On authoritarianism

… the authoritarian threat has grown unabated, and almost all the protections I’ve seen such as a “free and vigilant press,” are being eroded or have already been destroyed. The biggest problem we have now, in my view, is authoritarianism. It has placed America at one of those historic cross-roads that will profoundly affect the rest of its history, and the future of our planet. The world deserves a much better America than the one it has seen lately. And so do Americans.

So what’s to be done right now? Trump supporters presently marshalling their forces for the election in your county, state and country, are perfectly entitled to do what they’re doing. They have the right to organize, they have the right to proselytize, they have the right to select and work for candidates they like, they have the right to vote, they have the right to make sure folks who agree with them also vote.

You do have the right to remain silent, but you’ll do so at everyone’s peril. You can’t sit these elections out and say “Politics is dirty; I’ll not be part of it,” or “Nothing can change the way things are done now.” Trump supporters wants you to be disgusted with politics, to feel hopeless, and they want you out of their way. They want democracy to fail, they want your freedoms stricken, they want equality destroyed as a value, they want to control everything and everybody, they want it all. And they have an army of authoritarian followers marching with the militancy of “that old-time religion” on a crusade that will make it happen, if you let them.

Research shows most people are not in this army. However Americans have, for the most part, been standing on the sidewalk quietly staring at this authoritarian parade as it marches on. You can watch it tear American democracy apart, bit by bit, bite by bite. Or you can exercise your rights too, while you still have them, and get just as concerned, active, and giving to protect yourself and your country. If you, and other liberals, other moderates, other conservatives with conscience do, then everything can turn out all right. But we have to get going. If you are the only person you know who grasps what’s happening, then you’ve got to take leadership, help inform, and organize others. One person can do so much; you’ve no idea! And two can do so much more.

But time is running out, fast, and nearly everything is at stake

This quote is from the excellent book by Bob Altemeyer The Authoritarians.

Ok, I lied. It’s actually a quote I’ve edited to insert the word “Trump”. He actually wrote that conclusion to the book 10 years ago, way back in 2006 (you can read the whole book here, it’s a great read). It’s interesting in its prescient observation of the then Tea Party movement in the years leading up to the 2008 election – and to where we are today.

The book outlines what was recently reflected in a piece about the Brexit referendum. There is a widespread perception that people who voted in favour of Brexit were poor, working class people, destroyed by years of fiscal austerity imposed after the 2008 economic collapse.

While this is somewhat true, there are other more interesting correlations. Eric Kaufmann, a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College in England wrote a good piece on the issue over on an LSE blog. He has also read Altemeyer’s book, and looks at it from that perspective. He concludes:

For me, what really stands out about figure 2 is the importance of support for the death penalty. Nobody has been out campaigning on this issue, yet it strongly correlates with Brexit voting intention. This speaks to a deeper personality dimension which social psychologists like Bob Altemeyer – unfortunately in my view – dub Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). A less judgmental way of thinking about RWA is order versus openness. The order-openness divide is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension. This was noticed as early as the mid-1970s by Daniel Bell, but has become more pronounced as the aging West’s ethnic transformation has accelerated.

Figure 3 shows that 71 percent of those most in favour of the death penalty indicated in 2015 that they would vote to leave the EU. This falls to 20 percent among those most opposed to capital punishment. A similar picture results for other RWA questions such as the importance of disciplining children. RWA is only tangentially related to demographics. Education, class, income, gender and age play a role, but explain less than 10 percent of the variation in support for the death penalty.

If you read Altemeyer’s book, and I urge you to do so, you will get the explanation of what an RWA is (and a test for whether you might be one). Alteymeyer argues that Authoritarians exist in society – and they always have. They are a group of people not defined necessarily by socio-economic status but rather by values. As Kaufmann says, they are people who think about the world through an “order” not an “openness” lens. Not alone that – but they exist in all Western democracies to varying degrees. They have always existed.

Where risk begins to become evident is when someone comes along who represents what RWAs want or need – an authoritarian leader. There arises here an interesting paradox – isn’t “authoritarian leader” a contradiction in terms? Surely if there’s lots of people with authoritarian views of the world, then none of them could be a leader of other authoritarians – since they themselves want someone else to be strong leader, who by definition they can’t be themselves?

Altemeyer argues in Chapter 5 that this means there are certain types of RWAs who he calls “social dominators”. Or:

So it looks like most really prejudiced people come in just two flavors: social dominators and high RWAs. Since dominators long to control others and be authoritarian dictators, and high RWAs yearn to follow such leaders, most social prejudice was therefore connected to authoritarianism


Social dominators and high RWAs have several other things in common besides prejudice. They both tend to have conservative economic philosophies–although this happens much more often among the dominators than it does among the “social conservatives”–and they both favor right-wing political parties. If a dominator and a follower meet for the first time in a coffee shop and chat about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jews, Arabs, homosexuals, women’s rights, free enterprise, unions leaders, government waste, rampant socialism, the United Nations, and which political party to support in the next election, they are apt to find themselves in pleasant, virtual non-stop agreement.

This agreement will probably convince the follower, ever scanning for a kindred spirit who will confirm her beliefs, that she and the dominator lie side by side in the same pod of peas. But huge differences exist between these two parts of an authoritarian system in (1) their desire for power, (2) their religiousness, (3) the roots of their aggression, and (4) their thinking processes–which we shall now explore. Then we’ll talk about how people become social dominators, and after that come back to that “highly significant” little correlation between RWA and social dominance. Along the way we’ll consider several experiments that show how nasty things get when the two kinds of authoritarian personalities get their acts together.

Now read this test of what a social dominator looks like, and have Trump in your mind when doing so (remember this was written in 2006 and is from an earlier study in the mid 1990s):

  • It’s a mistake to interfere with the “law of the jungle.” Some people were meant to dominate others. (Agree)
  • Would you like to be a kind and helpful person to those in need? (Disagree)
  • “Winning is not the first thing; it’s the only thing.” (Agree)
  • The best way to lead a group under your supervision is to show them kindness, consideration, and treat them as fellow workers, not as inferiors. (Disagree)
  • If you have power in a situation, you should use it however you have to, to get your way. (Agree)
  • Would you be cold-blooded and vengeful, if that’s what it took to reach your goals? (Agree)
  • Life is NOT governed by the “survival of the fittest.” We should let compassion and moral laws be our guide. (Disagree)
  • Do money, wealth, and luxuries mean a lot to you? (Agree)
  • It is much better to be loved than to be feared. (Disagree)
  • Do you enjoy having the power to hurt people when they anger or disappoint you? (Agree)
  • It is much more important in life to have integrity in your dealings with others than to have money & power. (Disagree)
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times. (Agree)
  • Charity (i.e. giving somebody something for nothing) is admirable, not stupid. (Disagree)
  • Would you like to be known as a gentle and forgiving person? (Disagree) Do you enjoy taking charge of things and making people do things your way? (Agree)
  • Would it bother you if other people thought you were mean and pitiless? (Disagree)
  • Do you like other people to be afraid of you? (Agree)
  • Do you hate to play practical jokes that can sometimes really hurt people? (Disagree)
  • It would bother me if I intimidated people, and they worried about what I might do next. (Disagree)
  • I will do my best to destroy anyone who deliberately blocks my plans and goals. (Agree)

Altemeyer then goes on to describe what he calls “Double Highs”. These are people who score highly on both the RWA and Social Dominator scales (he explains that contradiction in the chapter). But as he concludes, they look like this:

But a Double High has the best chance of attracting this army of yearning and loyal supporters. He comes packaged as “one of our own,” one of the in-group. He not only shares their prejudices, their economic philosophy, and their political leanings, he also professes their religious views, and that can mean everything to high RWAs. He too may be faking his religiousness to some extent, but he will have the credentials up front, and the phrase-dropping familiarity with the Bible to pass the test with flying colors. He’ll know the code words of the movement. He’ll appear to believe everything “all the good people” believe about Satan, being born again, evolution, the role of women, sex, abortion, school prayer, law and order, “perverts,” censorship, zealotry, holy wars, America-as-God’s-right-hand, and so on. Given this head start, you can expect to find a Double High leading most of the right-wing authoritarian groups in our country.

It all sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Is Trump a Double High – both an RWA and a Social Dominator? Based all his behaviour to date, it would appear so.

The other worrying thing? Any authoritarian follower high on the RWA scaled will be unlikely be identify themselves as such. So they’re out there, but they don’t know they are.