Authoritarianism and the Identity Politics of the Republican Party

Last week I wrote about how authoritarianism helps explain the durability of Trump’s support. If I had waited just one day, I could have drawn on the research done by Thomas Edsall in a piece for the New York Times titled, “The Contract with Authoritarianism.” He reviews political science literature to make the point that, “The election of Donald Trump — built as it was on several long-term trends that converged in 2016 — has created an authoritarian moment.” For example:

The authors [Christopher Federico, Stanley Feldman and Christopher Weber] found that in 1992, 62 percent of white voters who ranked highest on the authoritarian scale supported George H.W. Bush. In 2016, 86 percent of the most authoritarian white voters backed Trump, an increase of 24 percentage points.

Specifically, Frederico, Feldman and Weber write that:

Three trends — polarization, media change, and the rise of what many people see as threats to the traditional social order — have contributed to a growing divide within American politics. It is a divide between those who place heavy value on social order and cohesion relative to those who value personal autonomy and independence…

Authoritarianism is now more deeply bound up with partisan identities. It has become part and parcel of Republican identity among non-Hispanic white Americans.

The one thing that comes up very often in this literature is the different way people deal with openness.

Over the last few decades, party allegiances have become increasingly tied to a core dimension of personality we call “openness.” Citizens high in openness value independence, self-direction, and novelty, while those low in openness value social cohesion, certainty, and security. Individual differences in openness seem to underpin many social and cultural disputes, including debates over the value of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, law and order, and traditional values and social norms.

These authoritarian dimensions have become the critical factor in how people make political associations, as Lilliana Mason writes:

The power behind the labels “liberal” and “conservative” to predict strong preferences for the ideological in-group is based largely in the social identification with those groups, not in the organization of attitudes associated with the labels. That is, even when we are discussing ideology — a presumably issue-based concept — we are not entirely discussing issues…

Identity-based ideology can drive affective ideological polarization even when individuals are naïve about policy. The passion and prejudice with which we approach politics is driven not only by what we think, but also powerfully by who we think we are.

Johnston, Lavine and Federico call this the “expressive dimension” of politics.

In this view, the influence of personality on economic opinion arises not because the expected outcomes of a policy match an individual’s traits, but because those traits resonate with the social meaning a policy has acquired…

Citizens care less about the outcomes a policy produces and more about the groups and symbols with which a policy is associated.

All of this lines up perfectly with what Robert Jones called “nostalgia voters.”

Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.

Since Trump took office, we’ve seen countless efforts to document how his policies will hurt the very people who are credited with electing him. But this research helps us understand why that doesn’t seem to matter. He promised to be the strong leader who will “make America great again” with an appeal to their longing for a mythical past.

The challenge this poses for Democrats is that providing a fact-check on the actual impact of Trump’s policies isn’t likely to register with these voters. Proposing policies that would benefit Trump’s supporters isn’t likely to fare any better. That is because, as the quote above suggests, the current divide isn’t about policies and their outcomes but is, instead, about the symbolic notions of white identity that have become attached to those policies.

Trump’s wall is a perfect example. All of the evidence says that it is not needed, won’t be effective and would be a huge waste of money. None of that matters to Trump supporters. They fear that the so-called “browning of America” is a challenge to their white identity and the wall has become the symbol by which that fear is addressed.

I suspect that there isn’t really an effective message that can address this phenomenon. Once the symbols are in place and social meaning has been attached, it is nearly impossible to break their hold from the outside, especially given that the attachments are fortified constantly by right wing media. That’s why for the life of me I can’t imagine how this authoritarian hold on the Republican Party ends.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.