even read his own descriptions of himself and his life, without concluding that he is an extreme narcissist. I suppose a number of past presidents were narcissists also, but, at least in my lifetime, none were so crassly so. In fact, if you were to create a cartoon of a narcissist, it would be Donald Trump. Trump’s narcissism is so extreme that if it were a work of fiction nobody would see it as realistic. Some people, when they saw Trump campaign, thought it was just a show. But it wasn’t. That’s the real Donald, unless you assume that all of Donald is a show and always has been and there is no real Donald. But always being a show is part of extreme narcissism. Clinical psychologist George Simon noted (here) that the behavior of Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example [of narcissism]. Otherwise I would have to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
This is the person we have elected to be our president. Yes, I know, it was a minority of voters who voted for him; but it was enough, in the right places. How did this happen? While much has been written about the personality of Donald Trump, little has been written about the personalities of those who voted for him. I was curious, so I did a little digging to see what I could find.
Matthew MacWilliams’s Pre-Primary Poll with Four Weird Questions
What I found was a study conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. In late December, 2015, before any of the primary elections or caucuses had been held but after it was clear who the candidates were, MacWilliams (here) conducted a nationwide poll of 1,800 registered voters. He asked many of the usual questions of political polls—about gender, age, race, religiosity, party affiliation, and whom they would vote for. But he also asked something seemingly weird for a political poll.
He asked , in four questions, about the respondents’ beliefs concerning childrearing. In each of these questions he asked them to choose which of two traits was more important for a child to have. Specifically, he asked whether it is more important to raise a child to be (1) respectful or independent; (2) obedient or self-reliant; (3) well-behaved or considerate; and (4) well-mannered or curious. It turned out that these questions were, for Republicans, by far the best predictors of who planned to vote for Trump—better than gender, age, race, income, religiosity, or anything else that was asked.
There was method in MacWilliams’s seeming madness of asking questions about childrearing in a political poll. Answers to these questions had been shown in previous research to be an excellent index of an authoritarian outlook on life. People who choose the first in each of the adjective pairs (respectful, obedient, well-behaved, well-mannered) have been shown to be generally high in authoritarianism and people who choose the second (independent, self-reliant, considerate, curious) have been shown to be generally low in that trait.
People with an authoritarian mindset believe, first and foremost, in obedience to authority. So, of course, obedience is high on their list of ideal traits for a child; but obedience is also high on their list of ideal traits for people in general. Leaders, especially strong, confident leaders, are to be followed. Authoritarians also tend toward simplistic ways of thinking; things are black or white, right or wrong. If something is right for one person, it should be right for everyone and everyone should see it as right. They don’t tolerate ambiguity and have little taste for subtlety or dissenting opinions. To an authoritarian, the way to solve problems is to find a powerful, confident leader—a sort of superhero who claims in unambiguous language that he can solve your problems—and then follow that person.
MacWilliams suspected, from the outset, that Trump would find greatest support among authoritarian voters. Trump’s projection of supreme confidence, his consistent claims to be smarter and better in all ways than anyone else, his bullying of opponents, his refusal to admit error or apologize even when proven wrong, and his simplistic proposed solutions to complex national and world problems would seem almost ideally designed to appeal to the authoritarian mindset. MacWilliams used the childrearing measure of authoritarianism partly because previous research showed it to be a highly valid measure and partly because these questions, unlike other ways of assessing authoritarianism, did not overlap with issues in the campaign. None of the candidates were talking about childrearing beliefs, so this measure was uncontaminated by differences in the candidates’ platforms.
Here are some of the numbers that came out of the study. Of those Republican voters who scored highest on authoritarianism (answered all four questions in the authoritarian direction), 47% said they would vote for Trump. That’s an extraordinarily high percentage when you consider that, at that time, there were four other highly viable candidates in the Republican race (Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and Bush). The next highest vote getter from the highly authoritarian group was Cruz, with 17%. Among Republican voters who were lowest in authoritarianism (answered all questions in the non-authoritarian direction), only 18% preferred Trump. In other words, those Republicans highest in authoritarianism were more than two and a half times as likely to prefer Trump as were those lowest in authoritarianism.
The study also revealed that registered Democrats were less authoritarian overall than registered Republicans, and, for Democrats, there was no significant relationship between authoritarianism and preferred Democratic candidate.
Keep in mind that this poll was conducted before the primaries. I imagine that in the general election, after the candidates were pared down essentially to Trump vs. Clinton, quite a few non-authoritarians joined authoritarians in voting for Trump. They may have voted for Trump, despite his narcissism and bullying, because they believed in his policy proposals more than they believed in Clinton’s, or because they didn’t like Clinton and knew less about Trump. But yet, it seems most likely that those of an authoritarian mindset would have continued to provide Trump’s primary base—the ones who would show up at his rallies and feed his ego, cheer his words no matter what he said, and keep him in the media limelight.
It’s interesting to note that, way back in mid-January, 2016, when most political pundits were predicting that Trump would begin to lose as time went on and the competition narrowed to fewer candidates, MacWilliams predicted the opposite. His research led him to believe that there was a large reservoir of people out there with an authoritarian mindset who would gravitate toward Trump over time, including many Independents and registered Democrats. He wrote, presciently (here): “It is time for those who would appeal to our better angels to take his insurgency seriously and stop dismissing his supporters as a small band of the dispossessed. Trump support is firmly rooted in American authoritarianism and, once awakened, it is a force to be reckoned with.”
Would Mode of Education Affect Support for Trump?
Our conventional schools were designed at a time when pretty much everyone had an authoritarian mindset, at least regarding childrearing (see my blog post on the origin of schools here). Still today, despite more liberal attitudes among many teachers and school personnel, schools, by design, enforce an authoritarian mode of teaching. The primary requirement for students in our conventional schools is obedience. It’s almost impossible to fail in school if you do what you are told to do; it’s almost impossible to pass if you consistently choose not to do what you are told to do. And for the most part, you must obey unquestioningly. Children who continuously question the assignments, or the teachers’ judgments, or the textbooks’ or teachers’ answers to questions, are in trouble. The great majority of children learn not to question.
So, what about those children involved in Self-Directed Education rather than in conventional schooling—that is, unschoolers and people attending Sudbury model schools, or Agile Learning Centers, or other democratic schools where students are in charge of their own education? Would people educated in this way be less likely than others to become authoritarians, who would be attracted to a Donald Trump as their leader? I don’t know for sure, as no poll has been done, but my bet is that the percentage of Trump supporters among those people is far less than in the population as a whole. I think a few might have supported Trump in the general election if only because they believed that his educational policy (if it were ever articulated) might be more in the direction of school choice than was that of his opponent. However, I doubt that many would have been drawn to him because of his “strong, always-right leader” narcissism. My studies of grown unschoolers and of Sudbury Valley graduates suggest to me that the vast majority of them are anything but authoritarians.
Many years ago, when the Sudbury Valley School (one of the first fully democratic schools) was still young, Daniel Greenberg, who was one of the founders of the school, was asked whether or not such a school could ever produce a Hitler as a graduate. In a written response (which I don’t have before me, so I might not be completely accurate), Greenberg said it seemed possible that a Hitler could graduate from such a school, but such a school would never produce a sizeable group of people who would vote for or follow a Hitler. It was, after all, not Hitler but those who voted for him and enthusiastically followed him that made Nazi Germany.
I am not equating Trump with Hitler. I don’t think Trump has anything like the grand plans or scheming ability of a Hitler; but I do think there is a parallel here. It’s interesting to note that the whole concept of an authoritarian mindset was developed by social scientists after World War II in an attempt to understand how Nazi Germany was possible. Their work suggested that the authoritarian mindset was in part a product of the rigid German schools, with their nationalistic curriculum, and in part the result of the severe economic depression in Germany and the special suffering of German people after their defeat in World War I. The authoritarians thus produced were ready to embrace the confident superhero who promised, in simple terms, to solve all their problems, to blame the “other” (especially Jews, in this case) for their misery, and to follow the leader who seemed to know just who the enemies were and would attack those enemies aggressively.
Well, I’m sure that some people, including some of my friends, are going to see this post as overly political and will criticize me for it. I’m braced. I’m putting it out there, however, as something to think about.
But now, what do you think about MacWilliams’s research findings and the ideas I’m discussing here? This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. Please put your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. I read all comments and try to respond to questions if I think I have something worth saying beyond what others have said in their responses. By putting your thoughts and questions here you will share them with other readers, not just me. I generally don’t respond to private emails that derive from blog posts.
One thing you will have noticed, if you have read past essays in this blog, is that people who comment here are consistently respectful and courteous of one another, even when they strongly disagree. I appreciate that!