Presidential adviser, young Stephen Miller, went on the Sunday shows and proclaimed that the President’s powers cannot be questioned when it comes to securing the borders. He is ridiculously wrong. The way he said it was authoritarian in the extreme – threatening, dogmatic, inflexible, triumphant. And then Trump tweeted congratulations to Miller for his performance.
So, OK, Trump is demonstrating his intent to rule as an authoritarian. It’s pretty clear.
I have been trying to understand Trump and his voters. And it is clear that Trump’s authoritarian promises and behavior are exactly what got him into office. There is an excellent article entitled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” by Amanda Taub on Vox.com that explains the rise of authoritarianism in America and around the world. It is a response to fear – fear of attack by the Islamofascist element of Islam, but also fear of social change and diminution of father figure type of authority, hierarchy, and structure.
It’s a long article, worth the read, here are some highlights and thoughts stimulated by the article.
People who score high on in authoritarianism voted for Trump. The strongest correlation for Trump voters was authoritarianism. Indeed, much of the polarization in America is due to a rise in authoritarianism in the Republican Party.
They note that once the GOP positioned itself as the party of law and order and traditional values it became a magnet for the authoritarian voters. This happened with Nixon in his infamous "Southern Strategy" where he switched the South from Democrat to Republican.
This can end up hurting the Republicans because the authoritarian wing is at odds with traditional Republicans – e.g. authoritarians could give two hoots about tax breaks for the rich.
Authoritarians express much deeper fears than the rest of us and want order and strong leaders when they feel threatened. The Islamofascist element of Islam is such a threat.
But there is another threat, just as terrifying to the authoritarians – social change. And guess what’s been going on for the last few decades? Lots and lots of social change. With the Boomers has come social change, and with the Boomers has come other Boomers frightened of and fiercely opposed to social change – empowered minorities? gays? women? diplomacy rather than war? Understanding rather than punishment? Way too scary for the authoritarians
There are overt authoritarians and latent authoritarians. Threats from outside forces, and from the social changes from the inside activate overt authoritarians, but they also trigger an authoritarian response from those with latent authoritarian tendencies. The terrorist attacks combined with the rise of minority, gay, and women’s rights and power have created a perfect storm of threat to the old structures that the authoritarian mind so needs - the strict father hierarchical, orderly, rigid, punishing structure where they are on top and feel safe in a chaotic and changing world.
“As the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, "In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant."”
“Feldman developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.
1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?
Feldman's test proved to be very reliable. There was now a way to identify people who fit the authoritarian profile, by prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.”
I have to admit that I was raised by an authoritarian father, and I think his greatest disappointment in me was that I never became like him, but I have to be aware that I am very likely to have latent authoritarian instincts, which I will be guarding against, because I think they are essentially hurtful, fearful, and weak.
Authoritarianism isn’t active in most people, but it can be triggered by perceived threat. As I said above, terrorism from outsiders and social change from insiders that the authoritarians see as different from themselves are the triggers that drive them into the arms of authoritarian rulers, like Donald Trump. (Not sure yet if Trump really is authoritarian or just playing one on TV, but he is as close to one as I ever want to see in America)
So the Republican Party became the party of law and order, the controller of minorities and women, the chooser of the military over diplomacy, the crusher of social change – and became the home of the authoritarians - both candidates and voters.
The Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, social progress, equality – and drove the authoritarians screaming in fear and righteous threats into the arms of the Republicans. Liberals see this fear response as bigotry – racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. But underneath it all is fear of change, specifically fear of change being forced upon them by the Other, those unlike them, the strong white man model of how the world is supposed to be. That world is fading away, and all the authoritarian bullying and cruelty that authoritarians can muster is not going to stop it.
What do authoritarians want in an authoritarian leader? government action to crush the threats – external attacks from the Other, and internal change from those mistakenly perceived to be the Other.
We end up with Trump today, but whom tomorrow? maybe a smarter crueler authoritarian? Let’s keep that from happening, please.
The first thing that I wrote about Trump was that he was temporary but his voters were not. That is still true. Trump will eventually go away, maybe he’ll last a full term, maybe less, maybe he’ll manage two full terms. But he will go away.
It it is up to the rest of us to make sure the authoritarians do not run this country, not now, not in the future. Maybe we can try to persuade them that their fears are overblown, paranoid, divorced from reality. Sure, we need to protect ourselves from terrorists, but we are actually doing a good job of that, long before Trump arrived on scene. Sure there is crime and corruptions, but in the real world rather than the Right Wing Alternative Facts World crime and corruption have been dropping steadily for some time, again long before Trump arrived.
Oppose the bullying. Allay the fears. Renew the True American Spirit, which has both individualism, freedom, and opportunity, and also has caring, compassion, equality, and social justice as well. America needs two healthy parties – parties of both will and love.
The authoritarians have stolen the party of individualism, freedom, and opportunity and turned it into the party of oppression, fear, and cruelty. I trust my conservative friends will take the party back to its real values and reject this terrible flirtation with authoritarian rule.