Just who believes the claim that Trump won in 2020 and that the election was stolen from him? Who are these tens of millions of Americans and what draws them into this web of delusion?
Three sources provided The Times with survey data: The University of Massachusetts-Amherst Poll; P.R.R.I. (the Public Religion Research Institute); and Reuters-Ipsos. With minor exceptions, the data from all three polls is similar.
Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, summed it up:
P.R.R.I. also tested agreement or disagreement with a view that drives “replacement theory” — “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” — and found that 60 percent of Republicans agreed, as do 55 percent of conservatives.
The Reuters/Ipsos data showed that among white Republicans, those without college degrees were far more likely to agree “that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump,” at 69 percent, than white Republicans with college degrees, at a still astonishing 51 percent. The same survey data showed that the level of this belief remained consistently strong (60 percent plus) among Republicans of all ages living in rural, suburban or urban areas.
With that data in mind, let’s explore some of the forces guiding these developments.
In their September 2021 paper, “Exposure to authoritarian values leads to lower positive affect, higher negative affect, and higher meaning in life,” seven scholars — Jake Womick, John Eckelkamp, Sam Luzzo, Sarah J. Ward, S. Glenn Baker, Alison Salamun and Laura A. King — write:
How does authoritarianism relate to immigration? Womick provided some insight in an email:
Womick notes that his own study of the 2016 primaries showed that Trump voters were unique compared with supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their
In their paper, Womick and his co-authors ask
Their answer is twofold:
They describe negative affect as “feeling sad, worried, or enraged.” Definitions of “meaning in life,” they write,
In a separate paper, “The existential function of right‐wing authoritarianism,” Womick, Ward and King, joined by Samantha J. Heintzelman and Brendon Woody, provide more detail:
From another vantage point, Womick and his co-authors continue,
In the authors’ view, right-wing authoritarianism,
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,
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:
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
The division between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, they write, is
In addition, according to the 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:
Marietta reports that he and his colleagues
Once they realize that the perceptions of other people are “different from their own,” Marietta continued,
I asked Barker about the role of hubris in contemporary polarization and he wrote back:
At the same time, Barker continued,
Put another way. Barker wrote,
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.”
Using M.R.I. brain scans, the authors “examined this dark side of morality by identifying specific cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with beliefs about the appropriateness of sociopolitical violence” to determine “the extent to which the engagement of these mechanisms was predicted by moral convictions.”
Their conclusion: “Moral conviction about sociopolitical issues serves to increase their subjective value, overriding natural aversion to interpersonal harm.”
In a striking passage, Workman, Yoder and Decety argue that
What, then, Workman and his co-authors ask, “separates accepting ‘deserved’ vigilantism from others and justifying any behavior — rioting, warfare — as means to morally desirable ends?”
Their answer is disconcerting:
The authors propose two theories to account for this:
In a 2018 paper, “A multilevel social neuroscience perspective on radicalization and terrorism,” Decety, Workman and Robert Pape ask: “Why are some people capable of sympathizing with and/or committing acts of political violence, such as attacks aimed at innocent targets?”
For starters, they note:
Instead, Decety, Pape and Workman contend that
This immediately raises another question: “Are there characteristics that distinguish individuals who merely hold extreme views from those who act on those views by engaging in ideologically motivated violence?”
Decety, Pape and Workman cite a range of findings:
From political psychology:
From the study of moral values:
The tools of political science, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, psychology, cognitive science and sociology are all necessary to understand the ongoing upheaval in politics — not just in America but also globally.
On Sept. 30, for example, the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Project Home Fire released a survey showing unexpectedly large percentages of voters agreeing with the statement:
“The situation in America is such that I would favor states seceding from the union to form their own separate county.”
Among Trump voters, 52 percent agreed, with 25 percent in strong agreement; among Biden voters, 41 percent agreed, 18 percent strongly.
There are credible reasons to find this alarming.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.