How Authoritarianism Explains the Durability of Trump’s Support

Not too long ago, Sen. Bob Corker said something that was deeply disturbing. Here is how it was reported in the Washington Examiner:

“The president is, as you know — you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base — it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who decided to retire when his second term concludes at year’s end, after periodically sparring with Trump.

“People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not,” Corker added.

As an example of how that is playing out in at least one race in the upcoming midterm elections, take a look at this ad from Todd Rokita, who is running for the Senate in Indiana.

Notice that he doesn’t mention any policy issues. His only message is to attack his opponents and promise fealty to the president. I am reminded of this moment of Trump’s speech at the Republican convention:

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”

And he offered them a solution.

I am your voice, said Trump. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order. He did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.

When Corker talked about Trump supporters, he described  their loyalty as “tribal in nature.” That word is being thrown around a lot these days to describe what is going on in politics. But all of this makes me think about some other words, like authoritarianism, or even cultish.

We’re more used to assessing the phenomenon of cults in religious groups. But take a look at the seven signs Boze Herrington identified as indicative of cults.

1. Opposing critical thinking
2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
5. Dishonoring the family unit
6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
7. Separation from the Church

A few of those don’t apply. But in addition to opposing critical thinking and seeking inappropriate loyalty to leaders, the one that stands out to me is #7 about crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior. Trump’s most loyal group of supporters are white evangelicals, even though his entire life has been a repudiation of all the behavioral values they hold dear.

There is a whole network of white evangelicals who have been steeped in authoritarianism and were therefore ripe for development as a “cult of Trump.” Here are some bits and pieces on that from a tweetstorm by Christopher Stoop.

Withdrawn from “the world,” Evangelicals build a parallel society. My childhood social milieu was mostly church and Christian school. Let me tell you about socialization in that environment. We got pounded into our heads that Democrats kill babies (or approve of that). We got told we had the only Truth, the only way to heaven. It was urgent to try to “save” others. Pretty much by any means necessary. We were taught that “liberal” was basically an antonym for “Christian,” and “real” Christians only include people who believed like us…Our parallel society wasn’t meant to stay that way. It was meant to cultivate culture warriors to “take back” the US for Christ…Authoritarian early childhood socialization imbued with divine authority–that threatens eternal torture for deviating–is hard to shake.

I can say that, based on my own personal experience, Stoop’s experience was not isolated. When we fail to understand the durability of Trump’s support, this is something we have to consider.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.