Truly Terrifying Data…

Earlier this month, Thomas Edsall investigated the phenomenon that has most reasonable, rational citizens incredulous: the significant number of Americans who believe what has been dubbed “the Big Lie.

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.

Edsall quotes a political science professor from the University of Massachusetts for a summary of the data:

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).

Once again, the evidence connects Trumpism, and the alternate reality inhabited by Trumpets, with racism and fear of the “other.” P.R.R.I. tested for agreement or disagreement with so-called “replacement theory” —the belief that  “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.

Edsall also probed the connection between authoritarianism and opposition to immigration, quoting from a recent academic paper:

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.

As he explained, the term “social dominance orientation” refers to the belief that society should be structured by group-based hierarchies–that certain groups should be dominant over others. There are actually two inter-related components to the orientation: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. People with a social dominance orientation prefer hierarchies and–importantly–approve of the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism manifests itself as a preference to maintain these hierarchies through means other than violence, through systems, legislation, and social structures.

Studies of the 2016 primaries found that Trump voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their “group-based dominance.”

The column quotes from a scholarly paper, “The Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” to answer the question that most baffles the rest of us: why do people embrace authoritarianism?

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.


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 other words, right-wing authoritarianism, serves an existential meaning function–it provides reassurance “that one’s life matters.”

Political psychologists tell us that individuals who are “cognitively inflexible and intolerant of ambiguity” are more likely to become “captive audiences for ideological, political or religious extremists whose simplistic world-views gloss over nuance.”

It’s worth reminding ourselves that–while today’s threats are mostly from the Right, Leftwing zealots are cut from the same cloth. Fanatics are fanatics.

Edsall quotes other academics who confirm the connection between authoritarianism and racism, and he explores what the research tells us about intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, the conflicts between individuals with different moral commitments, and the elements that may lead to radicalization–especially the willingness to use violence in furtherance of one’s moral commitments. What, in other words, distinguishes those who hold extreme views from those who violently act on them?

I encourage you to click through and read the entire essay, which explains a lot. What it doesn’t explain, unfortunately, is what we can do to salvage the American Experiment.


  1. You cannot salvage people who are, “cognitively inflexible and intolerant of ambiguity.”

    Their ego has literally placed them into a box; their own mental prison. It’s like the Texas law passed that if you have a book about the Holocaust, you need a book with an opposing view.

    A rational response is, “Huh?”

    It’s like trying to talk sense to an addict in the throes of her addiction, she’s there looking at you, but she can’t grasp a word you’re saying.

    The Nazis in the 30s were at least experimenting with genetics and master races. The NeoNazis are just looking at the color of their skin or who they believe in.

    I’m going on a limb here, but much of the propaganda in this country was created post-WW2 and aimed at consumerism. The goal was to bombard the unconscious mind which Freud had just discovered. The CIA was developed with the help of Edward Bernays, or Freud’s nephew. There’s been a whole lot of experimentation in manipulation and oppression ever since.

    Those with insight into this madness are said to have a dystopian view or insight into Hell created on Earth. Take a stab at it! 😉

  2. With the passage of time, Trump’s “I love the poorly educated” 2016 campaign statement provides greater insight into a political strategy designed to coalesce largely uneducated and undereducated, single-issue voters. The unspoken part is, “They’re so easily manipulated by their various grievances.” Social media couldn’t have come along at a more opportune time.

    The Jamelle Bouie (NYTimes) opinion column linked at the end of Edsall’s column is important reading, as well.

  3. “Their ego has literally placed them into a box; their own mental prison.”

    IMO they have been brainwashed from childhood and chose to remain in their box; they have come out into the open due to Trump and his allies who unleashed racism and bigotry with their assistance and approval using their pseudo-Christianity as proof of the validity of their GOP foundation.

    Of course there is also that age-old adage “FOLLOW THE MONEY” aiding their successful “Stop The Steal” and “Big Lie” to maintain their credibility for the ongoing “recounts” and “audits” of election numbers.

  4. Todd,

    Your summary supports various opinions and projections stated so many times on this and other blogs. Large numbers of humans simply cannot make the break from their primitive biological instincts to govern themselves in complex societies like ours… or in many other, under-educated, over-crowded and highly religious populations. Throughout history, religion has been the centerpiece to human mayhem, murder and persecution. Christianity is merely the latest iteration pre-dating Islam by a millennium. Fear of the unknown fuels the inherent insecurity of the human survival mindset and allows cultists, liars and crazy people to lead those who choose to stay ignorant and not even think for themselves.

  5. Is there anybody else out there who is done with the constant analysis of the right winged crazies who live among us? What do we do? Are we supposed to wait until the Corona virus wipes them out? Is it possible that their numbers will get so small that we can effectively ignore them? Meanwhile what do we do to protect the people they have targeted for their wrath? They are bullies and bullies in packs can be dangerous.

  6. “Which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

    Which came first, right-wing authoritarianism or right-wing entertainment media?

    Like almost all of us, I’m not a social researcher so I can’t answer the question.

    Reading about right-wing authoritarianism though I’m struck by the references to their allegiance to “strong leadership” which in itself could stand some clarification. What in the world makes a leader “strong”?

    Without the benefit of research, I will say that I know intuitively and experientially what one attribute is. Ruthlessness.

    Thinking of that, one name leaps out of the pile of current humans.

    Donald J. Trump

  7. I am informed about these issues by two books. One is Cast – The Origins or our Discontents, and the other is White Trash – The 400 Year Untold History of Class in American. Both books talk extensively about the people Professor Kennedy’s post. White Trash talks about the continual societal diminuatioh of poor whites throughout the history of our country. Caste talks about the relationship between blacks and poor whites, and the extent to which poor whites find solace in the “fact” that at least they aren’t on the bottom – they are above the blacks. But since the 1950s and 60s blacks have been moving up, a scary and identity threatening proposition for poor whites. It isn’t as simple as poor whites thinking that blacks don’t deserve the successes that they are getting, and that they are out of place. This is true, but on top of this is that a core part of their identity is tied to being better than the blacks. If they aren’t better than the blacks, that means that they are the bottom caste, and worse yet the blacks above them.

  8. Pete,

    The egg came first. The first vertebrate eggs occurred in fish, then amphibians. But what facilitated the evolution of amphibians into reptiles was the amniotic egg: it didn’t need to be in water to incubate the embryo. Reptiles perfected this mode of reproduction and some of them became dinosaurs. Some of the dinosaurs are still with us. They’re called birds. Chickens are perfectly good birds.

    Next slide, please.

  9. I can’t remember what psychology posting I read but those who are unable, unwilling to critically think often believe in conspiracy theories.

    I recall speaking somewhat on this topic when a small band of us were trying to start a LGBT friendly church in Brownsburg and there was a discussion of the rise in these mega-churches and wondering what was up. I told them that I believe a fair number of human nature are just lazy in mind–they much rather be told what to do, what to believe–the rise in evangelical, mega-churches will tell you who to love, how to behave, how to act, who to vote for, what you are to say, etc…

    This morning an author was on Morning Joe and she has just written a book entitled “American Made-what happens to people when work disappears” by Farah Stockman. She started researching for this book as she could not understand how so many voted for Trump and she is from Michigan–she followed several workers from Indianapolis factory that was closing that Trump had indicted would stay open and what happens when folks lose their factory jobs. She spoke alot about how many she interviewed feel a sense of loss and a loss in identity. Interestingly, many would have voted for Sanders but when he did not get nominated they voted for Trump. She gave insights into why H. Clinton was not a viable candidate for this group.

    I often go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–when you are worried all the time about having enough money to pay the bills, if the next day your boss comes in and says you are out of a job and worried about just making it day by day there is no wherewithal to sit and contemplate and think–sometimes you want someone to tell you want to do, what to think, how to act, etc…add this on top of a list of grievances and it is the perfect storm.

  10. Some friggin’ mass hallucination going on about that Trump statement.
    Interpreted from the frame of mind of a Trumpie, it says that “if the Big Lie isn’t corroborated, the Democrats will make sure that no Republicans will be able to vote.”
    You just have to “get yer mind right” to understand it, but I have yet to see this translation in public, which this blog is not!
    Maybe the Lamestream Media is trying to convince all the weak minded Trumpies that he doesn’t want them to vote. An inspired ju-jitsu move move…

  11. Because of the former president, the alt-right and white supremacists have come out of the shadows into the light where we can easily see them. Some of them were dumb enough to post pictures of themselves on Facebook during the Jan 6 insurrection. This is good evidence that their capacity for critical thinking is very disabled.

    So,now we know what the Republicans have been so sneaky about all these years. I’m sure the oligarchy is mostly if not all white people.

    Belonging is one of the most basic needs according to Maslow. The erosion of blue collar jobs and the decay of small, rural towns had led to a sense of alienation. So along comes a demagogue whose lies sound plausible to them and whose rallies give them a delusional sense of belonging. Their need for belonging and meaning overrides their ability to look critically at him and to become intolerant of his lies especially the Big Lie.

    I heard one history professor on YouTube say that without the Great Depression Hitler probably wound not have gained a foothold in Germany. Perhaps those at the Trump rallies are facing their own Great Depression, a sense of hopeless for their own future and the futures of their children.

    “You can’t talk to a man, when he don’t wanna understand.”

    I heard a former governor of NJ talking about encouraging voters of both parties and independents to vote for candidates that are moderates and to avoid voting for people on the far right or left. I think she believes this would help decrease the divisiveness in our country. Maybe she is right.

    And in the mean time, it is my understanding that Attorney General Garland has decided that the greatest threat to our nation now is domestic terrorism. I do not doubt that he and the FBI are going to try and protect us from these extremists.

    The stats cited are not new to me. Yes, they are disturbing.

  12. Dear Becky,
    The “crazies” are all around us….School board members in Florida who support mask mandates are being threatened and told to “Beg for mercy.”

    Election workers and their families are still being viciously threatened.

  13. A question that never gets airplay is – why are these millions of people perfectly willing to override the votes of the majority? Why do they think other voters don’t count?

  14. Vernon – thanks for the biology lesson 8)>
    Linda- thank you for the references, but the trolls really don’t need feeding

    So – let’s do biology – I hope I am not being too nerdy here, but
    Our political spectrum is like the genetic material of our friendly bacteria, E. coli. I has one chromosome and its a circle.
    It has an “origin”, so you can think of it as linear, with a left and a right, but basically, if you go far enough right and far enough left, you find that you are in the same place.

    Eric Hoffer, who I’ve mentioned before noted that the flip from Nazi to Communist was easy and happened with some frequency. So, yes, the far left, when there are enough of them, could be as bad as the far right.

    My other “old master” explanation for loving the authoritarian is the other “Eric”, Erich Fromm.
    I think his “Escape from Freedom” is still relevant.
    Just think of pop culture – three stations became 300; popular music now has 123 sub-genres.
    Social problems have more complexity as we realize we are more interconnected than ever.
    The Internet exposes us (if we wish) to a couple of billion viewpoints.

    As long as keeping my place makes me feel like I belong to an important , “worthy”, part of Glorious Leader’s universe, I will surrender my freedom for that certainty. I know that I am better than “the other” and can always “act out” against them to prove my worth, while still ceding my freedom to Glorious Leader and his crew.

  15. I strongly suspect were it possible to actually run the numbers down(working in matters of objective fact rather than in statistical speculations) it would be found that the situation is a great deal more intense, compressed and crystallized, than can be explained by just the forces mentioned in the article. Not to say what is offered here is inaccurate, just inadequate measured against history and human nature.

    I also strongly suspect the only group of psychologists, political or otherwise, who would be able to fully explain the hows and whys of the current mindscape found in the American political scene would be that group who prostituted what had been… heavy emphasis on the past tense… a healing art into weapons of mass manipulation to be indiscriminately sold to the several “powers and principalities” who are waging covert cultural warfare for control of the psyche and soul of the United States of America. IF (huge word that one is!) this were a war with only TWO forces and philosophies on the field of battle we’d be in great shape.

  16. In postscript to what I said above: If there is one fact that should stand out from the current crisis and impending chaos it is this:

    Freedom must be defended first and most vigorously where freedom begins… which is between the ears of the electorate! Until and unless one of two things happens not only The United States but any and every system of self determined democratic freedom is at massive risk. Either access to the internet must be limited and licensed at the same level of scrutiny as carrying a pistol in NYC ( and this to shut down the peer pressure powered “Social Media” echo chambers and feedback loops) OR Empire Academia’s Kingdom of Psychology must be, by INTERNATIONAL LAW, required to practice hygienic stewardship over what they know and held accountable for the actions of their graduates who hire into the industries of influence and manipulation… advertising, marketing, education… all of which ultimately end up serving the ambitions of the political.

    What we are looking at is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. If we wish to survive it is time to look to where the problem actually begins and take appropriate action to eliminate the cause rather than doing what we have been which is indulging in an orgy of finger pointing blame games. Left or Right? Republican or Democrat? Red or Blue? Of no great consequence. The simple binary definitions of history are the enemies best friend.

Comments are closed.