John Dean: Will Trump's Supporters Ever Turn Against Him?

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

When writing my book Conservatives Without Conscience (Penguin, 2007) about the authoritarianism that was gaining influence in the Republican Party in the early 2000s, I read most everything that social scientists had to say about folks with such dispositions.

Particularly helpful was psychology professor Bob Altemeyer's book for Harvard University Press, The Authoritarian Specter (1996). No one has done more ground-breaking work in testing the nature of these people than this professor, who was then at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

A native of St. Louis who had done his graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Bob is also a keen student of American politics. Indeed, his son is in the business in Canada, and a member of the Manitoba Legislature.

I thought it would be helpful to many Americans to be exposed to Bob's scholarly studies, and convinced him to write them up in a book for the general reader. He did, and placed it online for anyone to read for free. See The Authoritarians. (Last time I checked, over 670,000 people had visited the book, and hopefully read it!)

Anti Sharia law and Trump supporters march along the beach during the March For Human rights and Against Sharia law demonstration in Oceanside, California on Saturday, June 10, 2017. Trump supporters held several rallies around the nation to bring attention to helping protect women and children from Sharia law and its impact on Muslim women and children including honor killings and female genital mutilation. SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty

Bob Altemeyer saw Donald Trump coming. More accurately, he saw the kinds of men and women who would vote for a Donald Trump-type candidate for high office.

These are people he described in his earlier works Right Wing Authoritarians, and Enemies of Freedom. Without going too deep into the weeds, let me note a few of these people score high on testing that shows they not only can be devoted followers of authoritarian leaders, the so-called social dominators like Trump who want to be in charge, but they also test high as social dominators themselves.

These seemingly incongruous testing results—testing high as both followers and leaders—have been explained as the social dominators envisioning the type of follower they want as leaders, or their willingness to be good followers until they get their chance to become leaders. I labeled these "double high" people as conservatives without conscience, because it is a perfect description of those who top both scales in this testing.

When I started writing about these authoritarian personalities in 2005, I was looking for an explanation of the people who had taken charge of the Republican Party. That's when I found Altemeyer's work, which was (and still is) widely accepted.

In fact, he was awarded the prestigious prize for behavioral science research in 1986, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science recognized his work.

Working in 2005, I asked him what percentage of the American population might he estimate (or intelligently guess) were authoritarian followers, and he thought maybe 30 percent.

Working on my book it seemed inconceivable that so few could ever elect a president. When Trump emerged in 2015 as a GOP contender, while I thought he could win the nomination, I was certain that was the end of the road: "Of only one thing am I absolutely certain: Donald Trump will never be President of the United States, so rest easy. Authoritarians remain a minority in America, thankfully," I declared on July 24, 2015.

Authoritarians do remain a minority, but with non-voters and anti-Hillary Clinton voters, Trump pulled off a historic upset. It appears his core supporters remain faithful—regardless of what he does or doesn't do.

So, I asked Bob Altemeyer, what if anything would get through to the Trump supporters, given the fact Trump has shown himself, so far, totally incompetent as President of the United States. Set forth below is material from Bob, who is now enjoying his retirement.

He writes:

It took many months for Americans to stop supporting President Nixon during Watergate, and even at the end he could count on a hard knot of supporters who would believe him, as he said to [his chief of staff] H. R. Haldeman, because they wanted to. (NYT, 11/22/1974, p. 20). A few days before he resigned, 24 percent of a Gallup sample approved of the way Nixon was doing his job, including 38 percent of the Republicans polled.

Most of Donald Trump's supporters are probably people whom social psychologists call authoritarian followers, because they are so supportive of the authorities they consider legitimate.

These are the people Trump was talking about when he famously bragged that he could shoot somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and it would make no difference to his backers. They are the people who so willingly took the "loyalty pledge" at Trump rallies in the early primaries—even calling on Trump to "do the swearing" when he had skipped it.

We know enough about authoritarian supporters from research, and history, to know it will be very hard to change their minds about the leader they adore.

  • They are extremely ethnocentric, dividing the world sharply into people in their in-group, and automatically disliking all others. They feel politicians who promote minority rights and immigration discriminate against them. Donald Trump tells them they are right. He is their champion.
  • They are highly dogmatic. They get their ideas from others in the in-group, especially from their leader, not from evidence and logic. They say there is no evidence that will make them change their minds. They're quite comfortable believing "alternate facts."
  • They get great satisfaction from being part of a large movement. Being in a cohesive crowd at rallies thrills them because they silently tell one another, just by being there, that they are powerful and right. They create an echo chamber that reinforces the belief that all the good people think like they do.
  • They severely limit their sources of information. They get the news that they want to get. This also produces an echo chamber when the news sources they trust are copying each other and relaying Trump's message.
  • They have highly compartmentalized minds. When an unpleasant truth forces its way into their awareness, they do not try to integrate the other things they believe with it. Instead they put it in a box and isolate it from the rest of their thinking, which proceeds as if the truth never existed.

Put all this together and you get an idea how hard it will be to change their minds about Donald Trump.

One can expect some of Trump's followers to waver if the months ahead are thick with damaging revelations like those that brought down the Nixon White House. But a repeat of "Watergate-type scandals" may not damage Trump as much as they did Nixon.

Nixon had little means of communicating directly with his supporters. Trump's followers eagerly await his tweets to tell them the truth they will believe and repeat to one another. And so far, they have apparently believed everything he's said.

Second, the major news outlets in the 1970s were the three TV networks. There was no Fox News. And while there were some newspaper columnists and radio personalities who supported Nixon, today there are dozens of Trump-endorsing blogs that are on tens of millions of "Favorites" lists in American homes.

Third, Trump's party controls all three branches of the federal government.

Given this gloomy assessment of how likely Trump's support is going to weaken, it seems clear that the more effective strategy now is to activate the Americans who oppose him, who happily amount to a solid majority of the public.

Questions [people ask):

How do people get this way? Answer: There is evidence that authoritarian followers are more afraid than most people. And also, that they were trained in self-righteousness, and ethnocentric thinking in early age.

Will Trump supporters never change? Answer: Some will, if their personal experience shows them Trump has misled them or caused them grief, such as a loss of medical coverage. And if you anticipate a close election in 2020, these people are worth pursuing. But Trump will blame others, and his supporters will give him the benefit of the doubt more than most people will.

Isn't all this true of Obama/Clinton supporters too? Answer: Yes, to a certain extent, but the studies show it's much more prevalent "on the right." If you want a generalization about generalizations, these things are about 2-3x as true among right-wingers as among left-wingers. Research has shown that "progressives" are much less ethnocentric, much less prejudiced, much more likely to be guided by logic and evidence, much more likely to have consistent ideas, much less likely to conform, much less likely to trust someone just because he says he agrees with them, have much more self-insight, and so on.

With that information in mind, from someone who may understand Trump supporters better than Trump does, it is clear that to prevail in 2018 and 2020, Democrats must focus on getting sympathetic non-voters to the polls, and bring back into the fold the anti-Hillary folks, who suffered from Clinton exhaustion—voters who are clearly not right-wing authoritarians.

John W. Dean is a former counsel to President Richard M. Nixon.