Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, and Jonathan Weiler, a professor of global studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered the Republican leanings of authoritarian voters before Trump did. Back in 2009, they argued that Republicans had positioned themselves as the defenders of cultural order and traditional values, which had the unanticipated consequence of attracting a lot of authoritarian voters to their ranks. Trump just tapped into them in a way that nobody had before.
In that way, when it comes to our diseased democracy, Trump is both symptom and cause. He activated latent authoritarians who would have voted for a Trumpian figure if one had been on the ballot. But he also made the language, behavior and policy of despotism mainstream. In short, he activated authoritarian voters that already existed, but also spent the past four years transforming plenty of constitutional conservatives into cheerleaders for American autocracy.
These dynamics, which might seem like abstractions, help to explain why so many Trump voters are not only willing to go along with Trump as he tries to overturn the results of a democratic election that he lost — they’re actually willing to punish Republican politicians who don’t indulge Trump’s despotic whims. It’s clear that elected Republicans — who largely refuse to answer basic factual questions about the winner of the presidential election — know that their voters are authoritarians. And they are catering to them.