Decoding Trump’s election — Part 1: The rise of authoritarianism

I have been wondering about blogging social science tidbits for a while. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was not in my shortlist of hot topic — especially for the opening post! — but given the (for some) surprising outcome, I will start this blog sharing a few finding that may help us to put some pieces of this puzzle together.

Social scientists and pundits will look back to understand what happened in the political landscape since the major candidates announced their intention to run for presidency, perhaps paying special attention to events that took place throughout the election. There is certainly a lot to be studied here, a range of potential explanations are out there, and it is important why nobody saw it coming (a bit more about this later). The 2016 presidential election will probably be hunting political scientists for the years to come.

Social scientists have, for very good reasons, relied on the so-called “the fundamentals” to predict electoral outcomes in the United States. These fundamentals include the state of economy and performance at wars. A third very important variable here is the distribution of partisanship. Although these are important predictors and tend to be more reliable than polls taken during the campaign, I would rather start looking at more basic aspects of social life: Values and attitudes. It goes without saying that beliefs inform the evaluations and decisions we make and I am afraid to say that we have perhaps overlooked them.

Attitudes and values are elements of a vast field itself and I have no intention to present a large range of indices and measures here. In line with recent world events — and perhaps first pointed by Amanda Taub in an article published in March 2016 — I will focus on measures of authoritarianism in the American public.

In late-July, I published in my personal Facebook account two plots on the level of authoritarianism in the United States, both reproduced below. [Note: Screenshots include the publication day just  to avoid being perceived as a “prophet of past things”; it is obviously too easy to claim credit for projecting something after fact.]

The first plot presents data from the World Values Survey for two questions asking about support to non-democratic political regimes. I calculated the share of American respondents in the four waves of  this comparative survey including the U.S. (second, 1990-1994; fourth, 1999-2004; fifth, 2005-2009; sixth, 2010-2014) who answered “fairly good” or “very good” when asked separate question to evaluate having an army rule and having a strong leader as political systems.

Although none of the questions reached a majority of respondents supporting those systems as either fairly or very good, it is clear the rising trend for both in the sixteen-year period covered by the data. Support to an army rule grown from about 6% to 15% in the 1995-2011 period; support to a strong leader moved up from approximately 22% to 31%. In other words, one in six respondents expressed some support to a military junta ruling and about one third of the sample expressed sympathy for having a strong figure leading the country.


A second plot is adapted from data presented by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler in Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, page 52. The authors present data from the 2004 American National Election Survey (2004 NES), the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (2006 CES), and the 2008 AmericasBarometer. When needed, data have been recoded into a five-point scale just for the sake of comparison across surveys.

Here, a more alarming picture than presented above emerges. Roughly half of respondents fall in the top highest categories, meaning higher level of expressed authoritarianism, in the three datasets collected at different moments during the 2000s.


Putting these two graphs together, one plausible interpretation is: Authoritarianism in the contemporary American public is far from negligible and is on the rise.

The discussion about role of authoritarianism in politics is not, tracing back to the Theodor Adorno et. al. The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950. Moreover, it is electoral appeal was a fundamental cog for the success of nazi-fascist regimes in the first half of the 20th century. Authoritarianism is a remarkably stable predisposition but its role in politics is a constant: It needs to be somehow activated to produce political effects. Authoritarianism, however, is far too complex for a quick blog post and I intend to talk more about in other opportunities.

Although authoritarianism is hardly the only explanation for the electoral success of Donald Trump, I think it is an important piece of the puzzle.

Rival hypotheses may include lack of confidence in Hillary Clinton (what may include both her performance as Secretary of State or just sexism),  perceptions [this word is key] that one has not been receiving a due share of the economic recovery, that the current involvement in Syria is not in the best interest of the American public, or simply the fact the Trump was able to turn his already well-known figure into a strong political contender.

It is possible that the political scientific community, for various reasons, somewhat overlooked the importance of core political values that ended up being crucial for this presidential election. The role of support to alternative, non-democratic political systems may be something unique to this election, exceptionally marked by the powerful emergence of outsiders in both sides of the political spectrum, but may be not. Given the rise of authoritarianism worldwide,  we are better paying close attention to it.

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