Thomas Edsall, asking about why people think Trump won the 2020 election, stumbled onto academic papers arguing that people embrace authoritarian ideas in pursuit of a more meaningful life (NY Times). Which is not a new idea; many people have offered it as an explanation of Nazism, including most recently Karl Owe Knausgaard. This is from a 2021 paper by Jake Womick and others:
Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.Definitions of “meaning in life”
include at least three components, significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.In another paper the authors argue that:
It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet, right wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance. . . .
perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter. . . .
Despite its negative social implications, right wing authoritarianism serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.
The great weakness of liberalism for many people is its emptiness. It denies as a matter of principle that a nation can share much in the way of purpose or identity, or any values beyond tolerance. Rather than telling you what your life should be about, it instructs you to go find your own purpose. Instead of offering citizens simple choices – with us or against us – it asks them to understand complex questions for themselves and take part in developing equally complex responses. It leaves many people utterly cold.
I don't personally have this problem; I can get all excited and rosy feeling about tolerance and democracy. It took me decades to understand how much like nothing this seems to many people.
I was reading recently about an Afro-Caribbean woman (Beryl Gilroy) who moved to England in the 1950s, who seems to have been genuinely baffled that so many people thought she could never be English. But an identity that someone can assume simply by crossing a border strikes many people as pure nothingness. A national identity, they feel, should imply a great deal more than a flag. It should come with a shared language and vocabulary; with a history, and pride in that history; with a shared outlook on life; with national ways of eating and drinking and talking; with cheering for the national sports teams and toasting the national heroes; with dislike toward the nation's enemies; with a deep-down belief that this nation is the best, and the things that make it distinctive are good things worth fighting for. Defending that nation against attacks of any sort, including accusations that its heroes were really murderous slavers or whatever, gives some people a sense of belonging and purpose.
I sometimes think that historical revisionists don't have any sense of what they are asking people to give up. What are you offering people to replace the strength they drew from believing in the greatness of their ancestors? If your answer is "nothing," you are in for a world of trouble.
I don't think revisionism has to work this way, certainly not in the US. I think Americans can do very well with retelling our story as the gradual expansion of freedom, the way liberals from Benjamin Franklin to Barack Obama liked to tell it. But something like the the 1619 Project is just a grenade lobbed into the debate, and it is going to work like a grenade does.