In the wake of Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Brussels, Ted Cruz has called for police to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" in order to prevent future attacks.
"If you have a neighborhood where there's a high level of gang activity, the way to prevent it is you increase the law enforcement presence there and you target the gang members to get them off the streets," the GOP presidential candidate told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "I'm talking about any area where there is a higher incidence of radical Islamic terrorism." Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, came out in support of Cruz's plan, praising it as a "good idea" that he "supports 100 percent."
Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: Cruz’s statement was appalling. His logic is that all Muslims everywhere are so dangerous that they need to be monitored, simply because of their religion. That is pretty much the definition of bigotry. So is his suggestion that law enforcement treat neighborhoods home to Muslims the same way it treats those beset by criminal gangs, which implies that simply being a Muslim is comparable to being a member of a criminal organization.
But in making these statements, Cruz isn't just revealing his own bias. The truth is that there’s something much bigger going on, and it’s actually much more disturbing than one politician’s personal animus.
The real issue here is why this strategy works for Cruz and other politicians like him — why it resonates with voters. And the answer, at least in part, is that this is a perfect example of the kind of authoritarian leadership that a large constituency of American voters craves.
That’s frightening, because it speaks to a much scarier truth behind Cruz’s scary statement: that this kind of demonizing of American Muslims isn’t just a problem with specific American politicians like Cruz or Trump. Rather, it’s a problem with American politics — and that means that it will stay with us long after this election is over.
The real reason politicians like Trump and Cruz demonize Muslims is scarier than simple racism
Cruz likes to frame his statements demonizing Muslims as an example of his brave willingness to stand up to "political correctness." But he's running for president right now: He wouldn’t make statements like this unless he thought they were going to help him win votes.
And the truth is that he’s probably right.
As I’ve written previously, the key to understanding why politicians like Cruz and, more notably, Donald Trump have so consistently demonized Muslims is the phenomenon that political scientists call authoritarianism.
They’re not referring to actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. When people who score high in authoritarianism feel threatened, they look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear. And over the past several decades, authoritarian voters have been shifting into the Republican Party, making them an increasingly powerful GOP political constituency.
Authoritarian voters gravitate toward leaders who exhibit what the political scientist Stanley Feldman described to me as "the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive." And authoritarian voters are especially susceptible to messages that tell them to fear a specific "other" — that the source of their problems is a particular minority or other group.
That means that when Cruz calls for patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, he's giving authoritarian voters the kind of politics they crave. He's identifying an out-group (Muslims), sending the message that the group is scary and dangerous (if you get enough Muslims together in one place, terrorism is the likely result), and arguing for a harsh, punitive policy targeting that group (have the police treat Muslims the way they treat criminal gangs).
Why this is bigger than Cruz or Trump
All of that points to the bigger, more disturbing truth here: that there is a constituency for this kind of politics in America, it is powerful, and it will continue to shape the country long after this particular news cycle and even this particular presidential election are over.
That's because authoritarian voters aren't rare. In a recent Vox poll of likely voters, more than 40 percent of our sample scored as "very high" or "high" in authoritarianism. Those results were consistent with what other polls typically find. And because most (though by no means all) authoritarians vote Republican, they form a powerful GOP constituency.
And that constituency is increasingly relevant in today's politics. Academic research has found that when authoritarians feel threatened — whether because of social change that disturbs the hierarchies that are important to them, or because of economic stress that changes their communities, or because of physical threats like terrorism — they become "activated," meaning they seek out authoritarian leaders and policies.
It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, "In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant."
Present-day America is rife with exactly the kinds of things that authoritarians find threatening.
Authoritarians prize order, stability, and hierarchies and feel threatened by social changes that upend the status quo. But it is a time of tremendous social change in this country. Some of those changes are obvious — you may have noticed, for instance, that we presently have a black president.
But in many ways that's actually a far less significant change than the other ways the status quo is evolving. The country is becoming more urban, less white. It is grappling with structural racism, which means questioning everything from the way our police protect our cities to the way we talk on college campuses. The manufacturing industry is declining, and the economic stability of many working-class white communities is going with it.
And authoritarians are also especially concerned about the risks of harm posed by foreigners or members of the out-groups they fear, which means that terrorist attacks like the recent ones in Brussels and Paris are especially likely to provoke authoritarian voters. (ISIS, after all, is not only a foreign terrorist organization but one that claims to act in the name of Islam.) A recent Vox/Morning Consult poll, for instance, found that authoritarians were far more likely than non-authoritarians to fear terrorist organizations and the government of Iran. As Vox's Max Fisher wrote this week, ISIS will probably commit more attacks in Europe in the near future as it attempts to make up for its losses in the Middle East.
And so because the pace of American social change shows no sign of slowing, and terrorist attacks are unlikely to stop anytime soon, we can expect authoritarian voters to stay "activated" or become even more so. That means they will become more and more likely to support the harsh policies that they believe will keep them safe. The Vox/Morning Consult poll, for instance, found that authoritarians were much more likely to support policies like using force instead of diplomacy to confront hostile nations, and limiting civil liberties in order to prevent terrorist attacks.
That is the constituency Cruz is speaking to when he calls for patrols of Muslim neighborhoods and implies that Muslims should be treated like gang members simply on the basis of their shared religion. It is the constituency that is thrilled to hear Trump say he wants to "close the borders" and "do a lot worse than waterboarding" in response to the Brussels attacks.
But Trump and Cruz didn't create that constituency, and that means it will also outlast them. At this stage it seems unlikely that either man will become president, but the voters they are presently pandering to won't disappear even if both men's political careers flame out.
Those authoritarian voters will still crave strongmen leaders. They will maintain their appetite for harsh, punitive policies that target out-groups like Muslims or immigrants. And so they will remain a ready constituency for future Trumps and Cruzes in American politics — and a significant stumbling block for Republican politicians who refuse to lean into their politics of fear.
As I've written before, that's a problem for the Republican party, which faces a de facto split into two separate parties: the GOP authoritarians and the GOP establishment.
But it is a problem for the rest of the country as well. It is dangerous for American Muslims and members of other targeted out-groups, who are placed at greater risk every time a politician tells authoritarian voters that they are a threat to this country's safety or even its civilization. And it is dangerous for the rest of us too, to our civil liberties, our values of equality, and our political culture.