Almost half of Republicans prepared to "take the law into their own hands"

Racism predicts authoritarian fervor

A recent nationwide survey by George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs finds alarming levels of support for authoritarian positions among rank-and-file Republicans.

More than half of Republicans, for instance, say that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it.” And rather ominously, 47 percent say “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”

By way of contrast, among Democratic voters support for these positions stands at 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

Republicans are also somewhat more likely than Democrats to endorse rule-bending by strong leaders in order to “get things done.” And a whopping 82 percent of the GOP say it’s hard to trust elections when “so many people will vote for anyone who offers them a handout.”

The survey also finds low levels of Republican confidence in state and local election officials, particularly in states won by Joe Biden. Majorities of conservative voters also express skepticism that votes in the upcoming 2022 election will be tallied accurately.

All told, the results underscore the incredibly toxic mix of political pathologies being stoked by GOP elites at the moment: distrust in the electoral system combined with a growing endorsement of violence as a means to achieve political goals. If you need a reminder of what happens when voters start taking this nonsense seriously and literally, look no further than January 6.

Not all Republicans endorse these viewpoints, however. Political scientist Larry Bartels was the first to poll these questions back in 2020. He paired them with batteries of questions on topics like attitudes toward Trump and other lawmakers, the role of government and its performance, economic views, and general cynicism toward politics. He found one factor stood above all others when it came to predicting Republican support for authoritarianism: “ethnic antagonism,” which is a fun little poli-sci term that a normal person might simply call “racism.”

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Bartels found that Republicans’ responses to questions like “Do you feel African Americans get more or less than their fair share of government resources?” and “Do you think discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities?” and “Do African-Americans need to stop using racism as an excuse?” strongly predicted their support for authoritarian viewpoints. He combined all the race-related questions into a composite measure and found, as in the chart above, that the relationship between racism and authoritarianism in the GOP is a strong positive one: as racism increases, so does acceptance of anti-democratic views.

For real-world evidence in support of this finding, look no further than January 6. This week, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn testified before the House Select Committee on the racist abuse suffered by him and other Black officers that day. I’m including a full block quote from his testimony below, racial epithets included, as I think it’s necessary to look this evil in the eye.

More and more insurrectionists were pouring into the area by the Speaker’s Lobby near the Rotunda, some wearing “MAGA” hats and shirts that said “Trump 2020.” I told them to leave the Capitol, and in response, they yelled back: “No, no, man, this is our house!” “President Trump invited us here!” “We’re here to stop the steal!” “Joe Biden is not the President!” “Nobody voted for Joe Biden!”

I am a law enforcement officer, and I keep politics out of my job. But in this circumstance, I responded: “Well, I voted for Joe Biden. Does my vote not count? Am I nobody?”

That prompted a torrent of racial epithets. One woman in a pink “MAGA” shirt yelled, “You hear that, guys, this nigger voted for Joe Biden!” Then the crowd, perhaps around twenty people, joined in, screaming “Boo! Fucking Nigger!” No one had ever – ever -- called me a “nigger” while wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police officer.

In the days following the attempted insurrection, other black officers shared with me their own stories of racial abuse on January 6. One officer told me he had never, in his entire forty years of life, been called a “nigger” to his face, and that that streak ended on January 6. Yet another black officer later told he had been confronted by insurrectionists inside the Capitol, who told him to “Put your gun down and we’ll show you what kind of nigger you really are!”

Indeed, many of the Capitol rioters proudly displayed the symbols of American racism as their own: The Confederate flag. The noose. The swastika. The logos of myriad white supremacist groups.

“The support expressed by many Republicans for violations of a variety of crucial democratic norms is primarily attributable not to partisan affect, enthusiasm for President Trump, political cynicism, economic conservatism, or general cultural conservatism, but to what I have termed ethnic antagonism,” Bartels writes. “The single survey item with the highest average correlation with antidemocratic sentiments is not a measure of attitudes toward Trump, but an item inviting respondents to agree that ‘discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.’”

By contrast, Bartels found that racist attitudes were much less common among Democrats. The least-racist 5 percent of Republicans were still more racist than nearly 80 percent of Democrats. That relative lack of racism explains, in Bartels’ view, why so few Democrats endorse the authoritarian sentiments embraced by many Republicans.

Bartels cautions that telling a pollster you’ll do something isn’t the same thing as actually going out and doing it. “Many people who endorse resorting to force or taking the law into their own hands in the context of an opinion survey are unlikely to engage in actual violence or lawlessness,” he writes. “However, the United States has experienced a cataclysmic civil war and a long history of racial and ethnic violence, and currently experiences thousands of hate crimes per year; thus, it is not fanciful to suppose that expressive support for bending the rules or resorting to force to protect one’s ‘way of life’ is consequential for actual behavior—or that it could become even more consequential under inflammatory circumstances.”

Of note: these prescient words were published several months before a mob of Trump supporters took the law into their own hands and stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt vote-counting.