The Authoritarian Personality and Rise of Right-Wing Extremism
If nothing else, the Republican Party has steadily removed any doubt that it has embraced an extremism that threatens the future of American Democracy. We can clearly perceive the imminent danger that the Party poses in several crucial ways, perhaps the most salient being the refusal of candidates to concede when they lose an election. (As we might have expected, this has metastasized beyond Trump: Republican nominee for governor of Arizona, Kari Lake boasted in a debate that she would not concede if she lost.) This is part of a broader disregard for the rule of law itself, which also manifests in the readiness to use, or at a minimum threaten political violence. We should underscore the disowning of incontrovertible facts as well, and a distinct susceptibility to propaganda and outlandish, bizarre, even mystical explanations congenial to their agenda.
The Select Committee laid out in stunning detail the culpability of Donald Trump and his henchmen in fostering the conditions that have made it possible for so many millions of Americans to openly avow a right-wing extremism that contradicts the principles of a democratic republic. What we are witnessing in this country is the rise of fascism, the potential for which most Americans until now would have denied. If American democracy is to survive, we cannot afford to deny it any longer.
Which means that it would behoove us to examine not only what occurred to get us to this point, and what can be done legislatively and otherwise to buttress our democracy and shield it from the assault of authoritarian extremism, but to also understand what the qualities and characteristics are of a potentially fascistic individual. In short, the question we consider here is, what defines the authoritarian character? It is a question of political psychology, and it is one that must be answered and probed if we want to identify who is potentially fascistic, what makes them so, how prevalent such individuals are within the American body politic, and how to respond effectively to extremist propaganda, which seeks to dismantle the psychological impediments to openly avowing a fascist ideology.
In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which addressed this set of problems: “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?” As Adorno stated, these were the questions upon which the study was “designed to throw some light” – and their findings could hardly be more timely or lay a greater claim on our attention.
There were two parts to the study: the first consisted of detailed questionnaires that were distributed to all the subjects to be completed anonymously; the second involved extensive interviews with the individual subjects. The questionnaires were designed to allow the researchers to determine the subjects’ political or ideological convictions and to rank them along various scales, including one referred to as the Fascism or F-scale, perhaps “the most innovative and significant feature” of the study. Subjects were given statements and asked to rank their answers on a scale ranging from strong agreement to strong disagreement.
One group of statements were designed to measure subjects’ authoritarian submissiveness and formulated in such a way that, while avoiding direct references to dictatorship, “agreement with them would indicate not merely a realistic, balanced respect for valid authority but an exaggerated, all out emotional need to submit.” For example: “What this country needs is fewer laws and agencies, and more courageous, tireless, devoted leaders whom the people can put their faith in.”
Submissiveness was only one component of the authoritarian personality, however – the masochistic, as it were. No less important was authoritarian aggressiveness, i.e., the sadistic component. This aspect is especially important if we are to understand how January 6 was possible, including how it is that a mob could erect a gallows and storm the US Capitol with chants of “Hang Mike Pence” ringing in the air. Consider the observation, which the authors might have written in response to the attack:
- Once the individual has convinced himself that there are people who ought to be punished, he is provided with a channel through which his deepest aggressive impulses may be expressed, even while he thinks of himself as thoroughly moral. If his external authorities, or the crowd, lend their approval to this form of aggression, then it may take the most violent forms, and it may persist after the conventional values, in the name of which it was undertaken, have been lost from sight. (Italics mine)
The F-scale also measured what the researchers refer to as superstition, or a belief in mystical forces, including “fantastical external determinants…” indicating “a tendency to shift responsibility from within the individual onto outside forces beyond one’s control… making the individual’s fate dependent on… fantastic factors.” In this regard, the questionnaire offered statements such as: “It is more than a remarkable coincidence that Japan had an earthquake on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1944”; and “Every person should have a deep faith in some supernatural force higher than himself to which he gives total allegiance and whose decisions he does not question” – this latter question being cross-indicative of submissiveness as well. This feature of the authoritarian personality is one that has become all too evident today with the millions of QAnon supporters of Trump, who openly and consistently endorses their outlandish claims, apocalypticism, and conspiracy theories. The NY Times reports that “[o]ne post Mr. Trump shared this week included ‘the storm,’ which followers of QAnon… use to describe the day when their enemies will be violently punished.” Take note of how their “Storm” prophecy invokes authoritarian submission, aggression, and superstition.
Yet another crucial variable was power and “toughness,” or a penchant to identify with strong figures of authority who dominate the weak, “a disposition to view all relations among people in terms of such categories as strong-weak, dominant-submissive, leader-follower…” The statements that subjects were asked to evaluate included: “Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life”; as well as “There are some activities so flagrantly un-American that, when responsible officials won’t take the proper steps, the wide-awake citizen should take the law into his own hands.” This latter statement could have been repeated word for word by any number of the hundreds of Americans who joined the January 6 insurrection. The researchers pointedly observe: “The individual whom we expected to score high on this cluster readily identifies with the ‘little people,’ or ‘the average,’ but he does so, it seems, with little or no humility, and seems actually to think of himself as strong or to believe that he can somehow become so.”
It is unsurprising that we find this same ‘power complex’ in Trump, who has crafted a public image of toughness and repeatedly confirmed his admiration for strongmen, including Hitler, Putin, and Kim Jung Un. According to a new book on the Trump administration – The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser – the former president asked his chief of staff, John Kelly: “Why can’t you be like the German generals?” When Kelly informed the president that Germany’s generals had “tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off,” Trump was immediately dismissive: “No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him.” Baker and Glasser observe that “In [Trump’s] version of history, the generals of the Third Reich had been completely subservient to Hitler; this was the model he wanted for his military.” Hence, with respect to power/toughness, the researchers point out: “We should expect that both leaders and followers will score high on this variable, for the reason that the actual role of the individual seems to be less important than his concern that leader-follower relations shall obtain.”
The antidemocratic individual harbors intense underlying aggressive impulses: that is, “undifferentiated aggressiveness” that could “easily, by means of propaganda, be directed against minority groups, or against any group the persecution of which was politically profitable.” We could expect then high-scorers on the F-scale to agree with statements such as: “America is getting so far from the true American way of life that force may be necessary to restore it.” In fact, precisely the kinds of statements we commonly hear among MAGA Republicans. The individual generally needs to find an outlet for this objectless, non-moralized aggression, and typically does so “through displacement onto outgroups leading to moral indignation and authoritarian aggression.” It is worth reminding ourselves of the antisemitic chant of the fascists in Charlottesville, 2017: “Jews will not replace us,” – and Trump’s readiness to throw his followers a little red meat with his suggestion, “There were good people on both sides,” implicitly condoning antisemitic aggression.
The F-scale also included statements that were concerned with the mechanism of projection, in keeping with the theory that the “suppressed impulses of the authoritarian character tend to be projected onto other people who are then blamed out of hand.” This projectivity is often expressed through a moralizing over-concern with others’ sexual activity. One statement that subjects were presented with read: “The sexual orgies of the old Greeks and Romans are nursery school stuff compared to some of the goings-on in this country today, even in circles where people might least expect it.” This inclination to punish violators of sexual norms still looms large among the ever-more mainstream QAnon, which “picked up where Pizzagate left off.” Indeed, QAnon’s followers tenaciously cling to fantastical ideas about Satan-worshiping Democratic pedophiles that Trump alone will defeat. One can trace the origin of these ideas to a much older conspiracy theory – namely, that of the “blood libel,” a medieval, antisemitic canard that Jewish people stole and murdered Christian children, using their blood to make matzah. There is a close connection among these variables, including that of antisemitism and prejudice, which was one of the key areas of focus for Adorno and his colleagues.
The rise of right-wing extremism is sounding the death knell of what used to be mainstream American conservatism. That current Republican leaders see fit to assault the FBI, historically the country’s most conservative law enforcement agency, simply to protect Trump’s criminal behavior, is just one example of how they have abandoned conservatism in any meaningful sense of the word. Genuine conservatism can at least be credited with supporting the rule of law, and according to Adorno, the “unqualified rejection of antiminority prejudices.” The point here is that “all fascist movements” utilize what Adorno refers to as pseudoconservatism – that is, they “officially employ traditional ideas and values but actually give them an entirely different, anti-humanistic meaning.” Step One in guarding against the destruction of American democracy is knowing its enemy. We must identify the pseudoconservative for what he or she is – one “who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
Trump’s words to the rioters who stormed the Capitol were “[w]e love you. You’re very special” – simply one of countless examples demonstrating that he is precisely that kind of leader “under whose tinseled aegis license becomes law, secret and primitive desires become virtuous ambitions readily attained, and compulsive behavior formerly deemed punishable becomes the order of the day.” Liz Cheney’s observation that Trump “weaponized the patriotism” of his followers makes it sound as if they were simply deceived by an unscrupulous leader. Unfortunately, this masks a more unpleasant reality that must be squarely faced – namely, that Trumpism deliberately taps into the suppressed impulses of the authoritarian character, undermining the psychological barriers that impede the personal and social acceptance of authoritarian and even fascist dogma.
Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.