With every hour that passes, Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination grows tighter. Every day in which his opponents aren’t gaining ground on his position is a day in which he gets nearer to appearing on the ballot next November and nearer to possibly being inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2025.
To many observers, there’s an incongruity to this. After all, recent days have also brought new awareness of Trump’s plans should he be inaugurated on that day, plans that are often unvarnished embraces of an authoritarian use of power. Trump plans to root out disloyal bureaucrats and install ideologically sympathetic ones. He’s speaking openly of using the Justice Department to target his opponents, including to hobble possible political opponents. And that’s just to name two recent examples.
During his first term, Trump’s administration was staffed in part by people with long track records in government who understood the balance of power between the branches and the limits on presidential authority, however acquiescent they were to Trump’s pushing those limits. Some of those who played such enabling roles have been increasingly vocal in their opposition to Trump’s efforts to regain power. But this is why Trump plans to ensure that a second administration has no one in it, at any level, who will stand in his way.
Given all of this, given Trump’s increasingly explicit rhetoric about shifting the chief executive position toward authoritarianism, it seems difficult to understand how he’s still running even with President Biden in early polling — or, in some cases, leading him. A bevy of possibilities emerges: Is the media failing to inform voters? Are Trump-supportive voters tuning out media that’s reporting on his intentions? Is he simply seen as the lesser of two evils?
Parts of each of those are probably correct. But there’s a broader, simpler explanation, too: For many Americans, a turn toward authoritarianism isn’t seen as a negative. Many Americans support that idea.
Last month, PRRI released the results of its annual American Values Survey. The pollsters asked respondents a slew of questions measuring their views of the country and its politics in the moment. Included among the questions was one that specifically addressed the question of authoritarianism: Did they think that things in the U.S. had gone so far off track that we need a leader who would break rules in order to fix the country’s direction?
About 2 in 5 respondents said they did. That included nearly half of Republicans.
Back in early 2016, political scientist and consultant Matthew MacWilliams identified support for authoritarian tendencies as a key indicator of support for Trump among Republican primary voters. Before the 2020 election, he revisited the idea, noting that “approximately 18 percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism, according to their answers to four simple survey questions used by social scientists to estimate this disposition.”
Those questions addressed several different components of authoritarian sympathy, MacWilliams explained. One asked a question similar to PRRI’s, about willingness to let a “strong leader” do what he or she wants. Another centered on perceptions of the media. A third focused on opposition to diversity.
The American National Election Studies survey conducted around presidential elections included questions that approximated the ones asked by MacWilliams.
Less than half of respondents objected to the idea that we need a strong leader, even if the leader bends existing rules. A plurality of conservatives endorsed that idea. Less than half of respondents similarly expressed concern that the government might want to muffle critical reporting with a plurality of conservatives again expressing a lack of concern about that possibility.
Most respondents did say they thought diversity made America a better place. A plurality of conservatives, though, said they thought it made no difference. They were five times as likely as liberals to say it made the country worse.
These are measurements of authoritarian sympathies in the abstract, which indicate that a lot of Americans shrug at the idea of a strong leader acting outside legal boundaries. But, again, we can see that explicitly in 2024 polling.
CNN’s most recent polling, conducted by SSRS, shows that Trump leads Biden nationally by a 4-point margin, statistically even. Even given Trump’s response to the 2020 election, though, and the myriad criminal charges he faces, respondents were five points more likely to say they would be proud to have him as president then said the same of Biden.
CNN’s poll also asked people to measure Biden and Trump on personal characteristics. Most respondents said that they thought Biden had respect for the rule of law; only about a third said the same of Trump.
But remember: 49 percent of respondents prefer Trump over Biden. Meaning that at least 14 percent of respondents both think that Trump doesn’t respect the rule of law and want him to be president.
CNN also asked whether Americans would refuse to ever support either Biden or Trump. A majority of respondents said they would never support Biden — edging out the percentage who said the same of Trump.
The issue of Trump’s legal challenges is itself instructive. For years, he’s argued that investigations into his actions are inherently political, efforts to subvert his political success. He frames this as an elite response to his fighting for average Americans, a message that resonates with his base. Despite the obvious evidence for Trump’s wrongdoing — the Capitol riot, the documents found at Mar-a-Lago, the attempts to overturn the election results in Georgia — most Americans told YouGov pollsters in August that they viewed the charges as intended to block Trump politically.
About 4 in 5 Republicans held that view. That they would then shrug at Trump doing the same to his opponents is unsurprising.
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, the press has been criticized for failing to accurately convey what he wants to do with presidential power. Again, this has at times been fair criticism. But the reason Trump is doing well in the polls at the moment is not simply that people are unfamiliar with his stated authoritarian intentions should he be inaugurated in January 2025.
It’s also that a lot of people support those intentions.