The Key to Trump is Stenner’s Authoritarianism
Tom Edsall has an excellent column in today’s NYT titled: Purity, Disgust, and Donald Trump. He begins with the work that I and my colleagues at YourMorals.org have done on the role of disgust in political life. How else can we explain Trump’s twin obsessions with bodily fluids and closing the borders to keep out human contaminants (see Bruni’s “Blood, Sweat, and Trump.” You can also read more about our empirical work in Donald Trump and the Politics of Disgust).
But even more important than purity and disgust, I believe, is the psychology of authoritarianism. That term is somewhat contested, but it’s striking that most of the experts Edsall interviewed agreed that that however you define it, Trump exhibits and exploits it. In this blog post I just want to point readers to what I think is the best treatment of authoritarianism out there: Karen Stenner’s 2008 book The Authoritarian Dynamic.
Here’s the full quote I sent to Edsall, trying to steer him to Stenner’s work;
I’d say the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is to look beyond values. We’re all accustomed to thinking about a range of conservative and progressive values, and Trump’s phenomenal success can’t be understood just by re-arranging values into a new recipe. The key is to be found in the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, whose research showed that there are three very different psychological types of people who have been supporting the Republican party since the 1980s: the “laissez faire” conservatives, who are not conservative at all, they are classical liberals who oppose government intervention in markets (like Rand Paul); the “status quo” conservatives, who are the classic Burkean conservatives, cautious about change, and highly responsible and conscientious (Jeb Bush and John Kasich); and the authoritarians, who are the most malleable or changeable depending on the political environment (Trump).In times of low moral threat, when they perceive that the country is relatively unified and the moral order is not being subverted, they are not particularly intolerant (Stenner finds). But, when they perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems (to them) to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour, its as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.” So its not just rising immigration and diversity that has activated American authoritarians — it may be our rising political polarization itself, which has activated and energized a subset of the electorate that is now lionizing Trump as the first major candidate in a long time who has spoken to their fears and desires. In short, Trump is not a conservative, and is not appealing to classical conservative ideas. He is an authoritarian, who is profiting from the chaos in Washington, Syria, Paris, San Bernardino, and even the chaos on campuses, which are creating a more authoritarian electorate in the Republican primaries.
Stenner’s book is long, but she has produced a much shorter synopsis in a 2009 article titled Three Kinds of Conservatism. It is behind a paywall, but I’ll see if I can contact Stenner to get her to post a manuscript version.
The only slight correction I’d like to add to Edsall’s column is that he goes from my claim that Trump is not a conservative to my older writings about social conservatives and disgust, including my attempts to make sense of the widespread focus in ancient moral texts on food, sex, and bodily functions. I actually don’t know whether disgust is really characteristic of “status quo conservatives.” It’s possible that it is the authoritarians who drive the general correlation of disgust and self-declared conservatism. Given Hitler’s obsessive focus on disgust and vermin in Mein Kampf, and the general absence of such talk in classical conservative writings, I would guess that it is most characteristic of authoritarian psychology. I will have to look into this in the YourMorals dataset, and I hope other researchers can address that question.
I close by emphatically agreeing with Edsall’s concluding lines:
Whatever happens next, he has remade the landscape on which these conflicts will be fought — for better, or, more likely, for worse.