Jekyll-and-Hyde: What Creates a Far-Right Supporter? Part 1.

Much has been written about the development of the personalities and other psychological characteristics of Alt-Right/far-right leaders such as Donald Trump (e.g. authors in Cruz and Buser, 2017; Waring & Paxton, 2019) and of violent far-right extremists – such as Anders Breivik, Thomas Mair, and Darren Osborne (e.g. Jackson (2019), Melle (2013), Turner-Graham (2019a), and Virtanen (2013)). Much has also been written about the general evidential and surface-level characteristics of far-right supporters, both on the populist and more extreme fringes of the movement (e.g. Waring & Paxton (2019)) who also repeat the caveats on ‘armchair and amateur diagnoses’ and the Goldwater Rule (asserted by Klitzman (2016) and Post (2015)). Indeed, the psychology of such supporters and how they develop and rationalise their far-right world-view is of importance to the deterrence, control and elimination of far-right threats as well as to societal and democratic order. This two-part article examines the drivers of far right support – with reference to three case studies and the findings of Pettigrew (2017) and others (e.g. authoritarianism, the Big 5 theory, SDO, relative deprivation, outgroup prejudice and inter-group contact) in order to take a forensic look at the psychologies and personalities of non-violent far right supporters.[1]

Characteristic Psychological Factors of Far-Right Supporters

For this article, Pettigrew’s (2017) review of social-psychological factors relating to Trump supporters is particularly relevant. Dubbed ‘the tinder’, both among Trump supporters and similar movements in Europe (including UKIP), they especially involved male nativists and populists who were less well educated than the general population. By ‘tinder’, the author infers it to mean individuals who are psychologically predisposed and primed to ‘combust’ into support when in contact with far-right ‘sparks’ such as propaganda, statements from demagogues, or perceived provocations. Are there particular psychological factors that make people susceptible to the appeal of the far-right? Pettigrew (2017) states that five highly inter-related characteristics stand out that are central to a social-psychological analysis: authoritarianism, social dominance orientation (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), outgroup prejudice, the absence of intergroup contact, and relative deprivation.

Waring & Paxton (2019, 63-66) find reliable links between personality and political preferences, and emphasize the ‘Big 5’ theory (McCrae & Costa, 2003) as the current personality theory most broadly supported. The Big 5 dimensions are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to new experience. Multiple studies (e.g. Caprara & Vecchione (2013)) show that far-right individuals consistently show a low score on the ‘openness to new experience’ measure.

Both Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) have been reliably related to right-wing ideology (Duckitt & Sibley, 2010). In a recent Insights blog (19 Nov 2019), Fox applied the SDO and RWA criteria to cases of violent far-right extremism and suggested that these predispositions of the individual perpetrators manifested themselves as personal grievances and ‘came prior to their political framing’.[2]

Glendon & Clarke (2016, 2) provide a fully integrated five-level psychological framework for exploring risk which Roger Paxton and I (2019, 66-75) have adapted to specifically address the psychology of risk and fear and how it could be applied to far-right individuals. Fear and phobias are a key characteristic of far-right individuals e.g. Islamophobia, xenophobia, Judeophobia, and second order fears arising from these. The emotion of fear is triggered by a feeling of lack of control or uncertainty about the nature and/or scale and/or outcome of a particular perceived threat or risk.

However, the longitudinal ethnographic study of EDL activists by Busher (2015) showed that the informants in his particular group of EDL supporters were not monolithic in their attitudes towards perceived threats and risks. EDL activists presented a range of expressed opinions, with some exhibiting perseverant and openly racist views, anger, and an inclination towards violence, while others claimed to be simply fearful about such issues as security, immigration, integration, and alleged ‘swamping’ and cultural suffocation by Muslims.[3]

One obvious question is whether such pathological world-views can be de-toxified readily. For example, many phobias and dependencies are treatable via desensitisation, hypnotherapy etc. (e.g. fear of flying, fear of heights, smoking, gambling). Sufferers are usually self-motivated to undergo therapies. However, the big difference with the kinds of phobia and the beliefs, values and attitudes we are concerned with here is that far-right individuals do not usually want to change. Thus, potential therapies for desensitisation such as regular outgroup contact are likely, at best, only to achieve a superficial change. For example, the three cases in Part 2 clearly show that, for them, regular outgroup contact and exposure to new experiences did nothing to reduce their prejudices and desensitise their phobias, and actually seemed to reinforce them. There appear to be no easy solutions to this very complex topic. Nevertheless, some approaches have reported success on a limited scale (e.g. Small Steps, 2018).

Testing Psychological Theories

In order to examine the psychology of ‘ordinary’ far-right supporters (i.e. excluding violent extremists) and how it develops, and to evaluate the various current theories cited, ideally one would design field studies in which (a) informants and respondents were selected in sufficient numbers according to a robust sampling frame and stratification so as to avoid selection bias and ensure representativeness, (b) data collection involved a range of appropriate methods including participant observation, 1:1 personal interviews and group interviews using open-ended prompts, survey protocols including questionnaires (interviewer-administered and/or respondent-administered) and so on. Use of pre-validated instruments, if available, would be ideal.

Unfortunately, the author had no access to any of the ideal conditions. Instead, he had readily available over a period of years the opportunity to observe and interact with three non-violent far-right supporters (independent of each other) in their natural settings. In that sense, his informal observations, recollections and interpretations have more in keeping with an ethnographic account than a proper psychological study. With these limitations and weaknesses in mind, Part 2 of this blog provides narrative data and analysis on three non-violent far-right supporters.

Dr Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences – Excellence in Innovation & Technology) at the European University Cyprus. He is author of several books on risk, including editing and contributing to the two-volume anthology The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon (2018, 2019 Ibidem Verlag).

© Alan Waring. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] The author thanks clinical and political psychologist Dr Roger Paxton for reviewing a draft of this article.

[2] Original author’s own emphasis.

[3] See also Turner-Graham (2019b, 129).