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Here’s why Trump’s supporters tolerate his ‘liberal’ economic positions

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks out to speak during a campaign event at the CFE Federal Credit Union Arena in Orlando, FL on Saturday March 5, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump’s strong supporters love him despite his many deviations from conservative orthodoxy on economics. He’s promised to safeguard entitlements like Social Security; he’s open to trade protectionism. How is he getting away with this?

John Sides and Michael Tesler mentioned here the venerable political-science findings suggesting that most voters are not ideologues who insist on down-the-line conformity on all issues. That’s true enough.

But there’s more to it than that. Our recent research suggests that the psychological characteristics that draw voters to Trump may also make them open to his protectionism.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/02/how-political-science-helps-explain-the-rise-of-trump-most-voters-arent-ideologues”]How political science helps explain the rise of Trump: Most voters are not ideologues[/interstitial_link]

Authoritarians want protection from threats. Why not from economic threats?

Here’s why. As a number of observers have noted, one of the best predictors of support for Trump is what social scientists call “authoritarianism” — a preference for conformity and order over individual autonomy. Authoritarians respond to threat with intolerance toward outgroups — racial and religious minorities, immigrants, and so on. Authoritarians fear “the other,” leaving them open to Trump’s forceful rhetoric about deporting illegal immigrants, halting Muslim immigration, and ending “political correctness.”

What does this have to do with economic policy? Research has shown that authoritarianism is far less helpful in predicting attitudes toward government spending and redistribution.

And that doesn’t exactly make sense. Psychologists have consistently shown that authoritarianism is rooted in needs for order, certainty, and security. Authoritarians want protection from potential threats; that’s why they support government restrictions on individual freedom. This often leads to “circling the wagons” against outsiders — say, though immigration restrictions.

You would expect it to be associated with a desire for economic protection for insiders, through such things as a robust social safety net and trade restrictions.In other words, the psychological characteristics of authoritarians may lead them to support top-down solutions not just to cultural problems but to economic ones, too.

So why have political psychologists had such a difficult time finding any association between authoritarianism and economic preferences?

Authoritarians who follow politics identify with the Republican Party, which opposes economic protectio

We think it’s because authoritarians typically identify with the Republican Party for cultural reasons. People who follow politics closely, political scientists have repeatedly shown, are especially likely to take on their party’s policy positions. Politically attentive citizens who score high in authoritarianism may take on the party’s economic messages as well — even when these policies do not coincide with their deeper preference for security. They toe the party line because they care about their political identity, and about sticking it to opponents who represent disliked cultural groups.

If that’s true, then authoritarianism should predict left-wing economic views only for citizens who don’t pay close attention to politics. The politically attentive authoritarian, by contrast, would conform to the conservative Republican line on economics.

And that’s exactly what we find in data from the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES).

The technical stuff

Like others, we measure authoritarianism using four items asking about respondents’ childrearing values (see here for information on this approach). Respondents are asked to choose which of a pair of qualities is most important in children: independence versus respect for elders, obedience versus self-reliance, curiosity versus good manners, and being considerate versus being well behaved. High authoritarianism is indicated by a preference for “obedience,” “respect for elders,” “good manners” and “being well-behaved.” Our measure is simply the number of these responses endorsed by each respondent. In turn, we measured economic attitudes using questions asking about preferences for more or less government spending and services, government guaranteed jobs and income, and government or private provision of health insurance. Higher values represent greater economic liberalism. Finally, we measured attentiveness as the number of correct responses to five political-knowledge questions.

Using these measures, we looked at the relationship between authoritarianism and support for a strong government role in the economy at different levels of political knowledge. You can see our results below.

The dotted line represents the relationship between authoritarianism and economic liberalism among those lowest in knowledge, while the solid line represents the relationship among those highest in knowledge. Among the most attentive, economic liberalism drops by 26 percent as authoritarianism increases from its lowest to its highest level. Among the least attentive, it’s the opposite: Support for a strong government role in providing economic security rises by 20 percent as authoritarianism increases from its lowest to its highest level. And that’s been going on for awhile. We found the same result in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 ANES surveys.


In other words, it is not surprising that some of Trump’s supporters—namely, authoritarian citizens who don’t follow politics closely—are open to his economic populism. Indeed, there are probably quite a few of these individuals among the U.S. voting population.

Many of Trump’s supporters have long been politically disengaged

The average American isn’t very politically engaged. And some evidence suggests that Trump’s supporters come especially from those less politically attentive groups, such as those without college degrees and those who haven’t always voted in primaries in the past.

So it’s no surprise that some of Trump’s authoritarian backers combine hostility toward cultural outsiders with a desire for government economic protection. Either way, they’re looking for the same thing: protection from uncertainty and threat.

Christopher Johnson is an assistant professor of political science at Duke University. Howard Lavine is Arleen Carlson Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Johnson and Lavine are co-authors of The Ambivalent Partisan: How Critical Loyalty Promotes Democracy