The Corner


Trump, Parenting, and the “Authoritarian Personality”

I have always been suspicious of claims that support for Donald Trump is rooted in voters’ deep-seated personality traits, and in particular on their “authoritarian” instincts. According to this line of thinking, it is deeply significant that one’s answers to four questions about child-rearing are correlated with support for Trump. If you think it’s more important for a child to be “well-behaved” than to be “considerate,” you’re more likely to be Trump supporter than if you have the opposite preference. (I have no idea how I would answer the question, since the idea that there is an important distinction between these qualities had never occurred to me before seeing this survey question.)

Jeffrey Friedman provides additional reasons for skepticism in an essay for the Niskanen Center. He points out that it’s not surprising that post-World War II thinking about progressive child-rearing practices have been more influential among liberals than conservatives, and that this fact could do a lot to explain the correlations. He points out, as well, that the rise over time in people’s willingness to give the progressive answer to these questions suggests that they are not telling us anything about deep personality structures.

The finding that our “authoritarian” index has changed a lot over time, Friedman writes,

is devastating to the assumption that the four binaries are grounded in personality structures: such structures are not supposed to change. This changelessness is what makes a personality-based explanation “deep” and confers on it the law-like, immutable qualities that Stenner claims for authoritarian-personality theory. As she puts it, authoritarians are “the kind of people who—by virtue of deep-seated predispositions neither they nor we have much capacity to alter—will always be imperfect democratic citizens.” Personality-based theories are supposed to identify the universal constants underlying certain types of behavior, where “shallower” theories would explain behavior in terms of more transient causes, such as historically contingent beliefs.

He doesn’t say it, but this sure sounds like politics masquerading as science. Then again, maybe that’s the kind of thing authoritarians like me say.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.