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.