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?