Trump True Believers Have Their Reasons By Thomas B. Edsall Oct 2021
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.
Just who believes the claim that Donald Trump won in 2020 and that the election was stolen from him? Who are these tens of millions of Americans, and what draws them into this web of delusion?
Three sources provided The Times with survey data: the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Poll, P.R.R.I. (the Public Religion Research Institute) and Reuters-Ipsos. With minor exceptions, the data from all three polls is similar.
Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, summed it up:
About 35 percent of Americans believed in April that Biden’s victory was illegitimate, with another 6 percent saying they are not sure. What can we say about the Americans who do not think Biden’s victory was legitimate? Compared to the overall voting-age population, they are disproportionately white, Republican, older, less educated, more conservative and more religious (particularly more Protestant and more likely to describe themselves as born again).
P.R.R.I. also tested agreement or disagreement with a view that drives replacement theory — “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” — and found that 60 percent of Republicans agreed, as do 55 percent of conservatives.
The Reuters/Ipsos data showed that among white Republicans, those without college degrees were far more likely to agree “that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump,” at 69 percent, than white Republicans with college degrees, at a still astonishing 51 percent. The same survey data showed that the level of this belief remained consistently strong (over 60 percent) among Republicans of all ages living in rural, suburban or urban areas.
With that data in mind, let’s explore some of the forces guiding these developments.
In their September 2021 paper “Exposure to Authoritarian Values Leads to Lower Positive Affect, Higher Negative Affect, and Higher Meaning in Life,” seven scholars — Jake Womick, John Eckelkamp, Sam Luzzo, Sarah J. Ward, S. Glenn Baker, Alison Salamun and Laura A. King — write:
Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous “alt-right” demonstrations in the U.S., including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that culminated in a fatal car attack, and the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, outnumbering attacks by Islamic extremist groups, constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.
How does authoritarianism relate to immigration? Womick provided some insight in an email:
Social dominance orientation is a variable that refers to the preference for society to be structured by group-based hierarchies. It’s comprised of two components: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. Group-based dominance refers to the preference for these hierarchies and the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism refers to maintaining these sorts of hierarchies through other means, such as through systems, legislation, etc.
Womick notes that his own study of the 2016 primaries showed that Trump voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their group-based dominance. I think group-based dominance as the distinguishing factor of this group is highly consistent with what happened at the Capitol. These individuals likely felt that the Trump administration was serving to maintain group-based hierarchies in society from which they felt they benefited. They may have perceived the 2020 election outcome as a threat to that structure. As a result, they turned to aggression in an attempt to affect our political structures in service of the maintenance of those group-based hierarchies.
In their paper, Womick and his co-authors ask:
What explains the appeal of authoritarian values? What problem do these values solve for the people who embrace them? The presentation of authoritarian values must have a positive influence on something that is valuable to people.
Their answer is twofold:
Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.
They describe negative affect as “feeling sad, worried or enraged.” Definitions of “meaning in life,” they write, include at least three components: significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.
It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet right-wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance.
From another vantage point, Womick and his co-authors continue, perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter.
In the authors’ view, right-wing authoritarianism, despite its negative social implications, serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.
In his email, Womick expanded on his work: “The idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.”
These ideologies, Womick continued, should eventually promote a sense of significance (as insignificance is what drove the person to endorse the ideology in the first place). Endorsing right-wing authoritarianism relates to higher meaning in life, and exposing people to authoritarian values causally enhances meaning.
In “Race and Authoritarianism in American Politics,” Christopher Sebastian Parker and Christopher C. Towler, political scientists at the University of Washington and Sacramento State, make a parallel argument:
Confining the definition of authoritarianism to regime rule, however, leaves little room for a discussion of more contemporary authoritarianism at the micro level. This review shifts focus to an assessment of political psychology’s concept of authoritarianism and how it ultimately drives racism. Ultimately, we believe a tangible connection exists between racism and authoritarianism.
Taking a distinct but complementary approach, David C. Barker, Morgan Marietta and Ryan DeTamble, all political scientists, argue in “Intellectualism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Epistemic Hubris in Red and Blue America” that epistemic hubris — the expression of unwarranted factual certitude — is prevalent, bipartisan and associated with both intellectualism (an identity marked by ruminative habits and learning for its own sake) and anti-intellectualism (negative affect toward intellectuals and the intellectual establishment).
The division between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, they write, is distinctly partisan: intellectuals are disproportionately Democratic, whereas anti-intellectuals are disproportionately Republican. By implication, we suggest that both the intellectualism of blue America and the anti-intellectualism of red America contribute to the intemperance and intransigence that characterize civil society in the United States.
In addition, according to Barker, Marietta and DeTamble, “The growing intellectualism of blue America and anti-intellectualism of red America, respectively, may partially explain the tendency by both to view the other as some blend of dense, duped and dishonest.”
In an email, Marietta wrote:
The evidence is clear that the hubris driven by intellectual identity and the hubris driven by anti-intellectual affect lower our willingness to compromise with those who seem to lack character and honesty. I suspect the divide in perceptions, but unanimity in hubris, feeds the growing belief that democracy is failing and hence anti-democratic or illiberal policies are justified.
Marietta reports that he and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to see what happens when ordinary citizens are faced with others who hold contrary perceptions of reality about things like climate change or racism or the effects of immigration. The results are not pretty.
Once they realize that the perceptions of other people are “different from their own,” Marietta continued, Americans are far less likely to want to be around them in the workplace and are far more likely to conclude that they are stupid or dishonest. These inclinations are symmetrical, with liberals rejecting conservatives as much (or sometimes more) than conservatives reject liberals. The disdain born of intellectual identity seems to mirror the disdain arising from anti-intellectual affect.
I asked Barker about the role of hubris in contemporary polarization, and he wrote back:
The populist right hates the intellectual left because they hate being condescended to, they hate what they perceive as their hypersensitivity and they hate what they view as an anti-American level of femininity (which is for whatever reason associated with intellectualism).
At the same time, Barker continued, the intellectual left really does see the G.O.P. as a bunch of deplorable rubes. They absolutely feel superior to them, and they reveal it constantly on Twitter and elsewhere — further riling up the “deplorables.”
Put another way, Barker wrote,
The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.
What is a critical factor in the development of hubris? Moral conviction, the authors reply: “The most morally committed citizens are also the most epistemically hubristic citizens”; that is, they are most inclined “to express absolute certainty regarding the truth or falsehood” of claims “for which the hard evidence is unclear or contradictory.”
Moral conviction plays a key role in the work of Clifford Workman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania. Workman, Keith J. Yoder and Jean Decety write in “The Dark Side of Morality — Neural Mechanisms Underpinning Moral Convictions and Support for Violence” that “people are motivated by shared social values that, when held with moral conviction, can serve as compelling mandates capable of facilitating support for ideological violence.”
Using M.R.I. brain scans, the authors “examined this dark side of morality by identifying specific cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with beliefs about the appropriateness of sociopolitical violence” to determine “the extent to which the engagement of these mechanisms was predicted by moral convictions.”
Their conclusion: “Moral conviction about sociopolitical issues serves to increase their subjective value, overriding natural aversion to interpersonal harm.”
In a striking passage, Workman, Yoder and Decety argue:
While violence is often described as antithetical to sociality, it can be motivated by moral values with the ultimate goal of regulating social relationships. In fact, most violence in the world appears to be rooted in conflict between moral values. Across cultures and history, violence has been used with the intention to sustain order and can be expressed in war, torture, genocide and homicide.
What, then, Workman and his co-authors ask, “separates accepting ‘deserved’ vigilantism from others and justifying any behavior — rioting, warfare — as means to morally desirable ends?”
Their answer is disconcerting:
People who bomb family-planning clinics and those who violently oppose war (e.g., the Weathermen’s protests of the Vietnam War) may have different sociopolitical ideologies, but both are motivated by deep moral convictions.
The authors propose two theories to account for this:
Moral conviction may function by altering the decision-making calculus through the subordination of social prohibitions against violence, thereby requiring less top-down inhibition. This hypothesis holds that moral conviction facilitates support for ideological violence by increasing commitments to a “greater good” even at the expense of others. An alternative hypothesis is that moral conviction increases the subjective value of certain actions, where violence in service of those convictions is underpinned by judgments about one’s moral responsibilities to sociopolitical causes.
In a 2018 paper, “A Multilevel Social Neuroscience Perspective on Radicalization and Terrorism,” Decety, Workman and Robert Pape ask, “Why are some people capable of sympathizing with and/or committing acts of political violence, such as attacks aimed at innocent targets?”
For starters, they note:
Disturbing as it may be, individuals who become radicalized and involve themselves with terrorist organizations are, by and large, ordinary people. These individuals have typically functioning brains; they are not mad but are fanatics. Most are not psychopaths and, with the exception of lone wolf terrorists, are not especially likely to have psychiatric diagnoses.
Instead, Decety, Pape and Workman contend:
People who are otherwise psychologically typical may develop values and strong emotional ties to narratives and causes and become radicalized. Many individuals who sympathize with and even join terrorist organizations are educated and seemingly rational.
This immediately raises another question: “Are there characteristics that distinguish individuals who merely hold extreme views from those who act on those views by engaging in ideologically motivated violence?”
Decety, Pape and Workman cite a range of findings:
From political psychology:
Individuals who are cognitively inflexible and intolerant of ambiguity may become captive audiences for ideological, political or religious extremists whose simplistic worldviews gloss over nuance. Indeed, cognitive inflexibility has been positively associated with authoritarian aggression, racism and ethnocentrism.
The radicalism dimension, which included items such as “People should use violence to pursue political goals,” was related to increased activation of the ventral striatum and posterior cingulate.
From the study of moral values:
Violations of sacred, moral values may trigger disgust and/or anger responses that may set the stage for ideologically motivated violence.
The tools of political science, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, psychology, cognitive science and sociology are all necessary to understand the ongoing upheaval in politics — not just in America but globally.
On Sept. 30, for example, the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Project Home Fire released a survey showing unexpectedly large percentages of voters agreeing with this statement: “The situation in America is such that I would favor states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.”
Among Trump voters, 52 percent agreed, with 25 percent in strong agreement; among Biden voters, 41 percent agreed, 18 percent strongly.
There are credible reasons to find this alarming.
Credible Reasons: Jamelle Bouie, Sept 28, 2021 Opinion in NYT
Sometimes, and much to our detriment, we find real events are simply too outlandish to take seriously.
Many professional Republicans, for example, initially dismissed the movement to “Stop the Steal” as a ridiculous stunt.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” an anonymous senior Republican official told The Washington Post a few days after Joe Biden claimed victory:
He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.
Republicans went ahead and humored the president, who then urged his followers to assault the Capitol and try to void the election results in his favor.
Now, 10 months after the election, “Stop the Steal” is something like party orthodoxy, ideological fuel for a national effort to seize control of election administration and to purge those officials who secured the vote over Donald Trump’s demand to subvert it. Assuming that he is in good health, Trump will almost certainly run for president in 2024, and if he does, he’ll do so in a Republican Party pacified of any resistance to his will to power.
Despite the danger at hand, there doesn’t appear to be much urgency among congressional Democrats — or the remaining pro-democracy Republicans — to do anything. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has passed a new voting rights act aimed at the wave of restrictive new election laws from Republican state legislatures, and Democrats in the Senate have introduced a bill that would establish “protections to insulate nonpartisan state and local officials who administer federal elections from undue partisan interference or control.” But as long as the Senate filibuster is in place — and as long as key Democrats want to keep it in place — there is almost no chance that the Senate will end debate on the bill and bring it to the floor for a simple majority vote.
It’s almost as if, to the people with the power to act, the prospect of a Trumpified Republican Party with the will to subvert the next presidential election and the power to do it is one of those events that just seems a little too out there. And far from provoking action, the sheer magnitude of what it would mean has induced a kind of passivity, a hope that we can solve the crisis without bringing real power to bear.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The plurality popular vote winner in a four-way race — the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party fielded separate candidates, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, while conservative Southern unionists coalesced behind the Tennessee Senator John Bell under the Constitutional Union party — Lincoln won a solid majority of electoral votes, 180 out of a total of 303. But his was a sectional victory; not only did Lincoln not win a single Southern electoral vote, but in 10 of the 11 states that became the Confederacy there wasn’t even a Lincoln ballot to cast.
The new Republican president was also a specifically Northern president, with a coalition united by its antislavery beliefs. “The country had committed itself electorally to a party which opposed slavery, at least to the extent of agreeing with Lincoln that the institution must ‘be placed in the course of ultimate extinction,’” the historian David M. Potter explains in “The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848 to 1861.”
South Carolina, with its heavy concentration of enslaved people and deep-seated pro-slavery sentiment, took the first steps toward leaving the Union, passing a bill that set the date for a convention where elected delegates would debate secession. The speed of South Carolina’s action, Potter notes, “accelerated the tempo of the disunion movement in a decisive way.” In short order, the legislatures of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida announced similar conventions.
Secessionists had momentum but, as the historian Russell McClintock writes in “Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession,” “Republicans showed no anxiety about disunion before the election and remarkably little after it.” Lincoln’s first concern, after celebrating his victory, was cabinet selection and the question of patronage since, as McClintock explains, “the individuals Lincoln chose as his advisers would strongly suggest which way he was leaning in his attitude toward the gathering storm in the South and would have great influence over his policy.”
Republican-aligned newspapers were nonplused by events in the South. “South Carolina may fume and fulminate, and call conventions and pass resolutions till the crack of doom,” wrote one correspondent in The Chicago Tribune, but “up to this writing nobody is scared that we know of.”
Similarly, wrote a like-minded Boston editor, “Almost the only topic of political interest just now, is the rumored insane attempt of a few hotheaded fanatics, to induce the people of a few slave states to secede from the American Union. There is in this nothing new, unexpected, or alarming.”
After all, pro-slavery ideologues had threatened disunion in response to policy and political defeats for decades. If the South did not act before, why would it act now?
In fact, many Republicans believed the South needed the Union to maintain slavery. In “The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861,” the historian John Ashworth summarized the Republican view. “How would slave insurrections be put down without federal forces? How could the slaveholders secure the loyalty of the nonslaveholding whites in their own localities?” And, most important, “How could the slaveholders cater to the economic ambitions of the nonslaveholding whites, who because of the inadequacies of the slave system were denied any real economic opportunity?”
There was also, for Republicans, the matter of sectional pride. In the past, threats of disunion were part of a Kabuki theater of negotiations. Here’s McClintock: “Southerners demanded political advantages, Northerners balked, Southerners threatened to secede, and Northern Democrats gave in and voted with the Southerners.” The Republicans who scoffed at this latest threat of secession were saying, in essence, that the North would no longer play this game. “Since this is not the first time such cries are heard — since, indeed, they have been long-sounding in our ears, so that their exact value is perfectly understood from the very beginning — there seems no longer excuse or apology for hearkening to them,” the staunchly antislavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said. “They are to be treated as threats, and nothing more.”
Unfortunately for Sumner and the Republicans, their confidence was misplaced. Yes, there were Southern unionists, and yes, there were serious political tensions within the seceding states. But the secessionists had the initiative, and within 90 days of Lincoln’s election they had, as Potter writes, “won ten legislative decisions to hold elections for state conventions, held seven such elections, gained majorities in each, assembled seven conventions, voted seven ordinances of secession, and also took the first steps toward formation of a southern confederacy.”
When Republicans finally turned to face the crisis, in December, there were few options at hand. Lincoln would not take office for another three months, Congress had just come back into session, and the outgoing Buchanan administration was divided and in disarray, beset by resignations as some members — like Howell Cobb, of Georgia, the secretary of the Treasury — stood with their states and others stood with the Union.
There was obviously no appetite, among Republicans, for disunion. There was also no appetite for compromise, even as a few lawmakers — led by John Crittenden of Kentucky, a Whig — tried to forge one last agreement to satisfy the sections and secure the Union. His proposal, a set of constitutional amendments and congressional resolutions, would have shielded slavery from federal power and congressional interference, reinstating the Missouri Compromise by writing it into the Constitution itself.
Republicans were not interested. For the past decade, the Northern lawmakers had made concessions to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was one; Whig support for James Buchanan over the Republican John C. Fremont in the 1856 election was another. “From the standpoint of a sincere Unionist,” Potter writes, “there was something self-defeating about getting the Union temporarily past a crisis by making concessions which strengthened the disunionist faction and perpetuated the tendency toward periodic crises.”
The only option left was confrontation, and when Lincoln finally held the reins of state on March 4, 1861, he made it clear that this was the path he would take. “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual,” Lincoln famously said in his first inaugural address:
Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.
I am not making a direct analogy between the Civil War era and current American politics. There is nothing, yet, that divides us as starkly as slavery did in the 1840s and 1850s. Nor is the crisis of democratic integrity as acute now as it was during the secession crisis. But the value of studying history is that we can see how previous generations of Americans faced the challenges of their time. No one knows, in the moment, how the story ends, and we can use that insight to try to understand the options available to our forebears as they lived through their present.
Republicans had good reason to ignore threats of secession. But they also had reason to heed them. With Lincoln’s election, the slave-owning South had lost its almost total grip on federal power. Sectional tensions had never been stressed in this way before, and Southern panic was palpable. Republicans could not have stopped secession, but they might have been able to better prepare for whatever confrontation lay on the horizon.