Trump and the Dangerous Rise of American Authoritarianism

Saturday, April 02, 2016

There is no shortage of outrageous comments made by Donald Trump. His recent comments about punishing women who have abortions is only the latest in an endless stream of deeply disturbing extremist rhetoric that is frankly alarming coming from a Presidential candidate.

Add to this the fact that Trump’s events have increasingly been marked by mob violence – violence which Trump has actively supported and encouraged, even promising to pay their legal fees – and it’s understandable why so many are asking,

“What is wrong with this country? What has happened to us?”

While we may be appalled at the hateful comments and calls for violence, there is clearly a large group of people that this appeals to. For them, these are not embarrassing slips, rather they appeal to the core values and aspirations of Trump’s base.

So while much media attention has focused on the phenomenon of Trump himself, an equally important question to ask is who his supporters are. How is it that someone as outrageous and dangerously amoral as Trump can garner so much popular support?

This has been a question that has captivated political scientists since the rise of the Third Reich. What causes a people to shift – rapidly and in large numbers – towards extremist political views characterized by fear of minorities and the desire for a strongman leader?

A recently released study of Trump supporters, conducted by PhD student Matthew MacWilliams,  found that one common denominator far surpassed the usual suspects of education, income, gender, age, ideology, and religion. 

The factor most likely to predict support for Trump was a belief in authoritarianism.

To determine this, MacWilliams employed a set of questions, developed by Stanley Feldman in the 1990s, to determine a person's inclination towards authoritarianism, questions on the seemingly innocuous subject of child-rearing:
  1. Which one is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Which one is more important for a child to have: self-reliance or obedience?
  3. Which one is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Which one is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?
Authoritarianism, Feldman notes, is not so much an ideology as it is a personality profile. While its causes are debated, says MacWilliams, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians gravitate towards strongman leaders, and feel threatened by and respond aggressively to outsiders.

In fact, it is this tendency towards punitive action -- a desire to use government power to eliminate threats -- that sets authoritarians and Trump's supporters apart from the establishment GOP.

While specific policies, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, may line up with the rest of the GOP, what sets him apart is how extreme he is willing to be. As Amanda Taub writes in Vox,
"That's why it's a benefit rather than a liability for Trump when he says Mexicans are rapists or speaks gleefully of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets: He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won't let 'political correctness' hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.
This, Feldman explained to me, is 'classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.' "

Again, the issue is not simply the danger of Donald Trump as a leader, but the authoritarian base which he has "activated" (a term used by Karen Stenner in her 2005 work The Authoritarian Dynamic).  The larger issue is the growing constituency of authoritarianism that exists independently of Trump.  As Taub writes, "If Trump loses the election, that will not remove the threats and social changes that trigger the "action side" of authoritarianism. The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.

Authoritarianism goes beyond political or religious affiliation. Not all Republicans are authoritarians, nor are all authoritarians Republican. However, as Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler argue in their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, the GOP's billing of itself as the "traditional values and law and order party" had the effect of directly appealing to authoritarian values. However, rather than representing the establishment orthodoxy of the Republican Party, the rise of authoritarians within the GOP represents a major split between establishment Republicans and authoritarian Republicans, which threatens to tear to party in two.

A similar divide can be seen within Evangelical Christianity, which has likewise seen a rise in authoritarianism gaining influence in its ranks. This has also led to a split within Evangelicalism between authoritarians and those increasingly identifying with the "Evangelical left" and progressive Evangelicalism, which is focused on retaining core values such as compassion, grace, and relationship over what they perceive as an angry and reactionary "defending of the fort."

The critical point here is that it is not a particular religious or political set of values or ideology that is the heart of the problem here, so much as it is a growing movement towards authoritarianism within these groups. It is vital for those who identify with these groups to recognize this, and further to recognize the very real danger that this poses, given authoritarianism's penchant for enforcing its will through the means of coercion and force, at the expense of religious and civil liberties. 

It is not enough for progressive Evangelicals and political liberals or even moderates to speak out. Conservative politicians and religious leaders alike need to recognize the very real danger of authoritarianism, and find the moral courage to speak out against it. We can see the warning signs of the danger of authoritarian movements throughout history. That history teaches us a lesson, if we have the wisdom to listen. We should not be so naive as to think that we are somehow immune, that it "couldn't happen here."

Many conservative politicians have begun to speak out -- although it has been far too few and too timid. Conservative religious leaders -- and in particular conservative Evangelical Christians -- need to likewise find their moral backbone and unreservedly call out the dangers of authoritarianism in its own ranks. They need to call it out for what it is. As much as it may attempt to present itself as righteousness, as moral, it represents the very worst of human nature. It is, quite simply, sin. Conservative religious leaders need to wake up to that.

This is a theme that we see Jesus himself address repeatedly, throughout the Gospels, in his repeated confrontations with the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, it’s imperative to stress that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not about pitting one religion against another. Rather it represents an inner-Jewish dispute between two diametrically opposed understandings of what faithfulness to the same Scriptures looks like.

As a show in Disarming Scripture, this debate has a long tradition within Judaism and can be found throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Jesus takes up one side of this debate, characterized by faithful questioning, and focused on compassion towards those considered outsiders. On the other side there is a way of religion characterized by unquestioning obedience, leading to using religion to justify acts of authoritarian violence.

When I wrote about the dangers of religiously justified violence, calling people to move away from  the hurtful authoritarian tendencies within Evangelicalism back in 2014, I wish I had been writing of something only in the distant past, something that we are now beyond today. But unfortunately, the low-level moral development which characterizes authoritarianism will always be with us, because there will always be immature and morally under-developed people in the world. What we can and must do, however, is learn to call out that moral immaturity for what it is, and help people to grow away from fear and towards thinking socially and empathetically.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus can hear how he warns, over and over again, of how authoritarianism pretends to represent the good, when in fact it promotes the very opposite of what Jesus stood for. "Ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing" Jesus called them, "but you can recognize them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15-16). Those fruits of fear, hate, and violence are plain to see. It's time for conservative religious leaders to recognize this, and heed the sober words of pastor Martin Niemöller, speaking now while they are still able to speak.
When Trump attacked Mexicans, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Mexican;
Then he attacked
Muslims, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Muslim;
Then he attacked the disabled, and I did not speak out - because I was not disabled;
Then he attacked women, and I did not speak out - because I was not a woman;
Then he came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me. 
 Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Wake up America.

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At 9:10 PM, Blogger Owen said...

Well said

At 5:43 AM, Blogger lja_11 said...

HI Derek, I am not a Trump supporter, but I know a couple of people in my circle who are. I do think the results of the poll taken by a student, cannot be taken in such a serious tone. Also, trying to "marry" parenting with political views to me is absurd. I have four grown children, and teaching young children to obey parents in a family is totally different than forcing obedience to a president or King. The relationship is somewhat different, wouldn't you agree?
While I agree Trump has a loose tongue, and at times doesn't seem to know how to gauge his responses to be appropriate and thoughtful, concluding his followers are all for authoritarianism is a bit of a stretch. Seeing Trump as a strong leader, does not mean they want authoritarianism....they just see him as a way of stopping the free-fall. They love that he is not politically correct because of the problem of "thought/speech-policing" that runs rampant through our culture. They forgive his mouthy blunders because of this. Also, from what I can tell, it is not Trump or his supporters who incite violence, it is the progressive left that send in the rabble-rousers to cause trouble. Why don't they call off the dogs?
I believe you find a people who see their country so broken, and their freedoms threatened and eroding at such an alarming rate. Many of the things Trump talks about are real concerns of ordinary people who see a man actually addressing the things they talk about at home. It is borne out of frustration at the lack of backbone and corruption they see in the Republican leadership. The enthusiasm for this man may be misplaced but it is somewhat understandable. If you want to see authoritarianism in action you need to look no further than the current administration. Whether or not Trump would continue down the same road....who knows?

While It is baffling to me that a Christian would endorse Trump over Cruz, (who thankfully at least leans Libertarian), I think comparing the political figures with What Would Jesus Do? Is comparing apples to oranges. Now, if only Ron Paul were running for office....maybe we would see a balance *sigh*.

At 6:23 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The usage of the term "activated" to describe his authoritarian base is very apt.

While I know only a few people who support Trump and those for his "refreshing honesty", many have told me that they'll support him in the presidential election if it comes to it because "he'll do the least damage" - a rationale that baffles me.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

So factoring out those "violent progressive protestors" who were "sent" for no other reason then to make trouble and speed up the "free fall" Trump has clearly shown himself to be a man of peace seeking to avoid violence?

I think he'd be appalled by that characterization.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

This survey is not a lame attempt to discredit someone but has been proven by a number of highly qualified experts in real testing to be amazingly effective in predicting voting patterns. But far more troubling is how subtly deceptive and cunning this movement is in distorting the perceptions of so many who are not even avid supporters. Derek is right about this and those who clearly remember what happened in Germany (my brother-in-law lived through that) see very clearly the exact same patterns repeating that plunged the world into violence and chaos unexpectedly. Those people did not see what was coming and even the U.S. believed Hitler was a great man. Nearly the whole world was duped by his promises and even his achievements as he seduced everyone into a state of hypnotized lethargy until his atrocities were nearly complete. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, just like a previous duck, then it is very dangerous to deny that it is a duck.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

I agree with much of what you said in your post Derek as well as the survey of Trump supporters. I am very glad you said not all conservatives are authoritarian. I am a moderate conservativeand I can agree with left and right on many things. One thing i found quite interesting is that CNN had a report recently showing the Obama adminstration has done more to block and resist Freedom of Information Act requests than any other administration. This was done after President Obama called on the press to be more transparent. Just an interesting observation to note going along with your thoughts on authoritarianism.

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


An important fact, that underlines what you are saying, is that Trump was the only candidate — Republican or Democrat — whose support among authoritarians was statistically significant. In other words, it was not the case that everyone who supported GOP candidates rated high on an authoritarian scale. That was only the case with Trump supporters.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

A very timely and well thought out post, Derek. My thinking is along the same lines and that article about the rise of American authoritarianism explained so much that was so inexplicable to me in regards to Trump's popularity. I am hopeful that the majority of Americans see through Trump or at least can reflect on the past to realize where we've seen this before. The association of authoritarians to conservative evangelical christianity is an apt one. Conbservative Christianity is a MAJOR enabler of this authoritarianism and the media has been pretty quiet about that.

I do hope (and I am optimistic) that the majority of Americans will reject this, but it is not guaranteed. I'm supporting the candidate of my choice (Bernie) financially right now, but it might require a greater sacrifice in the future.


At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think polling shows that the vast majority of Americans are very opposed to Trump. So there's virtually no way he could win in a general election. It's a very passionate small minority.

It certainly does seem to me that fundamentalism as a system (and conservative Evangelicalism, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) fits very well with those who exhibit authoritarian personalities. It gives it a kind of religious justification.

I think that goes a long way to explain the rift within Evangelicalism as a kind of "hostile take-over" by authoritarian types at many major Evangelical institutions, as well as the exodus of many non-authoritarian evangelicals out of those institutions as a result. I'd love to see some actual studies on that though.

At 2:54 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Educational studies show the detrimental of authoritarianism on children, and therefore society in the long run. This seems the polar opposite of the gospel to me and my spirit cringes to see so many good people having their ears tickled by this deceiver. There is no compassion allowed. I have to say that I've thought what would Bonhoeffer do... and am I that courageous? Is anyone? Or will we choose Barabbas again and again and again?

At 11:33 AM, Blogger anneb said...

I do not really agree with the reasoning in the articles. Authoritarians enjoy status quo, and being on the side of the ruling, read "winning", team. Trump was neither in the beginning. I would guess that people who may be authoritarian are voting for Trump because they are tired of the lies. I do not think you can label ALL those who are voting for him as authoritarian. That minimizes the intelligence of the populace.

Derek, I am surprised you would label Trump godless. Please show me any politician that is not motivated and driven by self interest to the detriment of this country. While I did not vote for Trump in the primaries (voted my conscience with Rand Paul whether running or not), I would rather face his obnoxiousness that the run of the mill deceitfulness that ALL of the candidates demonstrate on an on-going basis. The slick fronts are not impressive when you see what is behind it all. Or have I missed some righteous fruit somewhere?

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"I do think the results of the poll taken by a student, cannot be taken in such a serious tone."

Perhaps you misunderstood, but the "student" is a PhD candidate, which means that he already had a Master degree, teaches college level courses at his university, and has specialized in the study of authoritarianism for his PhD work. Further, since this was published, it has been reviewed by several experts in the field who have verified that it is very solid.

At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"Authoritarians enjoy status quo, and being on the side of the ruling, read "winning", team. Trump was neither in the beginning."

The study is not on Trump, but on his supporters. While I can understand that you might assume that "authoritarianism" would refer to those in power, that is actually not the case. Typically those who exhibit authoritarian personality traits see themselves as a persecuted minority. So the idea of needing to "take America back" is one that plays into a core sentiment of those with authoritarian views.

"I do not think you can label ALL those who are voting for him as authoritarian. That minimizes the intelligence of the populace."

No one is being "labeled." This is a study where people have self-identified with authoritarian values. Also I should note that authoritarianism has nothing to do with a person's IQ. One can have a doctorate and still be authoritarian. What it does have to do with is one's moral-development. Authoritarian traits coincide with characteristics of a person with low-level moral development.

"Derek, I am surprised you would label Trump godless."

Since I did not actually say that, I'm not sure what you are referring to. I would describe Trump as amoral. He is worlds apart from someone like Rand Paul. Rand Paul is a normal person with flaws, with self-interest, and with beliefs. Same for most people. Trump in contrast likely suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. Unlike someone like Rand Paul, Trump does not believe in anything, this is evidenced in the fact that he will change his views 180 degrees (on abortion, on gays, on claiming he is a Christian) in order gain popularity with whoever he thinks he needs to gain power. He also lies habitually (one could call it pathological) as it suits him. It's mind-boggling how frequently and shamelessly he lies. In short, I think is the kind of person who would do absolutely anything at all, no matter how awful and immoral and dangerous it is, in order be in power. We have only seen the beginning, but it seems there is just no bottom with how low he will go. There are people who do bad things. They are immoral. Then there are people who will do anything, who have no conscience, no empathy. That's amoral. That's extremely different from your average politician, and is an extremely dangerous person to have access to power.

At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"This seems the polar opposite of the gospel to me"

Yes, I have a lot to say about that. I think so much that I'll probably make another follow-up post about that.

"I have to say that I've thought what would Bonhoeffer do... and am I that courageous? Is anyone?"

Not sure that Bonhoeffer is the best example to follow here. I'd say Martin Luther King would be better. There are many people who are nonviolently protesting his rallies. This is having the effect of bringing to light the violence that is inherent in his followers, and that Trump is encouraging -- exposing it to everyone to see. That kind of light is powerful.

I can appreciate that you may not be able to do that yourself. Heck, I'm not doing it. But perhaps what we can do is talk with people, doing our part to shine light on it too.

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Peter said...

Trump said "if" abortion was made illegal there would have to be some kind of punishment for women who got an abortion. Why is this "deeply disturbing extremist rhetoric"?

Isn't it true that when a law is passed, those who violate it have to be punished in some way?

At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Pretty much every single pro-life organization in America has condemned Trump's statement as outrageous, saying that it does not represent their views at all.

But Trump is not actually against abortion at all. He supported it until just recently. Trump changes his positions like the wind changes direction. He also says things without thinking, then lies about it, and says "I never said that." In this case in particular he completely changed his position three times in a single day.

At 9:11 PM, Blogger Suzy said...

With everything going on in the political sphere these days it seems more and more clear that the American church is at a major fork in the road. Will we choose empire or Kingdom? We say we want kingdom but in reality we enamored by the 'strength' and 'truth' of empire builders.

Brian Zahnd says it so we'll in Radical Forgiveness:
'This kingdom (of God) does not come by political machinations. This kingdom does not come by military might. It doesn’t come by bullets or ballots, by elections or intrigues, by democracies or demagogueries. The kingdom of God comes quietly, almost secretly. Like seed growing, like bread rising. It comes like a long walk home. It comes in whispers and quiet conversations. It comes while people are sleeping. It comes in surprising ways and in unexpected places. It comes by unconventional means and by unauthorized agents. It comes through the gradual transformation of hearts and minds one life at a time. The kingdom of God comes in a million different ways as people become fascinated with Jesus Christ, find his forgiveness, and learn to extend it to others.'

God, remove the scales from our eyes; teach us to love and forgive like Jesus did.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Suzy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Peter said...

Derek, in response to my question, you wrote: "Pretty much every single pro-life organization in America has condemned Trump's statement as outrageous, saying that it does not represent their views at all.

But Trump is not actually against abortion at all. He supported it until just recently. Trump changes his positions like the wind changes direction. He also says things without thinking, then lies about it, and says 'I never said that.' In this case in particular he completely changed his position three times in a single day."

I agree that Trump's position doesn't align with the positions taken by many pro-life orgs and that Trump spouts off without thinking and then lies to cover up, BUT none of this answers my question:
"Isn't it true that when a law is passed, those who violate it have to be punished in some way?"

We would never say, "A woman who drives a getaway car for a bank robber shouldn't be charged because she's a victim too (unless it can be shown that someone coerced her to the point where she couldn't say 'no')."

Under the rule of law, I can't see how exemptions can be made based on gender.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

There is a certain kind of brutal logic to what you are saying, but it ignores the relational issue here. It's not something you say if you actually work with women. It's more something you say if you are having a late-nite college philosophical debate... until suddenly one of the girls there bursts into tears storms out, never speaks to you again, leaving you thinking "what did I do? I'm just being logical."

Take a moment and think about the women you know and love. It is extremely likely that many of them have had abortions. Maybe your mother, or aunt, or sister. Maybe your girl friend or wife. Or maybe just a good friend. Now imagine how they would take it if you said to them then you regarded them as criminals -- murderers who should be punished. That would not exactly be great for your relationship or for them feeling supported and understood by you.

Pro-life people care about women, and want to have women with unwanted pregnancies feel that they could come to them in their need. A stance of criminalizing women would destroy that trust.

So this is not simply a matter of crime and punishment. This is a matter of helping people, caring for people. The model of punishment is incapable of addressing that. What we need is not a criminal approach, but a mental health approach. Generally America is way too quick to go to a legal solution to things, when what we need is a mental health approach.

Let me add that I am pro-life myself, and one thing that I find hypocritical of many pro-life organizations is that they insist that they do not want women to be punished, but they do want doctors to be punished. But the doctor is also not a criminal. They are trying to help. That's just shifting the blame, but staying in the inept construct of punishment when what we need is a mental health approach.

At 7:29 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

Derek, if abortion were illegal, which is the hypothetical Trump was responding to, how could abortions be deterred if the women are not punished and if the doctor who is just helping is not punished?

While Trump's answer was unpopular and upset many, it was completely reasonable and based on sound logic.

It seems you're saying abortion shouldn't be made illegal but should be viewed as a mental health issue and addressed through education/counseling/etc., and you may be right. But it's unfair of you to criticize Trump for saying "if" a law were passed, those who broke the law should be punished. This is simply how every nation's legal system works.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

A major blind spot in much of this conversation is the presumption that God's laws operate just like we do things - arbitrary rules that inherently are powerless unless outside enforcement is not applied. But the truth is that all of God's laws are natural, cause and effect based and thus need no artificial enforcement. They are self-enforcing.
This means that God is consistent with love, with the Tree of Life (not Life or death) and is fully consistent with Jesus who revealed the truth about God's kind of kingdom. God does not rely on fear, force or intimidation to maintain conformity but relies on love. The principles of reality used to shape all creation take care of their own consequences and God only intervenes to prevent them from fully taking place for the purpose of delaying death to give us opportunity to change our relation to them.
This is why God does not force His will through threats of punishment but rather by invitation only. And if one thinks about it carefully, only with this atmosphere of complete freedom can anyone really respond in love in any relationship.

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


To add to your point, consider the term that Jesus used to describe this: The Kingdom of God, which was at the very core of his message and ministry. Today we can translate that phrase as "God's politics." As an interesting experiment, try looking for passages that say "the kingdom of God" and substituting in "God's politics." For example:

"Do not worry about what you will eat, or wear, but seek first God's politics and God's restorative justice, and all these things will be added to you."

"Your politics come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's politics.”

"Therefore I tell you, God's politics will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."

"God's politics is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

"I must preach the good news of God's politics to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Completely reasonable and sound logic. Okay, the issue is not with the if there was a law but the desire to make a law so that women who have an abortion are punished. It does not address the greater complexities of issues such as these, but only makes them black and white. Reinforcing the idea that to solve our problem we don't need empathy, kindness, understanding. We need only tough love of at first the law and threats of punishment.

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yeah I get more of your point of unquestioning obedience when so many read the Bible. I know some of my best friends start with God is in charge, the Bible is God's book, we are to trust and obey it = live it out the best we can. That is their goal. They are awesome people who probably will not embrace Trump because of his rhetoric and childish reactions. But they are sold out on not questioning God and His ways as revealed in the Bible. The motive is reverence, true desire to worship God and submit to Him in everything. They see nothing strange with God's violent acts as they say God is God. We are sinners and if God does it, it must be good. Thankfully we are on the winning side. I just don't get it. But to them this is where they hear God, experience His presence, serve from the strength that God supplies.

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yeah if it were simply a matter of God's violence I might even just let it go and trust God. But what I experience is that the same people who argue for the goodness of God's violence frequently also advocate us humans committing acts of violence in the name of the good. That's where I think we need to have the moral courage to step in and say no.

As Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." The road to hell is paved with good intention.

I can remember being in the place you describe you friends being, where I was just trusting in God. I was on the "winning side" as a straight white male. But the more I spent time with Jesus the more I saw that he did not just want me to focus on myself, but to grow in compassion, to see things from the perspective of the marginalized, from the perspective of the other, the condemned. That's where I think our trust needs to lead us. Trust should lead to compassion. I hope your friends can learn that too.


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