Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tend to be the poster children of political extremism if you ask a partisan from the Right. You hear this repeatedly on Fox News — these are their main bogeymen/women. These hard-working patriots will be called frauds, hypocrites, radicals, Socialists (of the Communistic stripe, that is), traitors, and so on. I don’t want to make a defense of those on the far end of the political Left in this country, but I will in this blog highlight a dangerous style of thinking that is the garden of political extremism when paired with political power or demagoguery: the authoritarian mindset.
Partisanship is not new, and Donald Trump did not create the situation in which we as Americans find ourselves (well, I suppose it depends on whom you ask). This is rife with biases and emotional aspects; psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote that “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
As well, tribalism is a natural force in humankind. Again, Haidt: “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” He is saying that it can be very difficult to find common ground with individuals to whom you see yourself as opposed. Frankly, it used to be more about race, class, or other identifiers; now polarization is almost completely mapped onto political affiliation. That is, Republicans are bigoted and prejudiced and cocksure about Democrats, and liberals are to a large extent the same toward conservatives. This is truly America’s dark underbelly.
Book recommendation: Why We’re Polarized. Here is a snippet:
“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more—indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less—but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.
The question is why all this happened. What changed in American politics such that voters became so reliably partisan?” ~ Ezra Klein
If political extremism isn’t new (we did have a Civil War, and Vietnam was very polarizing, for example), then how did we go from the thought that “Trump just blew up that whole Republican primary, but there is no way he could beat Clinton; he is a joke” to where we are today, which I consider an endless conveyor belt of outrages.
It has to be stated plainly that the authoritarian mindset is one that is probably 90% found in those who identify as a “conservative”, “reactionary”, “extreme fan of Donald Trump”, “anti-Leftists”, “neo-fascist”, “alt-Right”, and “white supremacist”. There might be some who are on the extreme of the Left who bend toward authoritarianism in personality, but I think just like the fact that home-grown, domestic terrorists are almost exclusively aggrieved white males, those who either have an authoritarian mindset or who look up to authoritarian characteristics in leaders and political figures are on the extreme end of conservative.
Psychologist Erich Fromm noted that “Authoritarianism is the tendency to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking.” Christopher Federico and his colleagues have written that “Authoritarianism is now more deeply bound up with partisan identities. It has become part and parcel of Republican identity among non-Hispanic white Americans.” This is the place where politics meets applied psychology.
Authoritarianism in this context is not a dictatorship or a regime such as China. That is a related but different descriptor of a type of government. I am talking something more akin to what Stanley Milgram meant when he elucidated the tendency toward obedience to authority back in his ground-breaking experiments in the 1960s (LINK)(LINK2). I’m talking about a psychological descriptor, a personality style, a form of social influence.
Now, what of the 2016 election? How did we get from 2015 to where we are today, which few could argue is a better place — politically, socially, group-psychologically, culturally. David Brooks said this on PBS: “Basically, less educated or high school-educated whites are going to Trump,” Brooks told host Judy Woodruff. “It doesn’t matter what the guy does. And college-educated going to Clinton.” That turned out not to be particularly true.
And in his book Bad Stories, Steve Almond points out that “Media commentators, liberal ones especially, gravitated to Richard Rorty’s theory [elucidated in Achieving Our Country] because it presented Trumpism as a rational, if disturbing, response to economic frustrations, which progressive policy could presumably fix.” This is reminiscent of the theory that Trump got all those disaffected 2012 Obama voters in swing states because they suffer from economic seismic shifts such as outsourcing, corporatization, globalism, etc. Essentially, the “rust belt” residents trapped in small, dying towns and the beleaguered middle class were under great duress, starving for economic power and security, and saw Trump and his unique brand of political extremism as the answer.
This has some merit, but doesn’t quite hit the mark (it certainly doesn’t fully account for Trump beating Clinton). Almond: “But the more social scientists crunched the election data, the less sense it made. The majority of Trump voters, for instance, were middle-class and wealthy suburbanites. More significantly, Trump crushed Clinton in counties where unemployment had fallen in recent years.”
Almond continues on the next page: “To understand how Trump went from a fringe character to the right man, we have to understand how the psychology and the electorate shifted around him. This begins with the rise of polarization.”
Almond’s view that the Trump election is not a simple cause-effect phenomenon brought on by economic insecurity set aside for a minute, I would note that New York Times columnist David Leonhardt feels passionately about income inequality. In a column, he examines it from a laudable perspective (LINK). Here is a snippet:
“When progress is the norm, it feeds on itself. People can trust that their own sacrifices will usually pay off. They can endure hard times without becoming cynical and can be generous toward others.” In a later paragraph, he refers to wage stagnation and wealth disparities between the social classes — namely, it has been largely flat for decades unless one is very wealthy — and writes of how caustic it can be, socially:
“…this stagnation looms over life. It breeds political dysfunction, and it helps explain why so many Americans aren’t swayed by facts. When you have been struggling for decades, you tend to lose faith in society’s institutions and their sober-minded experts.”
I’m not 100% comfortable pinning the awesomely-bad decision made by 49% of voters (maybe 25% of the populace, when one calculates the low voter turnout we suffer through in this country) to elect Donald Trump, but I do believe Leonhardt is right. His thesis is basically that income stagnation and lack of economic progress has a pernicious effect on the American psyche for all but the very wealthy. I don’t know that it is obvious to the casual observer how this causal mechanism works, or what the effects on our political and social lives are. I do know there is a very strong correlation between 1) stagnating social mobility and 2) shocking levels of partisan rancor, lack of faith in traditional institutions, and starkly divergent views of virtually everything — depending on one’s political stripe. Can that really be a coincidence? The chances are 1 in 10.
Indeed, Leonhardt continues: “Without that faith, all of our other problems become harder to solve. America’s standing in the world will be diminished. The damage from climate change — one problem that’s even more important than stagnation — will accelerate in the face of inaction.”
I think it is probably fair to surmise that economics played a role (a very subtle role, but not one that is absent or inoperative) in the 2016 electoral debacle. Think of Trump’s pointing to “elites” and promising to bring back clean coal and good manufacturing jobs. If everyone were employed in careers they valued and which were sufficient to make a living (say, more like the quintessential democratic socialist country in Europe or New Zealand or Japan), his faux-populist rhetoric would have sounded more canned, vitriolic, and petty. Instead, it came across as very moving to many people. Yes, it got mixed in with other messages (“Obama almost ruined this country”; “politicians are an elite class of capitalists who serve only their own best interests”, etc.), but I think Leonhardt is right when he points out the subtle and pernicious effects of economic stress on a populace.
I think it is fair to assert that Trump’s divisive and shallow messages and claims either sink in and motivate rage and grievance and self-protectiveness — or they fail to convince and strike the ear more like “danger”. This perception depends on the mindset and psychology of the voter in question. The authoritarian-minded individual is a particular kind of person, and has particular political leanings. They also see in leaders, almost always on the extreme end of the political Right, things they like, respect, and admire. Basically, authoritarian individuals who vote tend to vote for authoritarian leaders.
Most people don’t realize how long Trump has been an insecure, divisive, pandering weasel. Not every authoritarian is; my father in law raised my wife with a pretty strict hand, and “democratic” or “open-minded” would probably not be the way to describe his parenting style (and certainly not “permissive”).
George Packer has a very illuminating article about Trump’s rise to power vis-a-vis the power structure and bureaucracy and “establishment” in D.C. (LINK). I will quote it liberally and invite the interested reader to look into that. Packer illustrates an authoritarian impulse well-executed when he writes:
When Trump came to power, he believed that the regime was his, property he’d rightfully acquired, and that the 2 million civilians working under him, most of them in obscurity, owed him their total loyalty. He harbored a deep suspicion that some of them were plotting in secret to destroy him. He had to bring them to heel before he could be secure in his power. This wouldn’t be easy—the permanent government had defied other leaders and outlasted them. In his inexperience and rashness—the very qualities his supporters loved—he made early mistakes. He placed unreliable or inept commissars in charge of the bureaucracy, and it kept running on its own.
But a simple intuition had propelled Trump throughout his life: Human beings are weak. They have their illusions, appetites, vanities, fears. They can be cowed, corrupted, or crushed. A government is composed of human beings. This was the flaw in the brilliant design of the Framers, and Trump learned how to exploit it. The wreckage began to pile up. He needed only a few years to warp his administration into a tool for his own benefit. If he’s given a few more years, the damage to American democracy will be irreversible.
This is the story of how a great republic went soft in the middle, lost the integrity of its guts and fell in on itself—told through government officials whose names under any other president would have remained unknown, who wanted no fame, and who faced existential questions when Trump set out to break them.
Trump has said so many things that are inappropriate, rude, or racist, it’s hard to cull them for statements that demonstrate how he “dog whistles” (barks loudly?) to his supporters in those rallies that taxpayers partially foot. The attorney and writer Christopher Brauchli makes a case that Trump-Hitler comparisons are not unfair. Obviously, they both have authoritarian personalities. “At a campaign rally in New Hampshire, Trump promised he would kick all Syrian refugees out of the country because they might be a secret army. “They could be ISIS. . . . This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe,” Brauchli cites. Gulp.
Brauchli again: “Hitler’s hatred finds a mirror in Trump’s characterization of Muslims. In a Fox News interview on March 30, 2011, a time when Trump, like Hitler, had not yet risen to power, he was asked whether there was a ‘Muslim problem.’ In response, echoing Hitler’s comments about Jews, Trump said: ‘Absolutely. I mean, I don’t notice Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center. There is a Muslim problem in the world, and you know it and I know it.’” Remember, Hitler’s Final Solution (to kill the Jews) was the last solution Hitler thought of to deal with “the Jewish problem.” Scapegoating, stereotyping, persecuting, lying, demagoguing. These are things autocrats do.
And no, one needn’t be a raving murderer to count as an autocrat. It refers to a personality style or a leadership style, not the fact of being murderous (though the world’s worst dictators obviously do “disappear”and murder and jail and persecute. Behaviors grow in intensity as time goes on, as popular and bureaucratic support is gained, as enemies are silenced. Remember the famous Martin Niemoller poem? First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out —because I was not a communist…. One day Trump suggests his supporters beat up hecklers and if so he will mount a legal defense on behalf of the perpetrator; the next day he calls journalists “enemies of the people”; then he fires those who investigate him; subsequently, he pardons cronies; next he refuses to condemn Russian interference in his reelection campaign; then he puts immigrant children into cages. It’s a stepwise progression (regression?) as his power increases, his confidence grows, and his anxiety intensifies.
Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Consider this evidence: In April, 1989, a white woman was jogging in Central Park (NY) and was raped and beaten very badly. It was, of course, an outrage. Around the same time, five young African Americans were in the park. The police summarily nabbed them, engaged harsh and highly questionable interrogations, and came to believe that these n’er-do-wells perpetrated the crime. The cops developed “tunnel vision” as detectives would say, and the public was largely split along ideological/racial lines.
What did Trump do? Pay for their defense so they could at least have a fair trial after being railroaded by the police? Keep a respectful distance from the case because he was privy to no facts the public wasn’t aware of? Realize that black men face an uphill battle in this country when they are accused of raping a white woman — more so when they are poor and young? Plead with the D.A.’s office for calm and for mercy?
No, that’s crazy talk. He took out full-page ads in New York City’s four major newspapers featuring the headline: BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE! As well, his diatribe included this: “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, should be executed… I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
As if that wasn’t authoritarian, crass, cruel, and judgmental enough, they were exonerated after serving hard time! If you read this heart-wrenching New York Times story, a person with a good and liberal heart should not only feel pity for the boys who were sent up, but rage at the system that would do such a thing. And then look squarely at Donald Trump, the man who was a white male millionaire since age 8 (not exaggerating), who has used his money and his father and his name to get himself out of the myriad troubles he got himself in through impulsivity, lack of wisdom, and immaturity, and condemn him in the strongest of terms. I believe. It ended up creating a lot of pain for the boys and costing the city $41 million in legal costs. It’s a total debacle, and Trump never apologized.
I’m not sure he has ever apologized to anyone about anything. This is a dark-hearted authoritarian individual who is now sowing political extremism purely for personal or selfish reasons. As Almond put it, “What mattered to Trump, what occasioned his outrage, was the story of dark-skinned thugs invading an iconic Manhattan preserve to defile a white female investment banker.” That is some abhorrent stuff right there. It’s like we are all bit players in a never-ending Greek tragedy of Trumpism, Orwellianism, and Machiavellianism. The fact that he has 35-50% approval ratings after running roughshod over American traditions, institutions, and values causes me to seriously question the rationality and the judgment and the good-heartedness of my fellow Americans.
At least until I really began to think about this issue and asked myself, how do folks still support this madman? What do they miss? What is wrong with them?
Voters vote for candidates by and large because they “feel” something about the person that speaks to them, that makes them feel comfortable, that inspires them to get on their team. It is clear that Bush was inferior to Gore in almost every measurable way, but Bush just seemed more normal, more trustworthy, and literally, the guy you would prefer to have a beer with. Voters saw his folksiness, his casualness, his humor, his amiableness as likeable and endearing. They saw their values in him. They thought he would pass legislation they would benefit from.
What does Trump value above all else? Controlling the narrative. Getting attention. Loyalty. Superiority. Dominance. Aggression. Achieving vengeance. Punishing enemies. Winning. Obfuscation. Skullduggery. It’s really very clear when you look at it; either you find him and his brand of demagoguery repellant or you excuse his crassness and his wanton immorality and encourage him to “take it to the libs” and to erode what little of the progress, both socially and economically, that we had in this country in 2016.
To gauge authoritarian aspects of his supporters’ personalities, one need simply ask: “Did you want football quarterback Colin Kaepernick fired for taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police killings of African-Americans? Do you think that a woman has no right to choose to have an abortion? Do you think women and minorities get too many advantages nowadays? Are you tired of political elites running the show and leaving you out? Do Hollywood liberals and those New York Jewish type people have an outsize influence on this country? Wouldn’t it be great to get back to old-fashioned values like Reagan or Wally Cleaver talked about? Should you do what Trump asks of you, even if you know it is immoral or wrong?”
This darkness resides in each of us to varying degrees. We all have a shadow, as psychologist Carl Jung phrased it. We have witnessed extraordinarily dark-hearted individuals, driven on by their personal demons, ensnaring huge numbers of individuals in unconsciously-mediated juggernauts (think Hitler, or Genghis Khan). Great literature, featuring characters such as Iago, Achilles, and Captain Ahab, expounds on dark mindsets and dangerous emotions. Steve Almond references Ahab and his indefatigable quest to punish the great white whale in Moby Dick thusly:
“Melville offered a mythic account of how one man’s virile bombast can ensnare everyone and everything it encounters. The setting is nautical, the language epic, the allusions Biblical and Shakespearean. But the tale, stripped to its ribs, is about the seductive force of the wounded male ego, and how naturally a ship steered by men might tack to its vengeful course.”
Trump was probably never loved, and never became attached. His story, like Hitler’s, would be of little import overall, had he not taken his id and spewed it all over our televisions and into our daily lives. One part of Trump — an authoritarian personality — drove his ascension, and it connected beautifully with its counterparts: the brains of about 1/3 of Americans. His pain is now our pain, much as the inner workings of the minds of Achilles and Agamemnon egregiously affected the hearts and souls and flesh of Greek soldiers in antiquity.
Trumpism found wanton expression in concert with millions of aggrieved and nervous Americans, and social institutions such as the mass media wittingly or unwittingly fueled the conflagration. Political extremism now runs through American streets like berserk Visigoths of lore; Rome is now burning, as it were.
Indeed, Almond continues: “The plot of Moby Dick pits man against the natural world. But its theme pits man against his own nature. The election of 2016 was, in a way, a retelling of this epic. Whether you choose to cast Trump as agent or principal hardly matters. What matters is that Americans joined the quest. Whether in rapture or in disgust, we turned away from the compass of self-governance and toward the mesmerizing drama of aggression on display, the capitalist id unchained (and all that it unchained within us).”
In “The rise of American authoritarianism”, in Vox, author Amanda Taub points out early that there was at one point a mystery, alluded to in the Almond quotes, about how America could have voted for a man such as Trump. After all, he cheats, lies, goes bankrupt, gets sued repeatedly, sues people repeatedly, is egomaniacal, is deeply insecure, and was a millionaire since age 8. And yet, this is taking place daily since 2015 in a country that is fairly religious and purports to teach children right from wrong; the Boy Scouts were invented here; the ACLU is a powerful and storied cultural phenomenon; Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that is still alive today. So many bought his shtick hook, line, and sinker. It boggles the mind and vexes the heart.
Taub writes: “What’s made Trump’s rise even more puzzling is that his support seems to cross demographic lines — education, income, age, even religiosity — that usually demarcate candidates.” Frighteningly, she then reveals this:
Perhaps strangest of all, it wasn’t just Trump but his supporters who seemed to have come out of nowhere, suddenly expressing, in large numbers, ideas far more extreme than anything that has risen to such popularity in recent memory. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves.
Perhaps I am naive to be surprised by what feels like a bad dream I have yet to awaken from. America has always had its Clara Bartons, and its Joseph McCarthys; millions of slaves endured the whip and rapes, and yet a woman as great as Harriet Tubman sprang from such monstrosity. The book White Rage accounts very compellingly how dark parts of the human psyche have been contorted and co-opted throughout America’s circuitous history. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; Roosevelt clearly didn’t think much of Jews. Here is a quote:
“Imagine if Reconstruction had actually honored the citizenship of four million freed people — provided the education, political autonomy, and economic wherewithal warranted by their and their ancestors’ hundreds of years of free labor. If, instead of continually re-fighting the Civil War, we had actually moved on to rebuilding a strong, viable South, a South where poor whites, too — for they had been left out as well — could gain access to proper education.”
Our better angels and our inner demons have done battle in the hearts and minds of Americans over the centuries, from George Washington down to Bernie Sanders. We are perhaps the human condition writ large. “In America, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find the irony,” presidential historian John Meacham revealed. A country that allows three men who hold as much wealth as 170,000,000 other citizens combined, one in which children go to bed hungry and banks make profits off of student loans, is going to have some fierce psychodynamics seeking manifestation in very public ways. The United States has been and still is a place where political extremism and emotional baggage combine to form archetypal yet unpredictable social problems.
Taub, in her Vox article, indicates that a Ph.D. student named Matthew MacWilliams studied authoritarianism, noting, “…not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.”
Politico has an article that makes clear that authoritarianism is the missing link between Trump voters who hated Clinton, who didn’t really like blacks being so uppity and getting special privileges, who resented illegal immigrants, who decried the perceived loss of supremacy of Christianity, who get their news from sources such as Fox News, and who had great fear that Obama was going to take their guns. Indeed, mostly separate from geography, sex, education, and religiosity. (LINK)
This is to say that political extremism and hyperpartisanship were around prior to Trump, but he was just the P.R. guy-slash-con man to use his own narcissistic needs like a giant wedge to cleave a wider division between Americans. One can find hauntingly-similar nuances when one studies the psychology of Hitler in ailing post-World War I Germany. Much good and much evil can grow in the hearts and souls of civilizations as great and as different as both Germany and the United States. We both wish that our worst chapters have long since passed (the Holocaust and the institution of slavery), but far-Right extremism and cultural earthquakes are happening both here and in Europe simultaneously. This, in countries which are said to be doing well economically. From Charlottesville, VA to Berlin, Germany, political extremism leading to home-grown terror is a startling phenomenon.
MacWilliams indicates that “Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
Marc Hetherington has researched the Republican-Democrat division; that is, Is it true that most authoritarians are on the political Right? Yes. MacWilliams: “…authoritarians have steadily moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party over time. Hetherington hypothesizes that the trend began decades ago, as Democrats embraced civil rights, gay rights, employment protections, and other political positions valuing freedom and equality.”
So let that not go unnoticed: authoritarians resent liberal sensibilities. No, not just the mostly-objectionable “free speech on campuses” issue, or the Jerry Seinfeld/George Carlin/Bill Maher oft-lamented “political correctness” in audiences. No, I mean some of the hallmark and cardinal virtues of the Left: open-mindedness, rationality, respect for weaknesses and stigmas, championship of the underdog, civil liberties, hesitation to judge, secularism, compassion, sharing, democratic-socialist policies and programs, etc.
None of that is to say that liberals are perfect, but it is to say that if you were raised in a household that prized obedience to authority, strength, conformity, discipline, rigor, and the like, you don’t find, say, the Black Lives Matter movement very compelling because you think of them more as traitors to America than pro-Civil-Rights. You view them as complainers and rabble-rousers more than freedom fighters.
I also do not mean that folks who live in California or who drive Priuses can in no way be authoritarian. Unfortunatley, my family members are reflexively anti-vaccine, and thus, they live in a Facebook-fueld world of quasi-scientific facts and pseudoscientific malarkey. Some of the things you hear my relatives say could have come out of the mouth of some authoritarian such as Rush Limbaugh. In fact, here is a quote that is hauntingly similar to things my sister says: “Screw you,” Rush Limbaugh said (LINK). “I am not going to take it, precisely because you’re now telling me I must. You have some idiot government official demanding, telling me I must take this vaccine. I’ll never take it.” That is about as irrational and illiberal as one can sound in two sentences. Nutcase Glenn Beck said something similar (LINK).
Here is a Media Matters “Guide to Right-wing Media Coronavirus Reactions,” a handy tool to get inside the worst headspace on planet Earth.
Contrast the two styles of thinking in this paragraph, by Nicholas D. Kristof:
“The problem is that we are all asking questions — How bad will this [Coronavirus pandemic] get? Should I cancel my trip? — that experts can’t easily answer. But living with the wise uncertainty of scientists is preferable to the ranting certainty of demagogues. Sadly, Trump exemplifies an ideological approach to the coronavirus…. From the beginning, when Trump suggested that warming weather would solve the epidemic, his aim has been to downplay the risks and talk up the stock market, whose strength is key to his argument for re-election. ‘We’re going very substantially down, not up,’ Trump said on Feb. 26 of the number of infections. This was completely incorrect, and he piled on more narcissism: ‘We have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.’” Thus it is fair to say that the authoritarian impulse in both leaders and citizens can easily lead to a place where truth is savaged. After all, how could someone such as Hitler engage in his dirty misdeeds if he were obligated to tell the objective truth? That would come across as: “I would like to get up here and rant about how Jews and Communists and the mentally retarded are ruining this country, but that would be a lie; we are in a depression and have an extreme malaise not because Jews own jewelry stores or teach philosophy, but because of our catastrophic loss in World War I, and the laws of economics, and so on.”
How common is this authoritarian, illiberal, unscientific, group-think-y, extremism? MacWilliams has found the following: “I found that Trump has already captured 43 percent of Republican primary voters who are strong authoritarians, and 37 percent of Republican authoritarians overall. A majority of Republican authoritarians in my poll also strongly supported Trump’s proposals to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, prohibit Muslims from entering the United States, shutter mosques and establish a nationwide database that track Muslims.” He also believes that 39% of independents and 17% of Democrats fit this profile. So it’s not perfectly isomorphic with political affiliation, but it is statistically significant.
In the 1992 book Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America, John George and Laird Wilcox found there are six signs of political extremism, and I would say, authoritarians:
- Absolute certainty they have the truth.
- America is controlled to a greater or lesser extent by a conspiratorial group.
- Open hatred of opponents.
- Little faith in the democratic process, since it is believed that “The Conspiracy” has such influence in the U.S. government.
- Willingness to deny basic civil liberties to certain fellow citizens, because enemies deserve no liberties.
- Consistent indulgence in irresponsible accusations and character assassination.
Comedian Bill Maher says this: “I’ve been saying for a long time that Donald Trump is bringing fascism to this country. Madeleine Albright wrote an op-ed in the New York Times a few weeks ago saying the same thing. She said fascism is coming.”
“Anti-democratic leaders are winning democratic elections,” Albright writes, “and some of the world’s savviest politicians are moving closer to tyranny with each passing year.” New Yorker writer Robin Wright reviews the piece, seeing the pains Albright, who fled fascist Europe decades ago, took to put Trump in a historical context. “Albright’s linking of the past and the present is, at times, weak, Wright believes. ‘We are not there yet,’ Albright acknowledges, ‘but these feel like signposts on the road back to an era when Fascism found nourishment and individual tragedies were multiplied millions-fold.’ Mussolini’s political strategy, Albright notes, was to pluck a chicken one feather at a time, so that each squawk will be heard separately ‘and the whole process is kept as quiet as possible.’
Albright’s book is entitled Fascism: A Warning. Though conservatives loathe comparisons to Adolf Hitler, it’s not an absurd notion. We are kidding ourselves if we think that the kind of political extremism, political polarization, and hyperpartisanship we see is obviously only temporary because we are Americans, we are special. Think again. A brief tour of the history of this nation, from slavery forward, will indicate that we may have an air of exceptionalism, but we are not immune from either creeping authoritarianism or even the end of America itself. Clearly there are indicators that we are not doing all that well.
“Hitler lied shamelessly about himself and about his enemies. He convinced millions of men and women that he cared for them deeply when, in fact, he would have willingly sacrificed them all. His murderous ambition, avowed racism, and utter immorality were given the thinnest mask, and yet millions of Germans were drawn to Hitler precisely because he seemed authentic. They screamed, ‘Sieg Heil’ with happiness in their hearts, because they thought they were creating a better world,” Albright shows. If you’ve ever seen a MAGA rally, it’s more like a demagogue-fest, a crass show of political partisanship, and other dark aspects of the American mind. There are plenty of quotes from Trump and from his supporters, and even some physical violence, to support this very sobering view.
I will quote Albright at length, hopefully not violating her copyrighted material, but showing how important her thinking on this topic is:
- “We cannot, of course, expect every leader to possess the wisdom of Lincoln or Mandela’s largeness of soul. But when we think about what questions might be most useful to ask, perhaps we should begin by discerning what our prospective leaders believe it worthwhile for us to hear. Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed or party as unworthy of dignity and respect? Do they want us to nurture our anger toward those who we believe have done us wrong, rub raw our grievances and set our sights on revenge? Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process?Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy, such as an independent press, and a professional judiciary?Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism, the flag, the pledge in a conscious effort to turn us against one another?If defeated at the polls, will they accept the verdict, or insist without evidence they have won?Do they go beyond asking about our votes to brag about their ability to solve all problems put to rest all anxieties and satisfy every desire?Do they solicit our cheers by speaking casually and with pumped up machismo about using violence to blow enemies away?Do they echo the attitude of Mussolini: “The crowd doesn’t have to know, all they have to do is believe and submit to being shaped.”?Or do they invite us to join with them in building and maintaining a healthy center for our society, a place where rights and duties are apportioned fairly, the social contract is honored, and all have room to dream and grow.The answers to these questions will not tell us whether a prospective leader is left or right-wing, conservative or liberal, or, in the American context, a Democrat or a Republican. However, they will us much that we need to know about those wanting to lead us, and much also about ourselves.
For those who cherish freedom, the answers will provide grounds for reassurance, or, a warning we dare not ignore.”
In The Guardian, she indicates that “Trump is different. Look at his attacks on the institutions of liberal society as he Twitter-lashes the judiciary and the media. Outrageous,” says Albright. “It was Stalin who talked about the press being the enemy of the people.”
“I also think Trump does act as though he’s above the law.” “He lies without shame,” she says. “He threatens to jail political competitors. He foments bigotry. He lavishes admiration on autocrats like Putin and by doing so encourages the worldwide drift to authoritarianism. Observe also, she adds, how Trump exploits a crowd.”
“He uses rallies in a strange way. We all, most of us that are public people, have somebody interrupting our speeches. There’s always somebody yelling something. And the question is: what do you do about it? Sometimes people are just escorted out or you don’t pay any attention to it. What is fascinating in watching Trump is he loves the people yelling and he uses them so that it looks as though he is having conversations with the people on TV. Trump is, I think he’s actually really smart – evil smart, is what I think.” (SOURCE)
Here are the fourteen characteristics of fascists, which Bill Maher takes pains to track in Donald Trump (and incidentally Maher believes that Trump will not leave office when he is either unelected or has served two terms, whichever comes first). That scholarly link refers more to the political manifestation of authoritarianism.
Here though are some of the more psychological aspects of political extremism in the minds of Trump voters. A snippet from author Thomas Pettigrew: “There is debate as to whether to consider authoritarianism a personality construct or a political ideology in itself. However, there is no necessary conflict between these two perspectives (Pettigrew, 2016). Authoritarianism begins early in life as a personality orientation – witness its genetic roots (Ludeke & Krueger 2013; McCourt, Bouchard, Lykken, Tellegen, & Keyes, 1999). And later this orientation typically leads to some form of a right-wing political ideology.”
Hasan Minhaj, the comedian, runs down the civil liberties violations and scares that Trump has rightfully been accused of HERE.
David Smith and Eric Hanley (LINK) add: “We find that Trump’s supporters voted for him mainly because they share his prejudices, not because they’re financially stressed. It’s true, as exit polls showed, that voters without four-year college degrees were likelier than average to support Trump. But millions of these voters—who are often stereotyped as “the white working class”—opposed Trump because they oppose his prejudices. These prejudices, meanwhile, have a definite structure, which we argue should be called authoritarian: negatively, they target minorities and women; and positively, they favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases. Multivariate logistic regression shows that, once we take these biases into account, demographic factors (age, education, etc.) lose their explanatory power. The electorate, in short, is deeply divided.”
Sometimes I feel so angry and powerless and nervous. Just this week, Trump gave Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then, he fired patriot Alexander Vindman, and his twin brother, from the White House. He also tried to influence the judicial branch by Tweeting and by having his hack William Barr, the Attorney General pressure the judge, in the sentencing of his nefarious friend and apparatchik, Roger Stone. I mean, the alarming and outrageous news almost comes too fast to even really process, let alone act affirmatively and effectively. Then he fires the Director of National Intelligence and replaces him with an acting DNI who has no experience – but is loyal. It’s Trump’s playbook to come fast and often with anti-American acts, and to “hide them in plain sight.” Add some Orwellianism, have in place 51 Republican Senators who ceded their power because of fear and greed, and you’ve got yourself a slow-moving destruction of American institutions via political extremism and corruption.
The only people left in this farce of a presidential administration are loyalists, hacks, apparatchiks, yes-men, beta males, lackeys, soulless individuals, and other manner of corrupt and spineless weasels. We are in serious trouble, and we cannot count on Americans who come from a place of noxious political extremism and authoritarian impulses. It has been said that these individuals support Trump in part because “he hates the same people I do.” This is extremely disturbing due to the illiberal and intolerant aspects of that kind of polarized thinking.
In the short history of America, we have been through McCarthy, Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Bush, McConnell, Tom DeLay, and other fringe Republicans. Let us hope we can recover our American values, our better angels, and avoid a second Civil War to settle this deep values divide in which we find ourselves.
I started out by noting that those on the Right, especially the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh types, consider Bernie and A.O.C. to be political extremism incarnate. I would accept their refreshing and authentic brand of democratic socialism any day of the week compared to far-right authoritarianism and fascism. Ω