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Why Do People Support Donald Trump?

In an article for Politico, Matthew MacWilliams of the University of Massachusetts, Amhearst, describes the results of polling data he released last month. MacWilliams included an extra set of questions in his poll.

In addition to the typical battery of demographic, horse race, thermometer-scale and policy questions, my poll asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.

It is probably no surprise that MacWilliams found a statistically significant correllation between authoritarianism and support for GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.

MacWilliams argues that the political establishment has been slow to react to Trump's appeal because they have misunderstood its source. And because they misunderstand his appeal, they aren't effective at muting his appeal.

Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity. And the institutions—from the Republican Party to the press—that are supposed to guard against what James Madison called “the infection of violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or are asleep on the job.

As I write this, we are only two weeks away from the Iowa caucus, the first real test of Trump's support. If Trump performs well in Iowa, his supporters will see confirmation of his leadership abilities. And that's not the worst part. Authoritarianism is not exclusively a Republican characteristic. In the general election, Trump may find broad bipartisan support.

The United States is heading down a perilous road, and we need to turn aside before we pass the last exit ramp.

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