October 29, 2016
The author’s website places at your disposal a free ebook entitled The Authoritarians. I wrote this book in 2006 when a great deal seemed to be going wrong in America, and I thought the research on authoritarian personalities could explain a lot of it. (The book is set in that era, but you will have no trouble finding present-day examples of what the experiments found back then.)
Authoritarians did not disappear after George W. Bush left office and the United States avoided financial collapse. Instead they flocked to the Tea Party Movement, which the Republican Party cleverly (it thought) helped create and gathered unto itself. But the movement drove moderates from the GOP and sent radical conservatives to Congress. The “Tea Party Party” produced eight years of non-compromising stalemate in Washington as they imposed their own agenda on the Republican leadership. Now American authoritarians have united behind a presidential candidate who unabashedly says he wants to destroy the traditional Republican Party and deal a devastating blow to the Democrats as well. Is that anything to worry about?
On January 23, 2016 Donald Trump told an enthusiastic audience in Sioux City, Iowa:
The…polls say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. OK? It’s just incredible.
That bit of braggadocio bothers me in three ways:
- While it is (characteristically) a wild exaggeration, a sizeable percentage of Trump’s supporters probably would continue to support him if he ran the experiment he mentioned.
- He believes his followers are supremely loyal. Think what that means if he becomes President of the United States.
- Over 40% of the electorate in November is going to vote for someone who openly revels in the belief that his followers will let him get away with murder. What are these voters thinking?
You may have noticed the many times people have called Trump an “authoritarian.” It always catches my eye, because I spent 40 years as an academic psychologist researching authoritarianism, the very dangerous relationship that develops between tyrants and their way-too-submissive followers.
While the leaders get the headlines, social scientists have long thought that the deeper problem lay in the crowd that would lift a dictator on high and carry him to power. As I wrote in 1998,
Wannabe tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself, it was thought, ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.
That apprehension was well-founded, it turns out. Research indicates that a bed rock 20-25% of the adults in North America is highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. These people are constantly waiting for a tough “law and order,” “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a person gains prominence, you can expect the authoritarian followers to mate devotedly with the authoritarian leader, because each gives the other something they desperately want: the feeling of safety for the followers, and the tremendous power of the modern state for the leader.
I would not say that all of the people trying to surge Donald Trump into the White House are authoritarian followers. But they almost certainly compose his hard core base. Where are the rest coming from? Various places, such as white males who fear their status in society is eroding and those who cannot abide a Hillary Clinton presidency. But authoritarianism rises in a population that feels threatened, and many Americans today are anxious about their family’s economic future, not to mention the throbbing fear of terrorist attacks. Many of them are clutching at straws.
It’s been noted that if 25% of the American population is always ready to vote for a dictator, that’s half-way to a majority. If the “right” kind of crisis comes along, it could create enough newly panicked citizens to vote a tyrant into office who would overthrow the Constitution, the rule of law, you name it.
We know a lot about authoritarian followers, but unfortunately most of what we know indicates it will be almost impossible to change their minds, especially in a few months. Here are some things established by experiments. See if you recognize any of these behaviors in Trump supporters. Compared with most people:
- They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause. They will trust their leaders no matter what they say, and distrust whomever the leader says to distrust.
- They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experience stronger fear than people skilled at “keeping their heads while others are losing theirs.”
- They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.
- They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.
- They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.
- They will support their authorities, and even help them, persecute almost any identifiable group in the country.
- Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs live independent lives in separate boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.
- They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent. They especially have trouble realizing a conclusion is invalid.
- They are highly dogmatic. Because they have mainly gotten their beliefs from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.
- They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know and listen to tells them they are. That happens because they screen out sources that will suggest that they are wrong.
- Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.
- They believe strongly in group cohesiveness, and being loyal. They are highly energized when surrounded by a crowd of fellow-believers because it makes them feel powerful and supports their belief that “all the good people” agree with them.
- They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.
- They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do. They are heavily into denial.
I hasten to add that studies find examples of all these things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.
If you are the kind of person who would NOT make a good authoritarian follower, you will be wondering “What’s the evidence?” for all these assertions. The scientific evidence, which has stood the test of time for decades now, is at your fingertips.
Is Donald Trump an Authoritarian Leader?
Getting a valid, insightful fix on one person is much more difficult than uncovering general truths about a group, and no one has presented any scientific evidence about Donald Trump’s personality that I know of. But if you’re willing to consider your impressions of the man, how do you think he would truthfully respond to the following items on a psychological test?
- “It’s a mistake to interfere with the ‘law of the jungle.’ Some people were meant to dominate others.”
- “Winning is not the first thing. It’s the ONLY thing.”
- “If you have power in a situation, you should use it however you have to, to get your way.”
- “I’d be cold-blooded and vengeful, if that’s what it took to reach my goals.”
- “Money, wealth, and luxuries mean a lot to me.”
- “I enjoy having the power to hurt people when they anger or disappoint me.”
- “It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times.”
- “I enjoy taking charge of things and making people do things my way.”
- “I like other people to be afraid of me.”
- “I will do my best to destroy anyone who deliberately blocks my plans and goals.”
These statements come from a “Power-Mad” scale that I developed in the 1990s. Personally, I think Donald Trump would get the maximum score possible, right up there with various individuals in history who actually got to be dictators.
Here are some items from a “Machiavellian” scale I developed at the same time. Be Donald Trump’s surrogate personality again and answer them too.
- “You know that most people are out to ‘screw’ you, so you have to get them first when you get the chance.”
- “There is really no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ It all boils down to what you can get away with.”
- “One of the most useful skills a person should develop is how to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly.”
- “Basically, people are objects to be quietly and coolly manipulated for your own benefit.”
- “Deceit and cheating are justified when they get you what you really want.”
- “The best skill one can have is knowing the ‘right move at the right time’: when to ‘soft-sell’ someone, when to be tough, when to flatter, when to threaten, when to bribe, etc.”
- “The best reason for belonging to a church is to project a good image and have contact with some of the important people in your community.”
- “There’s a sucker born every minute, and smart people learn how to take advantage of them.”
- “It is more important to create a good image of yourself in the minds of others than to actually be the person others think you are.”
- “One of the best ways to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear.”
If your version of Donald Trump scored very highly, so did mine.
A wannabe dictator is all about dominance. He wants to dominate everyone and he will do whatever he can get away with to become “Number One.” Often the movement he leads becomes a personality clique, because ultimately it is really just about, only about, him. Trump appears every bit as narcissistic as he is aggressive and constantly striving for dominance.
The most remarkable thing about Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader, in my mind, is that he’s so obvious about it. Look at his comments about Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-un. While he has some negative evaluation of each, he praises all three for becoming autocrats and using their power to dominate their countries. How hard is it to see what he’s hoping to do? Who will stop him if he becomes President?
What to do?
If the analysis above is correct (and if I adopted Donald Trump’s style I would guarantee you 1000% that it is 1000% correct), then I would say, as calmly as I can, that American democracy is at a pretty important crossroads today. But we have been in trouble before, and faced more difficult tests. We can meet this one too.
I don’t think you can change the minds of many Trump supporters. Winning fact-driven discussions about the man and the issues will likely make them more defensive. Their connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels. The ideas in the campaign just float around in the Atmosphere of Indifference, quite ignored by his followers. That’s why Trump can contradict himself so often, and say so many outrageous things, with no effect on his followers’ support. He is likely more vulnerable to emotional backlash among his followers when he does something horrendous than to intellectual rejection when he lies or says something stupid.
Still, you will probably have to work hard to make sure Trump’s supporters are backing the losing side in November. … The side that works harder will win, and Trump’s supporters are very zealous. So, it comes down to you.
Then again, it’s your future.
Bob Altemeyer is a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He studied authoritarianism for over forty years during his academic career. His research on authoritarian aggression won the Prize for Behavioral Science Research awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. An accessible, non-technical presentation of his findings on authoritarian followers and leaders is available in The Authoritarians, a free online book available at his website.