How to Live With Authoritarians

Democracies have to learn how to manage some people’s innate fears of change.

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in Washington on Jan. 6.
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in Washington on Jan. 6. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Even after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, 60 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters still approved of Donald Trump’s performance as president. Though this level of popular support baffles many Americans, it follows in the tails of an approval rating that—while generally hovering around a modest 40 percent—remained remarkably steady throughout Trump’s blunderous presidency and near-constant assault on democratic norms and institutions.

Knee-jerk Beltway attempts to explain away this loyal adherence tend to revert to suggestions that Trump supporters are uneducated or impoverished or both—mostly angry at being “left behind” by the new economy. Now, after a mob of Trump supporters quite literally laid siege to U.S. democracy, it’s clear that there are more significant and enduring factors at play. Growing evidence suggests that Trumpism—and right-wing populist movements like it—must prompt a serious reckoning with vulnerabilities not just within the U.S. political system but within liberal democracy more generally.

It may take years to arrive at a complete understanding of Trump’s surprising mass appeal, but prior research and preliminary studies already suggest a more nuanced view of how authoritarians and malignant nationalists rise. Rather than tangible economic grievance, decades of cross-national empirical research show that feelings and perceptions of sociocultural threat are the principal drivers of surging authoritarian sentiment among the electorate and the demagoguery that rises up to service it.

In a modern, multicultural society, certain citizens simply become overwhelmed by growing complexity and rapid change. These individuals fear a loss of their social order, status, and familiar way of life. Whether rational or not, this trepidation provokes intolerance of threats to the collective order, in which they are unusually invested. Trump’s support, then, is derived in large part from those who believe he understands and speaks to these kinds of fears.

This finding is not meant to excuse Trump, the overt racism of many of his supporters, nor the very real harm they have caused. It is simply derived from decades of research. About a third of the population in Western countries is predisposed to authoritarianism, which is about 50 percent heritable. Authoritarians have an inherent preference for oneness and sameness; they favor obedience and conformity and value strong leaders and social homogeneity over freedom and diversity. That diversity can take any form: whether based on racial or ethnic lines or moral and political difference. Authoritarianism is also associated with some cognitive limitations. Comparative data suggests that the United States may be somewhat overstocked with authoritarians, though they may simply be more easily identifiable in the country’s high-arousal political environment.

About a third of the population in Western countries is predisposed to authoritarianism.

This predisposition to favor oneness and sameness exists on a spectrum, from very low to very high authoritarianism. Importantly, the predisposition—which is stable and enduring but normally latent—is activated and expressed when triggered by perceived political or social disorder. Once authoritarianism is understood in relation to suppressing difference—especially in the face of threats to oneness and sameness—a whole array of seemingly disparate Trumpian stances assume a more universal character: Whether in Washington or Warsaw, Western liberal democracy’s ongoing struggle with populism is united by fear.

People with innate authoritarian tendencies can be found on both the right and left of the political spectrum, although they are somewhat less common on the left. This leads us to a critical point: Authoritarianism is not the same as conservatism, although they are modestly correlated. Authoritarians’ fundamental aversion to diversity—complexity and variety—is distinct from traditional conservatives’ aversion to change—which is more about novelty and uncertainty. When the status quo is a modern liberal democracy, traditional conservatives—by nature—ought to defend any established regime of institutions and laws designed to protect individual rights.

Authoritarians, by contrast, can welcome vast social change and blithely overthrow established authorities and institutions if some charismatic strongman is promising them greater oneness and sameness on the other side of their revolution. This distinction may seem counterintuitive given the modern U.S. political system—where erstwhile conservatism has largely become synonymous with Trumpism. But it also means that, under the right conditions, conservatives can be a liberal democracy’s strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by authoritarian social movements.

Still, the rapid demographic transformation of the United States likely provokes both authoritarians opposed to diversity and traditional conservatives averse to change. More nonwhite than white babies have been born in the country since 2013, and the United States will be majority nonwhite by 2043. In concert with the declining life expectancy of white American men, this trend away from a white majority has helped give rise to “white genocide” and “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories among white supremacists. Multiculturalism, changing gender norms, and rapid globalization can also provoke both groups—some become overtly racist and anti-immigrant or enraged at the acceptance of LGBTQ rights and behaviors they view as morally deviant.

Since classic authoritarian defensive stances are invoked to defend a whole regime of oneness and sameness, perceived threats in one domain can provoke defenses in other—or all—domains. For example, the strongest predictor of a Brexit “leave” vote—ostensibly rooted in racial and ethnic intolerance—was support for the death penalty and for the public whipping of sex criminals.

In a recent study by the Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, over half of Republicans agreed “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40 percent concurred that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”

Significant proportions of both Democrats and Republicans appear willing to endorse violence or violate democratic procedure to defend their values.

But it’s not just Republicans: Significant proportions of both Democrats and Republicans appear willing to endorse violence or violate democratic procedure to defend their values, especially where the president is concerned. A 2019 survey by political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland found around 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans thought violence would be justified if the opposing party won the 2020 election. In 2014, when Barack Obama was president and Republicans controlled Congress, 30 percent of Democrats supported the president closing Congress and governing without it “when the country is facing very difficult times.”

Still, Bartels’s study reveals that the strongest predictor of anti-democratic attitudes among Republicans was not partisanship or political expediency; it was ethnic and racial antagonism. This vitriol was often explained as being rooted in concerns about the political power of immigrants, African Americans, and Latinos, as well as these groups’ claims on government resources. An alternative explanation is that this grievance is partly a rationalization on the part of many white Americans and that their expressed racial antagonism is a product of and proxy for underlying authoritarian inclinations.

All people have an innate bias toward those like themselves; studies confirm that humans are wired to be tribal. For authoritarians, this bias is greatly magnified. And when put under pressure or given leaders’ approval, people may nurture and act on their biases against the “other.” Prejudice evokes emotions like disgust, fear, pity, and envy—but of all these, envy proves the most dangerous. An uptick in envy helps explain why violent hate crimes in the United States are on the rise.

The social psychologist Michael Hogg of Claremont Graduate University has argued that dramatic social disruption can lead to highly aversive identity confusion, causing people to demarcate and identify with in-groups as opposed to people different from themselves. In these situations, he says, people may be drawn to extremist groups with exclusionary ideologies and “strong, directive leadership.” Strongman authoritarians fit the bill.

Some Trump supporters feel humiliated by rapid social change. Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the most important driver of electoral support for Trump in 2016 was a perceived status threat among high-status groups, which she delineates as white people, Christians, and men. Specific anxieties included declining dominance as a percentage of the overall U.S. population, African Americans’ perceived rising status, and insecurity about U.S. global economic power—which collectively left them feeling “under siege.” A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that voters’ attitudes about gender and race are even more divided today than they were four years ago.

All of this paints a grisly picture. But are there any relevant policy lessons for the Biden administration? Joe Biden’s electoral victory rested in part on his ability to embrace change and diversity while also representing more traditional values. Now in office, he will need to walk a very fine line to avoid triggering destructive fears among those in the electorate predisposed to authoritarianism.

In terms of policy, the Biden administration’s emphasis on making permanent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program seems a promising start, since it has overwhelming public support—probably because undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and never knew another home feel more like “us” than “them.” It might also be very fruitful for the administration to promote, early on, an emotionally compelling narrative about the critical role played by (loyal, self-sacrificing) immigrant health care workers in saving American lives during the pandemic.

Authoritarian predispositions are not a problem that can just be educated away.

But most importantly, those who are predisposed to favor freedom and diversity over authority and conformity must recognize that the authoritarian preference for oneness and sameness is largely innate and unlikely to change. A polyglot, multiethnic populace of mixed morals and lifestyles will almost inevitably prompt flare-ups of both racial antagonism and political or moral intolerance, activating a latent longing for obedience and conformity—even autocratic rule—that will continue to threaten democracies periodically.

The new U.S. administration should promote equity and justice while avoiding a loud and provocative display of stances and messaging that unnecessarily aggravates authoritarians. The progressive policy agenda shouldn’t be amended; it should simply be promoted more subtly. Given the ongoing threats of right-wing extremist violence, this may seem unreasonable, if not wholly untenable. But it is achievable if the Biden administration recognizes that even creating the mere feeling or appearance of oneness and sameness can be reassuring to authoritarians. Critically, authoritarian predispositions are not a problem that can just be educated away: In fact, liberal democracy’s loud and showy celebration of freedom and diversity drives authoritarians not to the limits of their tolerance but to their intolerant extremes. For this reason, a strong rhetorical focus on a unified Americanness can play a vital role in reassuring and deactivating the innately intolerant.

Karen Stenner is a political psychologist and the author of The Authoritarian Dynamic. Formerly on the politics faculty at Princeton University, she is now based in Australia, where she is the director of Insight Analytics, a behavioral science consultancy that designs and tests psychological messaging to shift mass behavior. Twitter: @karen_stenner

Jessica Stern is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Her latest book is My War Criminal: Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide. Twitter: @JessicaEStern