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Why Trump's Lies and Transgressions Appeal to His Followers

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Donald Trump breaks the rules. For his followers, that's part of his appeal. Trump specializes in the lie. That, too, draws his followers to him.

That's because Trump's movement is an appeal to the authoritarian personality, which is built around a fundamental lie, and which is, at its root, a rebellion against the order it pretends to serve.

Let me explain.


The pundits have exclaimed since near the outset about how the usual rules don't apply to Trump. His insults to Mexicans, John McCain, Fox News, his opponents, etc. -- all these transgressions were supposed to bring him down. But they didn't. Instead, Trump's support just kept building. ("I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," Trump famously said.)

His transgressions showed millions of people that he was their kind of guy.

Take Trump's use of the idea of "political correctness." In the world that Trump has created for his followers, hostility to the term "politically correct" has been expanded into permission to behave badly in a whole variety of ways. Not only are old forms of bigotry allowed, by the transgressive leader, to crawl back out from under the rocks. But more broadly, Trump claims a license to take a sledge hammer to our political norms, to good manners, and to just plain decency.

Trump enacts all his transgressions under the banner of making America "great again." As if our nation's greatness has nothing to do with its values. Which is also why the man who says he'll make our nation great again also says he will exercise powers not granted the president by the Constitution, condones political violence, and deals with the press as if the Bill of Rights did not exist.

The strangeness of using a wrecking ball as a primary tool to supposedly build back our national greatness connects with the role of the lie in his leadership.

A fact-checking organization -- the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact -- found that 76% of the statements from Donald Trump were either mostly false, false, or "pants on fire" false. Trump's percentage of falsehoods was much higher than any of the other presidential candidates. And Politifact gave the "Lie of the Year" award to the whole body of Trump's campaign misstatements.

Norm Ornstein has said that while many voters care about the truth, we don't know what that portion is. But the big question is why is it that the portion of voters who don't care about the truth is so large that they've been able to elevate a consistent liar to the status of nominee for president of one of America's two major parties.

To answer that, it is necessary to understand the authoritarian personality.


First, it should be noted: it has been empirically established -- by a study by Matthew MacWilliams, published on Politico -- that authoritarians are a major component in Trump's following. Indeed, MacWilliam's study found that "authoritarianism" is the variable most highly predictive of whether a voter's preferred candidate was Donald Trump.

Authoritarianism is a long-established concept in both theory and in empirical research. (The work goes back to the years right after World War II, when many felt a pressing need to understand how Nazism could have gained power in such a "civilized" nation as Germany."

Psychological studies have suggested that to raise children to be authoritarians, one should subject them to demands harsh enough -- with deviation or rebellion so little tolerated -- that the children will feel safer identifying with the powerful authority, even at the cost of pushing their real needs and feelings underground. Those parts of the self for which there is no place in the harsh "morality" that is being imposed are thereafter denied.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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