The current political campaign season is not just a source of entertainment or concern (depending on your level of seriousness about it); it is also a source of education on persuasion. One important new lesson comes from political consultant and public opinion researcher Mathew MacWilliams in a current essay in Politico. I will usually avoid articles with a title beginning with “One Weird Trick" or "Trait…”, but this one, "One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You're a Trump Supporter," piqued my interest. While many Americans might dismiss the charismatic billionaire's support as coming from an unsophisticated and possibly racist rabble, it turns out that statistically, it isn't education, race, ideology, religiosity, or income-level that predicts support for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Instead, based on MacWilliams' national poll of 1,800 registered voters this past December, there were only two statistically significant predictors of Trump support. One was a fear of terrorism, and the other -- by far the more significant contributor -- is authoritarianism. That word "authoritarianism" has a political connotation, with those on the right negatively associating it with socialism or communism, while those on the left negatively associate it with facism. But the term doesn't just apply to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Kim Jong-un. In this context, it is a psychological trait, albeit one that can carry the political implication of helping people like those listed leaders gain or keep support. As MacWilliams explains, "Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened." Based on his analysis of the survey, that personality dimension is the single best explanation for Trump's support.
That isn't to say that all Trump supporters, much less all Republicans, are high in authoritarianism: they aren't. At the same time, the patterns are clear. Among those surveyed, MacWilliams found that 49 percent of likely Republican primary voters scored in the top quartile of authoritarians (which is more than twice the ratio of Democratic voters). For those voters, Trump is the only candidate for whom the degree of authoritarianism is a significant predictor of support. So one scenario leading to a President Trump might involve the candidate locking in not only the 49 percent of Republicans, but also the 39 percent of independents, and possibly the 17 percent of Democrats who are also high authoritarians. That, aided by some nonauthoritarians who simply fear terrorism (and respond by seeking out the most brash and bellicose personality in the race), could conceivably equal a majority. Now, before anyone gets too excited or too depressed about that scenario, it remains true that Trump is still America's least-popular candidate. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage and the plurality-lead in a crowded Republican field, Nate Silver explains that Trump's unfavorability rating -- 58 percent across the boards -- remains far higher than anyone else's, and it would take a dramatic change to the playing field for Trump to be electable in a general election. Still, the authoritarian angle provides a way of understanding the Trump phenomena. That understanding means not being dismissive of supporters, but instead understanding a bit more about the personality dynamic that Trump appeals to. This post takes a brief look at the authoritarian personality as well as its implications to litigation.
The Authoritarian Personality: Generally
Interest in the psychological dimensions of authoritarianism peaked following World War II, as academic researchers sought to understand the appeal of powerful and charismatic leaders. Theordore Adorno wrote "The Authoritarian Personality," in 1950 and, since then, it has become one of the most studied factors in social science. The authoritarian personality is defined by a durable attitude or more temporary state of mind which prioritizes a belief in absolute obedience or submission to authority. High authoritarians are also identified by inflexibility, intolerance for ambiguity, and hostility toward anyone regarded as inferior. Anyone who has known a strong "alpha dog" litigator knows someone who is likely high in authoritarianism. They can be strict, dominating, and oppressive, particularly to those they view as subordinates.
In part, authoritarianism can be measured based on attitudes toward children and child-rearing. For example, to measure the trait in his survey, Mathew MacWilliams asked just four questions: Did respondents feel it is more important to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious? Now, to me, those answers are obvious (and I'm proud of my independent, self-reliant, considerate, and curious child). But to the extent that respondents picked the other options, they score higher on authoritarianism. The broader measure for authoritarianism (known as the "F-scale"), as well as more modern updates and variations, include more measures and dimensions. The concept ends up being a very robust predictor of attitudes in a variety of contexts. One of those contexts, of course, is law and litigation.
The Authoritarian Personality: In Litigation
In criminal cases, authoritarian jurors are the prosecutor’s best friend. There are some obvious reasons for that: An outsized fear of threats plays into the theme of community protection, and an emphasis on rule following encourages a "law and order" mentality leading to higher convictions and tougher penalties. In civil litigation, authoritarianism also plays a role in jury analysis. To the extent that authoritarians are conservative, they're likely to be skeptical of lawsuits, large awards, and plaintiffs who are challenging larger powers and interests. The Reptile approach for plaintiffs might be viewed as a method of framing cases so they are more likely to appeal to the high authoritarians who may end up on your jury.
The text Jurywork summarizes some of the implications of high authoritarians in a civil trial context:
- Authoritarianism helps jurors set aside misgivings about the law and follow instructions they don't personally support.
- High authoritarians have greater difficulty in seeing shared responsibility or comparable fault, preferring black-and-white findings of blame.
- High authoritarians are less likely to root for a perceived underdog, and may have greater difficulty assigning fault to an individual or organization that is normally held in high regard.
With his emphasis on external threats from muslim and Mexican immigrants, as well as a priority on unquestioned power ("Make America Great Again"), it makes sense that Trump supporters would tend to score higher on authoritarianism. But apart from explaining the rise of Trump, authoritarianism is also a useful step in analyzing and selecting a jury. When that personality dimension bears on your case, and when you have the opportunity for an extended supplemental juror questionnaire, consider dropping in some questions designed to measure authoritarianism.