The threat of COVID-19 has triggered nationalism, prejudice and support for anti-democratic political systems around the world. Authoritarianism—an individual’s orientation toward social conformity and individual autonomy—shapes interpretations of and responses to threat. We drew on theories of authoritarianism and threat to propose that authoritarians and libertarians will interpret the threat of COVID-19 in distinct ways. An online survey of 368 Scottish nationals was administered via the Prolific platform. Original measures of realistic and symbolic threat from COVID-19 were included, along with an established measure of the authoritarian predisposition. Linear regression analyses showed that COVID-19 was perceived primarily as a realistic threat to physical and material well-being; however, authoritarians were more likely than others to interpret the novel coronavirus as a symbolic threat to their prevailing values. Our findings contribute to understanding the psychology of pandemic-era attitudes and behaviours and provide insight into possible political consequences of the coronavirus threat. The results also demonstrate how considering authoritarians’ subjective construal of threats can resolve questions in the authoritarianism and threat literature and advance theory.