Can parenting style predict Trump support?

Last week, after I learned that science and karma had gotten together and handed Donald Trump the ultimate C-note, it was the first time I've felt confident that he wouldn't be returning to the White House. I know, don't count your chickens and all that... but I can't help but think that, in the near future, we might actually awake from this national nightmare.

But the upcoming election has me thinking a lot about this fascinating study, published four years ago out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which found the best indicator of a voter's level of Trump bias was the voter's preferred style of parenting. Trump supporters, the study found, may have been all over the place in terms of age, income, education, religion and other political markers, but their views on raising children? Those were relatively consistent.

Trumpers tended to be authoritarians.

Quick reminder: Authoritarian parents are the equivalent of "controlling" parents. (See the chart below.) These parents are strict, demanding and somewhat "old-fashioned" in how they view discipline. They set rules and insist their kids follow those rules, no questions asked. It’s the old “my-way-or-the-highway,” “because-I-said-so” and “no-backtalk” routine.

Authoritarians — who almost always are following in the footsteps of their own parents —often don't encourage kids to think critically about what people say because they don’t want their kids thinking critically about what they say. The boss is always in control, and the parent is always boss. Lots of manipulation tactics — yelling, spanking, time-outs, groundings, lost privileges, bribery, you name it.

“For authoritarians," Matthew MacWilliams, the study's author, told the Washington Post, "things are black and white. Authoritarians obey.”

Here’s how the study was conducted:

Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which trait in each of the following pairs were more important in children:

  • independence vs. respect for their elders;

  • curiosity vs. good manners;

  • self-reliance vs. obedience;

  • being considerate vs. being well-behaved.

Psychologists identified those who picked the second traits (respect for elders, good manners, obedience and being well-behaved) as "authoritarians"— that is, people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership. That many of Trump’s supporters shared this trait helped to explain the success of Trump's unconventional candidacy and suggested that his rivals would have a hard time winning over his adherents.

“For authoritarians, things are black and white. Authoritarians obey.” — Matthew MacWilliams

Four years later, that has certainly proven to be the case.

In fact, I'm convinced Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and breathe his Covid breathe over all of his supporters, and they would inhale it like cocaine and ask for more. In short, they will never stand down.

MacWilliams, the study's author, was quick to point out that not all authoritarian parents are Republicans (I can definitely attest to that!) and that not all authoritarian parenting is bad (no comment).

Nonetheless, it's worth noting that research on authoritarianism began after World War II, when psychologists and social scientists wanted to understand how so many people could support repressive, homicidal dictatorships in Europe and elsewhere. No joke.

“I’m not saying they’re fascists,” MacWilliams said of die-hard Trump supporters.

He may be in the minority on that one.

And yet. While it's still shocking to me to see how many people support this sociopath, after all we've been through, I keep returning to the fact that we all are limited by our own circumstances — and our own upbringing. I'm reminded of something F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had."

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had." — F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I shove my fatalistic alter ego to the back of the closet and allow myself a little sunlight, I can't help but think we're moving in the right direction again. The power of RGB, Black Lives Matter and our slow but steady movement toward heart-centered parenting give me something resembling hope.

And I'll be honest: I haven't felt that in a long, long time.