The authoritarian mandate is to ensure the security, purity, and goodness of the in-group—to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. In the 1820s, white settlers in Georgia and other frontier areas lived in constant fear of American Indian tribes. They resented the federal government for not keeping them safe from what they perceived to be a mortal threat and a corrupting contagion. Responding to these fears, President Jackson pushed hard for the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which eventually led to the forced relocation of 45,000 American Indians. At least 4,000 Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears, which ran from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory.
An American strand of authoritarianism may help explain why the thrice-married, foul-mouthed Donald Trump should prove to be so attractive to white Christian evangelicals. As Jerry Falwell Jr. told The New York Times in February, “All the social issues—traditional family values, abortion—are moot if isis blows up some of our cities or if the borders are not fortified.” Rank-and-file evangelicals “are trying to save the country,” Falwell said. Being “saved” has a special resonance among evangelicals—saved from sin and damnation, of course, but also saved from the threats and impurities of a corrupt and dangerous world.
TRUMP APPEALS TO AN ANCIENT FEAR OF CONTAGION, WHICH ANALOGIZES OUT-GROUPS TO PARASITES AND POISONS.
When my research associates and I once asked politically conservative Christians scoring high on authoritarianism to imagine what their life (and their world) might have been like had they never found religious faith, many described utter chaos—families torn apart, rampant infidelity and hate, cities on fire, the inner rings of hell. By contrast, equally devout politically liberal Christians who scored low on authoritarianism described a barren world depleted of all resources, joyless and bleak, like the arid surface of the moon. For authoritarian Christians, a strong faith—like a strong leader—saves them from chaos and tamps down fears and conflicts. Donald Trump is a savior, even if he preens and swears, and waffles on the issue of abortion.
In December, on the campaign trail in Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump stoked fears in his audience by repeatedly saying that “something bad is happening” and “something really dangerous is going on.” He was asked by a 12-year-old girl from Virginia, “I’m scared—what are you going to do to protect this country?”
Trump responded: “You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”