As we collectively ponder the mystery of Donald Trump’s surging support, two theories have attracted particular attention. One explanation sees in Trump the rise of authoritarian psychological tendencies in the American public. Another credits Trump’s popularity to his uncanny facility with social media (and Twitter in particular), which has allowed him to directly deliver his message to millions of people without depending on the mainstream media, with its inconvenient practice of fact-checking.
But we don’t have to choose between blaming authoritarians and blaming the Internet. If we take what we know about the psychology of authoritarian tendencies and combine it with what we now know about the Internet, it’s clear that both theories have merit: Donald Trump’s evil genius lies in using the unique capacities of online communication to fuel and ignite latent authoritarianism.
Let’s start with the authoritarian side of the equation. As Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay note in a 2011 study of Americans’ support for the War on Terror, while authoritarian leanings in individuals reflect “a need for conformity to group norms” that is “activated under conditions of ‘normative’ threat,” even low-authoritarian personalities can adopt more authoritarian positions when they feel threatened. They also cite extensive evidence that “authoritarians experience unusually high levels of anxiety, insecurity, and stress.”
And there’s never been a better time to be a stressed-out proto-authoritarian! Between unemployment, terrorism, mass shootings, and extreme weather, there is no shortage of stressors to prime the pump. Yes, the pharmaceutical industry is busy finding new and better pills to take the anxiety away, and marijuana is now legal in several states, but they can hardly keep up with the day-to-day anxiety fest of cable news, Facebook, and Twitter.
So we’ve got a perfect breeding ground for anxious authoritarians. Now, let’s see what happens when you add @realDonaldTrump—and his endless tirade of angry tweets and Instagram photos—into the mix.
As Bruce Bimber noted all the way back in 1998, the Internet makes grassroots mobilization a lot easier for anyone “outside the boundaries of traditional private and public institutions.” Now, I hardly buy Trump’s self-proclaimed status as the ultimate political outsider. But it’s pretty clear that he’s outside the boundaries of the traditional Republican party. He’s broken barriers that would have been hard to crack in the pre-Internet world.
Bimber predicted that the Internet’s support for grassroots mobilization could lead to a political system “in which government officials increasingly hear from and respond to new kinds of groups—those without large, stable memberships or affiliations with established institutions.” He dubbed this vision “accelerated pluralism,” in which new kinds of political constituencies could appear and take hold, potentially around very specific issues.
Anxious authoritarians constitute exactly that kind of political constituency. Thanks to the power of the Internet, Trump has been able to mobilize grassroots support that doesn’t map onto any existing set of institutions or memberships—but does map onto authoritarian tendencies. He’s created one of the “new kinds of groups” Bimber anticipated; he’s turned anxiety into a constituency.
But there’s reason for hope. In another study of the relationship between anxiety and politics—this time, into online political engagement specifically—Valentino et al. showed test subjects a news story intended to convey a sense of impending threat, and then looked at whether and how subjects searched for online information about the presidential campaign. People who got anxious in the face of that threatening news story were less likely to go searching for diverse, balanced information, which may explain how anxious Trump supporters are able to avoid the oodles of stories debunking their candidate’s claims and positions.
There was one situation in which anxious readers became more likely to look for balanced information, however: if they expected to debate someone with exposing views. When they knew they’d need the information, they went looking for it, and became more informed because of their anxiety, not despite it.
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And if the Internet is good at stoking anxiety and facilitating grassroots mobilization, it is also great at catalyzing political debate. All those Facebook comment arguments and Twitter flamewars are exactly what we need if we want to stir our anxious fellow citizens into active engagement with the facts. So go forth and do your civic duty by arguing vociferously online. Make the argument civil, and you may also raise the bar for the candidate himself.