The Rise of the Uncontrollable: When Authoritarianism and Social Media Unite


When Donald J. Trump announced his bid for presidency in summer 2015, many observers had a good laugh. Nine months later, the situation is now completely different. Trump is leading is almost every Republican poll, has a lead in the delegates among his contenders, and has won not just the majority of the primaries, but controls almost every corner of the media landscape – debatably the most crucial field to have dominance in. Political theorists, commentators, and scientists are baffled over a fairly simple question: how is it that a candidate such as Donald J. Trump, with such a lack of experience and intense aura of racism and hatred could rise so quickly?

Through the analyses of four key texts, Vox’s article on authoritarianism, Clay Shirky’s 50 tweet rant, and two official policy papers from the Trump campaign, it will be apparent there are many larger forces at play that are creating an environment for Trump’s messages to flourish. Between the high levels of unforeseen authoritarian voters in America, the impact social media has on political parties, and the racially charged rhetoricTrump has been advocating, it is certainly possible we could see him taking the oath of office this coming January.

In early March, Vox, a traditionally left-leaning news website, released an extensive 50-page article titled “The rise of American authoritarianism” with the intention of explaining Trump’s unexpected climb. The article drives home the idea that it is not ignorance or bigotry that correlate with Trump’s voters. According to the article, “support [for Trump] seems to cross demographic lines – education, income, age, even religiosity.” Rather, a specific attraction to authoritarianism seems to be the largest indicator of person likely to vote for Trump.

The article goes further in explaining the causes of why someone would seek out an authoritarian leader like Trump. Recent demographic and economic shifts in America have caused many to be attracted to his macho and “non-politically correct” language. For one, whites are projected to be a minority population in the next 20 or 30 years, leaving many in his voting bloc feeling threatened their privilege and status may not be around forever. Social changes like the passing of gay marriage in the United States is seen as a threat as well.

In addition, the move towards outsourced labor has left working-class populations feeling taken advantage of by minority groups, with a specific focus on immigrants from Mexico. These factors have led to an extensive push for candidates like Trump preaching for a return to the “old days,” or as he calls it “making America great again.”

Authoritarianism can be measured through a number of ways, but the most effective seems to be asking participants about their parenting goals, according to the article. In the 1990’s Stanley Feldman, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, created four questions to measure someone’s authoritarian tendencies:

Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?

Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?

Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?

Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Feldman’s questions demonstrated to be incredibly effective in discovering those who were authoritarian. Vox put together a similar set of questions, polled voters for two weeks, and found that “more than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters.”

According to the article, “authoritarianism was the single best predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close.” The article also explored other factors that would indicate a Trump supporter – not just demographic or economic ones, but specifically which fears and threats voters saw most menacing in today’s geopolitical landscape (see Figure 1).

Authoritarian’s seem to be most afraid of threats one can put a face to; a terrorist or Vladimir Putin. When asked about domestic threats, like gun violence or car accidents, authoritarians were much less fearful.

The text makes the case that these adverse reactions to issues like ISIS, Iran, and Russia are a symptom of being authoritarian – one feels deeply threatened by “outsiders.” This can also be applied to the support for Trump’s immigration policy, which calls for a wall to be built to keep out immigrants from Mexico, and stricter policies within the United States for immigrants and their families (see page 3).

All of these fears stem from an authoritarian need to secure their surroundings and push out people seen as “outsiders.” The article finishes on a melancholy note – first by making the claim that Trump’s rise is not a cause for such a rise in authoritarianism lately, but a “symptom” of the voters who exhibit such values.

Whether or not Trump is elected, his voters will not simply vanish. He is possibly just the start of a larger trend of authoritarianism in American politics.

When the Obama campaign utilized social media in 2008 to mobilize young voters and raise money, many dubbed it the “Facebook election.” For the very first time, any politician could spread their messages and policies to millions with barely any funds.

While there have been positives to this, including easier access for younger voters, this democratization of political rhetoric and broadcasting has its downfalls. It has led to candidates like Donald Trump being able to rise. Clay Shirky, who writes on the social effects of Internet technologies for Wired, The New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, went on a 50-tweet rant about this exact phenomenon.

Shirky starts his tweets by mentioning how “…Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’ — the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation.” What Shirky means by the “Overton window” is that there has always been a limit on public opinion, or what politicians can express in public. Political parties, historically, have always deemed certain topics unmentionable. Mass media that has traditionally focused around centrism has been the best way to contain and control this rhetoric.

The Internet has changed all of this. “What’s special about After Web – now – is that politicians talking about ‘Don’t mention X’ issues are doing so from inside the parties” Shirky explains in his 14th tweet. Trump is a prime example of this phenomenon, since social media has enabled him and his supporters to promote racially charged rhetoric that would have been previously unheard of or prohibited in mainstream media.

In his 36th tweet, Shirky proclaims “Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it. Now dozens can.” This encapsulates Shirky’s overall point: social media is changing politics in dramatic and unprecedented ways. Social media is the new TV channel any voter can turn to.

Previously, Trumps messages would have reached a small minority of voters, effectively deeming him politically insignificant. Facebook and Twitter have created environments in which fringe politicians can become popular. One could even argue the scale of Bernie Sanders’ support is a symptom of this new media landscape.

While Sanders’ messages do not contain the same racist and hateful rhetoric of the Trump campaign, it is still significant that he can be competitive against an establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton. Shirky’s 50th tweet asks “…Who needs a third party when the existing two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within?”

The establishment on both sides of the political spectrum are scrambling to combat this almighty social force, and will continue to for the foreseeable future. The tight grip social media has on politics certainly gives the advantage to fringe political actors – and will undoubtedly play a central role in deciding who becomes president in November.

It is impossible to consider how authoritarianism and social media can effect a campaign like Trump's without analyzing his official policy papers on immigration reform and the second amendment.

Coming directly off of his website, Trump explains his three core immigration principles. “Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first – not wealthy globetrotting donors. We are the only country in the world whose immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own.” “Real” immigration reform will be achieved by recognizing that:

A nation without borders is not a nation. There must be a wall across the southern border.

A nation without laws is not a nation. Laws passed in accordance with our Constitutional system of government must be enforced.

A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation. Any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans.

An underlying call for authoritarianism is evident in almost every immigration policy put forth. Important to notice is the emphasis on “protecting” working class citizens, Trump’s main voting bloc. This “protection” is exactly what his voters are seeking; a strongman who will guard against outsiders.

In another section of the policy paper, Trump brings up an incident where “an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old woman’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her.” This blatant fear-mongering is classically authoritarian – painting the outsiders (illegal immigrants) as violent and savage, while pushing for policies explained above.

Trump’s other policy paper is about “protecting our second amendment rights.” He claims it is first important to “enforce the laws on the books” and that gun-toting criminals are not being punished enough. Trump claims this “needs to stop,” and that to combat crime, we must empower gun owners to defend themselves.

The paper concludes by making the claim that military bases should let personnel carry firearms (right now, this is prohibited). “To make America great again, we need a strong military. To have a strong military, we need to allow them to defend themselves.” Between the punitive policy on crime and the claim that our military is weak, it is clearly evident Trump is feeding off of the authoritarian and strongman-seeking values so many of his supporters possess. These claims would not be popular without social media and its ability to let voters exhibit and promote previously taboo subjects.

Determining whether these four texts are effective can be measured in their usefulness in explaining Trump’s unexpected rise in American politics. It can be argued that authoritarianism and social media are the two underlying forces propelling Trump into the political mainstream, and that the articles set forth explain this phenomenon.

Our politics are now in an age of extreme democratization. The old rules have to be thrown out and political parties must realize that any political actor can now reach millions of people, and whether those messages will be full of love or hate will determine the course of our nation. Many voters these days are seeking out a strongman, someone who could protect them from the “unpredictable” and “volatile” world the media portrays. Pair this need with the all powerful force of social media, and candidates like Trump will inevitably rise.

Will Donald Trump win the presidential election? There are many important factors to take into account when answering this question. First, his opposition, most likely Hillary Clinton, gives him somewhat of an upper hand. While Trump is constantly first in “most unpopular” polls, Hillary Clinton comes in close second. Since Bernie Sanders has seen an unprecedented rise, he will most certainly split the Democratic party into two camps.

It is also important to note that many Bernie Sanders voters have a strong distaste for Clinton. If Trump was going to run against a more unifying Democratic candidate (Obama), his chances of winning the presidency would be lower. However, his opposition is not completely unified, which gives him an advantage. Second, it is important to not underestimate Trump.

Despite his inexperience, brash, simple, racist, and hateful rhetoric, he is debatably the most cunning presidential candidate that has run in recent times. Strategically, it would be to his advantage to use his authoritarian base as a stepping stone to the more moderate voters. Once Trump wins the Republican nomination (which will undoubtedly happen), it would not be unsurprising for his policies to turn more centrist.

This would certainly be a very dangerous and calculated move to combat Clinton. My own prediction: in November, Clinton and Trump will have a very close fight, with Clinton coming out just a bit above Trump (Trump 48%, Hillary 52%). It is up to the American people to take a step back and observe the underlying forces behind Trump’s rise, and from there make their choice on who they want to lead our nation.