Nikki Hamblin (left) runner from New Zealand, helps USA runner Abbey D’Agostino off the track in the woman’s 5,000 meters after a crash. (Photo: Getty Images)
Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino, a runner from Topsfield, Mass., collided on the track during the women’s 5,000-meter race. The two seemingly sacrificed any chance at an Olympic medal to help each other reach the finish line, picking each other up, urging each other to continue, pushing each other to the finish.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Hamblin said. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story.”
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. The first national constitutional amendment had been proposed in Congress in 1878, and in every Congress session after that. Finally, in 1919, it narrowly passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states to be ratified. Most Southern states opposed the amendment, and on August 18, 1920, it all came down to Tennessee.
The pro-amendment faction wore yellow roses in their lapels, and the “anti” faction wore red American Beauty roses. It was a close battle and the state legislature was tied 48 to 48. The decision came down to one vote: that of 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest state legislator. He had been expected to vote against it, but he had in his pocket a note from his mother, which read: “Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother.” He voted in favor of the amendment.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.
“To push the envelope” is an expression that means to exceed or try to exceed the normal limits. “Stationery” is writing materials such as paper and envelopes. “Stationary” (-ary) means to not move. This pun plays with the word stationery/ stationery and the idea of pushing something (moving something) and staying still (stationary).
In the early 2000s, as researchers began to make use of the NES data to understand how authoritarianism affected US politics, their work revealed three insights that help explain not just the rise of Trump, but seemingly a half-century of American political dynamics.
The first was Hetherington and Weiler’s insight into partisan polarization. In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, where their concentration gave them more and more influence over time.
The second was Stenner’s theory of “activation.” In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been “activated.”
This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.
Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren’t “activated” — they’ve always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.
But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.
The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.
But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.
Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.
This theory would seem to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like the support base that has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to propel Donald Trump from sideshow loser of the 2012 GOP primary to runaway frontrunner in 2016.
Beyond being almost alarmingly prescient, this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.
And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?
For years now, before anyone thought a person like Donald Trump could possibly lead a presidential primary, a small but respected niche of academic research has been laboring over a question, part political science and part psychology, that had captivated political scientists since the rise of the Nazis.
How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader?
To answer that question, these theorists study what they call authoritarianism: not the dictators themselves, but rather the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.
The political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed.
After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question, specifically studying how it plays out in American politics: researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.
The field, after a breakthrough in the early 1990s, has come to develop the contours of a grand theory of authoritarianism, culminating quite recently, in 2005, with Stenner’s seminal The Authoritarian Dynamic — just in time for that theory to seemingly come true, more rapidly and in greater force than any of them had imagined, in the personage of one Donald Trump and his norm-shattering rise.
According to Stenner’s theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.
It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, “In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.”
Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump and will persist as a force in American politics.
Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.
This is, after all, a time of social change in America. The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before. Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.
When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.
If you were to read every word these theorists ever wrote on authoritarians, and then try to design a hypothetical candidate to match their predictions of what would appeal to authoritarian voters, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.
But political scientists say this theory explains much more than just Donald Trump, placing him within larger trends in American politics: polarization, the rightward shift of the Republican Party, and the rise within that party of a dissident faction challenging GOP orthodoxies and upending American politics.
More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggest that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, have created what is essentially a new political party within the GOP — a phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election but will persist long after it has ended.