Opinion | Trump True Believers Have Their Reasons

In his email, Womick expanded on his work: “The idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.”

These ideologies, Womick continued,

should eventually promote a sense of significance (as insignificance is what drove the person to endorse the ideology in the first place). Endorsing right-wing authoritarianism relates to higher meaning in life, and exposing people to authoritarian values causally enhances meaning.

In “Race and Authoritarianism in American Politics,” Christopher Sebastian Parker and Christopher C. Towler, political scientists at the University of Washington and Sacramento State, make a parallel argument:

Confining the definition of authoritarianism to regime rule, however, leaves little room for a discussion of more contemporary authoritarianism at the micro level. This review shifts focus to an assessment of political psychology’s concept of authoritarianism and how it ultimately drives racism. Ultimately, we believe a tangible connection exists between racism and authoritarianism.

Taking a distinct but complementary approach, David C. Barker, Morgan Marietta and Ryan DeTamble, all political scientists, argue in “Intellectualism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Epistemic Hubris in Red and Blue America” that epistemic hubris — the expression of unwarranted factual certitude — is

prevalent, bipartisan and associated with both intellectualism (an identity marked by ruminative habits and learning for its own sake) and anti-intellectualism (negative affect toward intellectuals and the intellectual establishment).

The division between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, they write, is

distinctly partisan: intellectuals are disproportionately Democratic, whereas anti-intellectuals are disproportionately Republican. By implication, we suggest that both the intellectualism of blue America and the anti-intellectualism of red America contribute to the intemperance and intransigence that characterize civil society in the United States.

In addition, according to Barker, Marietta and DeTamble, “The growing intellectualism of blue America and anti-intellectualism of red America, respectively, may partially explain the tendency by both to view the other as some blend of dense, duped and dishonest.”

In an email, Marietta wrote:

The evidence is clear that the hubris driven by intellectual identity and the hubris driven by anti-intellectual affect lower our willingness to compromise with those who seem to lack character and honesty. I suspect the divide in perceptions, but unanimity in hubris, feeds the growing belief that democracy is failing and hence anti-democratic or illiberal policies are justified.

Marietta reports that he and his colleagues

conducted a series of experiments to see what happens when ordinary citizens are faced with others who hold contrary perceptions of reality about things like climate change or racism or the effects of immigration. The results are not pretty.

Once they realize that the perceptions of other people are “different from their own,” Marietta continued,

Americans are far less likely to want to be around them in the workplace and are far more likely to conclude that they are stupid or dishonest. These inclinations are symmetrical, with liberals rejecting conservatives as much (or sometimes more) than conservatives reject liberals. The disdain born of intellectual identity seems to mirror the disdain arising from anti-intellectual affect.

I asked Barker about the role of hubris in contemporary polarization, and he wrote back:

The populist right hates the intellectual left because they hate being condescended to, they hate what they perceive as their hypersensitivity and they hate what they view as an anti-American level of femininity (which is for whatever reason associated with intellectualism).

At the same time, Barker continued,

the intellectual left really does see the G.O.P. as a bunch of deplorable rubes. They absolutely feel superior to them, and they reveal it constantly on Twitter and elsewhere — further riling up the “deplorables.”

Put another way, Barker wrote,

The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.

What is a critical factor in the development of hubris? Moral conviction, the authors reply: “The most morally committed citizens are also the most epistemically hubristic citizens”; that is, they are most inclined “to express absolute certainty regarding the truth or falsehood” of claims “for which the hard evidence is unclear or contradictory.”

Moral conviction plays a key role in the work of Clifford Workman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania. Workman, Keith J. Yoder and Jean Decety write in “The Dark Side of Morality — Neural Mechanisms Underpinning Moral Convictions and Support for Violence” that “people are motivated by shared social values that, when held with moral conviction, can serve as compelling mandates capable of facilitating support for ideological violence.”

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