For last Sunday’s newspaper, I submitted a harmless little column about practicing gratitude.
But between the time I sent that piece to my editor and when it appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Feb. 5, someone (who, I have no idea) reposted on Facebook a column I’d written in January 2016.
That year-old column, published during the presidential primaries, was an early attempt to understand why so many Christians were backing Donald Trump.
In it I cited a social-science study that found authoritarianism to be the single greatest predictor of who voted for Trump, and I compared authoritarians’ traits to an ancient Christian conflict between “grace” and “the law.”
Well, this reposted column eclipsed my new one by far.
It went viral. It torqued up readers — pro and con — from New Jersey to California, from Michigan to Florida, and even from the United Kingdom.
Among the many email messages I received about it were several from professors and others smarter than I am (boy, that’s damning them with faint praise), who forwarded me additional articles on authoritarianism, political communication and related topics.
I want to pass a bit of that information along. But I’ll have to do it in condensed form.
For the record, this column, and the article I’m about to discuss, have nothing to say about Christian voters per se or their voting habits.
An article I received from a retired professor in Florida, “The rise of American authoritarianism,” runs more than 40 pages in a pdf format. And it’s worth every page.
Written by journalist and lawyer Amanda Taub for the website Vox, this March 2016 piece synthesizes a growing body of academic research on authoritarianism.
In scholarly circles, “authoritarianism” refers not to political strongmen but to a personality type that is common among voters who support strongmen. That isn’t to say that everyone who votes for these candidates is an authoritarian, but many such voters are.
Taub describes authoritarianism as “a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.”
More than other voters, authoritarians want the government to eliminate perceived dangers, by force if needed.
Here are a few highlights from Taub’s article:
▪ As early as 2009, a couple of political scientists already were predicting the imminent rise of a populistic, combative, Trump-like politician. Their research showed that the polarization of U.S. politics wasn’t mainly due to gerrymandering or dark money, but to an increasing migration to the Republican Party by authoritarian voters.
▪ Taub explains that, “In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, which had “unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans.”
▪ As said, historically, authoritarians were equally spread out between the major parties. Today they’re more concentrated; 65 percent of those scoring highest on the authoritarian scale are Republicans. Of those who score lowest, 75 percent are Democrats. We have two parties so different they can barely comprehend each other.
▪ Some authoritarians might be racists — as are some people of all stripes — but it’s a mistake to think racism primarily motivates them. Authoritarians are driven, rather, by fear: fear of specific sources of physical harm, such as terrorism, and fear of social chaos. (Statistically, authoritarians are far more frightened of being killed by terrorists than of dying in a car wreck — although the latter is more likely to happen.)
▪ Authoritarians sometimes switch the focus of their fear from one group to another, from Hispanic immigrants to Muslim terrorists to same-sex couples, as politicians or talk-news hosts gin up dire warnings about that specific group. Or they simply oppose all “outsiders.” Their world always is a dangerous, dangerous place.
▪ President Trump is only the first of a succession of strongman-style political candidates yet to come. He is, Taub says, “just the symptom,” not the cause.
▪ Forty-four percent of white Americans score “high” or “very high” on the authoritarian scale. About 55 percent of Republicans surveyed score “high” or “very high.” However, should a true crisis occur — a war, a terrorist attack of 9/11 magnitude an economic collapse or some cataclysmic combination — those ranks would swell; significant numbers of latent authoritarians could be “activated,” and even many non-authoritarians will begin behaving like authoritarians.
If there’s a way to bridge this chasm between authoritarians and non-authoritarians, which now is a de facto split between Republicans and Democrats, I don’t know what it would be. Neither did Taub suggest solutions.
The mail I received on my reposted column read like a microcosm of Taub’s descriptions: people outraged that I couldn’t understand that Trump is God’s instrument to deliver us from Sharia law, dangerous illegals and abortion; others fuming that Trump is a xenophobic dictator bent on destroying truth, fairness and the Bill of Rights.
Next week, I’ll write about another fascinating article a reader sent me. It’s not about authoritarians, but about how psychologists say conservatives and liberals might communicate across our respective lines. Maybe talking with each other instead of screaming would be a tiny start in the direction of healing. We’ll see.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Kentucky. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.