Summary of Amanda Taub’s: “The Rise of American Authoritarianism”

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. … Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. ~ George Orwell 1984

Some of the most disturbing pieces I’ve read recently concern the trend toward a more authoritarian regime in the USA. Let’s begin with a definition:

In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law …  Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy … ~ Encyclopedia Britannica

In short, authoritarianism describes a government with a large amount of control over the population, using coercive threats, suppression of a free press, as well as propaganda and disinformation to manage the people it rules. Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism and usually associated with a charismatic leader, while fascism brings ultra-nationalism to the mix; with a hint of racism.

One of the best pieces I’ve read on this topic is, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” by Amanda Taub. Taub reports on the political science research of MacWilliams in: “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter,” and Hetherington and Weiler’s book: Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. This research converges on the idea that support for Donald Trump correlates almost perfectly with having an authoritarian personality. Support for the new authoritarianism derives from the desire to be protected from dangers real or imagined. I’ll highlight a few of the salient ideas from each section of her thoughtful and thorough analysis.

I. What is American authoritarianism?

Some people are psychologically predisposed to extreme, authoritarian politics. Such “tendencies can be triggered … by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change” leading those individuals to desire authoritarian leaders and policies who:

prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.

II. The discovery

The study of authoritarianism began after World War II as researchers tried to understand the Nazi phenomenon. Almost 50 years later researchers found that “authoritarianism [was] a personality profile rather than just a political preference …” Moreover, such profiles could be detected by a series of questions about hierarchy, order, conformity, and the desire to impose certain values. Since then large surveys “of American voters conducted in each national election year” has provided “political scientists who study authoritarianism have accumulated a wealth of data on who exhibits those tendencies and on how they align with everything from demographic profiles to policy preferences.”

III. How authoritarianism works

The first insight is that since the 1960s, “the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values—a position that naturally appealed to order and tradition-focused authoritarians.” Since then “authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP” and gained influence there. The second insight is research that shows that these authoritarians tendencies can be triggered under the right circumstances, especially under conditions of rapid social change when people feel threatened. The third insight is that “when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.”

Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

This theory seems “to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like” those who support Donald Trump.

IV. What can authoritarianism explain?

It is relatively easy to demonstrate “a link between authoritarianism and support for Trump.” But the theory also predicts that “people who scored highly on authoritarianism … express outsize fear of “outsider” threats such as ISIS or foreign governments versus other threats … [and] that non-authoritarians who expressed high levels of fear would be more likely to support Trump.” And the theory predicts that “If the theory about social change provoking stress amongst authoritarians turned out to be correct, then authoritarians would be more likely to rate the changes as bad for the country.” Was any of this true?

V. The party

The data supports the claim that Republican voters are disproportionately authoritarians, while the Democratic voters are not. (For example, the former voters generally favor corporeal punishment of children, while the latter do not.) This phenomenon can be traced:

to the 1960s, when the Republican Party shifted electoral strategies to try to win disaffected Southern Democrats, in part by speaking to fears of changing social norms—for example, the racial hierarchies upset by civil rights. The GOP also embraced a “law and order” platform with a heavily racial appeal to white voters …

This positioned the GOP as the party of traditional values and social structures … That promise[s] to stave off social change and, if necessary, to impose order happened to speak powerfully to voters with authoritarian inclinations.

Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress — in other words, as the party of social change, a position that not only fails to attract but actively repels change-averse authoritarians.

This has brought about a sorting of authoritarian types in the GOP, and the inability of GOP traditionalists “to ignore authoritarians’ voting preferences …”

VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear

Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close … the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.

As for non-authoritarian voters, irrational fear of physical threats from abroad best predict their susceptibility to authoritarian leaders and policies. In short, “non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” Given how much “Republican politicians and Republican-leaning media such as Fox News have been telling viewers nonstop that the world is a terrifying place,” it isn’t surprising that so many people are swayed by these sophisticated media manipulation.

VII. America’s changing social landscape

In addition to physical threats, social change threatens authoritarians. Changes in traditional gender roles, new ideas about sexual orientation, religious diversity, and immigration all scare authoritarian types because they upend tradition. In response, authoritarians seek leaders and policies that “preserve the status quo.” And research confirms that authoritarians are, by wide margins, more troubled by social change like gay marriage than non-authoritarians. Thus “something as seemingly personal and non-threatening as same-sex marriage” triggers authoritarianism proclivities.

The point … is that the increasingly important political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism, or white working-class populism, seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed …

… it helps explain how Trump’s supporters have come to so quickly embrace such extreme policies targeting these outgroups: mass deportation of millions of people, a ban on foreign Muslims visiting the US. When you think about those policy preferences as driven by authoritarianism, in which social threats are perceived as especially dangerous and as demanding extreme responses, rather than the sudden emergence of specific bigotries, this starts to make a lot more sense.

VIII. What authoritarians want

Authoritarians, especially Trump voters, were highly likely to support policies such as: 1) using military force over diplomacy; 2) bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants; 3) eliminate immigration of people of Middle Eastern descent; 4) require all citizens to carry a national ID card; and 5) allow the federal government to scan all phone calls.

People who feel threatened (regardless that they should really worry about obesity, auto accidents, air pollution, antibiotic-resistant infections, or other more real threats) want action in response to their perceived threats. They want the government to protect them from Mexicans, Syrians, Muslims, gays, atheists, etc.

This helps explain why the GOP has had such a hard time co-opting Trump’s supporters, even though those supporters’ immediate policy concerns, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, line up with party orthodoxy. The real divide is over how far to go in responding. And the party establishment is simply unwilling to call for such explicitly authoritarian policies.

Moreover, authoritarianism doesn’t correlate with support for tax cuts on the wealthy or certain views about international trade. On these issues, there was no difference between authoritarians and non-authoritarians. But one factor that this data doesn’t capture is Trump’s:

… rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage

…  [and] his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening … He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won’t let “political correctness” hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.

This is “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.”

Taub thinks “We may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.” Yet she predicts:

the forces activating American authoritarians seem likely to only grow stronger. Norms around gender, sexuality, and race will continue evolving. Movements like Black Lives Matter will continue chipping away at the country’s legacy of institutionalized discrimination, pursuing the kind of social change and reordering of society that authoritarians find so threatening.

The chaos in the Middle East, which allows groups like ISIS to flourish and sends millions of refugees spilling into other countries, shows no sign of improving. Longer term, if current demographic trends continue, white Americans will cease to be a majority over the coming decades.

This portends a “GOP that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups …” But she believes (or is it hopes?) that the Republican Party’s promise “… to stand firm against the tide of social change, and to be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise” will ultimately destroy itself.

I hope she is right. Authoritarianism is the enemy of freedom.

(Taub discussed similar themes in her New York Times piece: “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’” I highly recommend her work.)
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