If Hitler were a psychopath it would have made things so much easier. Psychopaths have no empathy, are unrepentant for their crimes, and act out of sheer self-interest, everyone else be damned. But Hitler wasn’t a psychopath. And that is what should send chills down the spine of those who wish to prevent another Adolf Hitler.
Hitler had compassion for animals. He was a vegetarian because of it. He eliminated the practice of human zoos, which were horrifically permitted at that time. Psychopaths are motivated by power and wealth. Hitler wanted power, but not for itself. He wanted power to implement his vision of a “better” world. Horrifically, he was motivated by higher aspirations. The problem was that his aspirations were monstrous.
As a child Hitler was close with his mother, but had a terrible relationship with his father, who used to beat him. German children were raised with an authoritarian parenting style, which meant blind obedience to the father, submission to authority generally, conformity, and embracing traditional values. For many children this creates internal anger toward the parent. But because this cannot be expressed outwardly, it is expressed in other ways.
Of course having an authoritarian parenting style and being abused is not enough by itself to turn you into Adolf Hitler.
During WWI Hitler was involved in fighting in trench warfare. He was nearly killed, but somehow survived. He was very dedicated and brave. He volunteered for things that were dangerous and others were reluctant to do. He was horrified by the German defeat. He began to believe that it was Jewish bankers and elites that were responsible for getting Germany into WWI in the first place, and he also hated Marxists, whom he called “Judeo-Bolsheviks.” He believed in the genetic superiority of certain races and eugenics, which were popular at this time in the West. In some nations the mentally disabled were sterilized without their consent. Hitler believed that Aryans were superior to other groups. These were blond-haired, blue-eyed, strong, tall, and beautiful people. He believed that Jews never assimilated into the cultures of other nations, and remained a tribe unto themselves, with no loyalty to anyone but themselves. He believed that Marxists promoted race mixing, which would lead to genetic degradation of the species. Jews were also considered immoral, as he believed they only worshiped money. Hitler believed in the value of traditional German culture. So in a very warped and anti-Semitic way, he wanted the world to be a better place for at least some people. He was not acting in a purely selfish manner. He had morals, but the problem was that his morals and the way to implement them were unspeakably harmful and murderous to millions of people.
In many ways the Marxist and the fascist are inversions of each other. The value systems are completely opposite of one another. This also explains why the fascists and the communists were engaged in street fights in pre-WWII Germany, and why Hitler promised to get rid of the communists if he were to gain power. And the German Middle Class endorsed this. Hitler was actually very honest about his intentions, and had the widespread support of the people.
Example of an Aryan
Hitler believed Jews were greedy and obsessed with money above all else.
Nazis believed the U.S. was under the negative influence of blacks and Jews. This caused them moral degeneration. “Negro music” was considered a particularly bad influence.
Jews scheme to undermine the morality of non-Jews.
Hitler believed communist Jews were responsible for the destruction of Germany.
We learn a great deal about the connection between racism and “purity” from Hitler and the Nazis.
Many racists have authoritarian personalities. They believe some races are genetically better than others. They believe in obedience, conformity, listening to the leader “father figure” who scapegoats minority groups to consolidate his own power.
For example, Hitler hated Jews because many of them were communists. Even called them Judeo-Bolsheviks, as a very large number of Bolsheviks were Jews. In Hitler’s mind equality, fraternity, solidarity, and anti-racism are immoral, because these values go against the natural order of things, which is futile and wrong. In his mind it was arrogance to go against the law of nature that made Aryans superior. Because they are genetically inferior, then the only way to get rid of them is a Final Solution—extermination. He believed some groups were not merely less valuable, but were natural slaves—Slavs and blacks, for example.
Racists also are obsessed with the nature of “purity.” Communists and left-leaning people promote impurity, which is bad. Racists fear being tainted, and studies have shown they are more easily grossed out than liberals. That is why they refer to the Aryans as a “pure” race. Even having sex with a black person or a Jew makes you “tainted.” In the porn industry some female stars don’t perform with black stars because it would anger their racist fan base.
Right wing ideology is often racist. In the South blacks were dehumanized. Race mixing was illegal, so as to not taint the pure white gene pool.
Chappelle’s Show: Clayton Bigsby; The Black, White Supremist This skit is humorous, but it brilliantly brings to light the inherent contradictions of racism, hate groups, and personal identity.
The racism and anti-Semitism of Hitler and the Nazis was not unique to them at the time. In fact, the German lawyers that wrote the laws to persecute the Jews were influenced by the U.S. miscegenation laws, which forbade marriage between whites and blacks.
This kind of racial anti-Semitism, with its elements of physical revulsion, sexual panic and assumption of clear, easily recognizable physical differences, had obvious parallels with European and American racism towards Africans and, later, African Americans. Like other forms of racism, including that of the slaveholding American South, this anti-Semitism associated pejorative qualities of inward character with specific physiological attributes. The Jewish body implied a Jewish character, associated with cowardice, sexual rapacity, crime, murderous attacks on women and children, lack of patriotism and subversion of the nation. This kind of pornographic and biological anti-Semitism certainly fostered a climate of hatred and revulsion in which mass murder was a possibility. It was central to the murders of the mentally ill and physically handicapped, and to barbaric “medical experiments” undertaken by Nazi physicians. It played an important role in the development of techniques of mass gassing and lent the prestige of science to inhumanity, and in so doing contributed to a climate of opinion in which a genocide could take place. Yet arguments resting on racial biology were not the decisive ones made by Hitler when he launched and implemented the Holocaust, nor those made by other Nazi leaders, notably Joseph Goebbels, in justifying the ongoing extermination. The Nazi anti-Semitism of the 1930s was similar in its outcomes to the white racism that had justified slavery before the Civil War and legalized segregation and discrimination afterwards. Ideological assertions about the supposed physical and moral inferiority of the Jews, like comparable assertions about African Americans, were components of both eras of persecution, associated with both forms of racism.
One of the most chilling things we learn from Adolf Hitler is that he was not some lunatic acting on his own. He was no Pied Piper, leading the unaware German people to start WWII and begin the Holocaust, and in the end leave Germany in ruins and 80 million people dead. He told the German people what they wanted to hear, and at some level they agreed with him.
Hitler was a product of childhood abuse, of a society in which many were raised by authoritarian parenting styles, in which the demands for submissiveness, conformity, obedience, hierarchy, and “everyone having a place” were demanded and deeply ingrained. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, in which he openly told the people about his anti-Semitic, racist, and horrible viewpoints. The people liked these, and agreed with them. The German Middle Classes voted overwhelmingly for him because he promised to do what he said he would do. He even told the people that once elected he would make himself an authoritarian ruler!
Fascist demagogues use scapegoating to take the anger and resentment of the masses and direct them toward an “outside” group. Similarly, the authoritarian personality cannot express anger and rage toward the parent and directs it at the family scapegoat. This enables the family to pull together in their shared hatred. It is an emotional illusion, because it doesn’t solve anything. The Jews were not the cause of Germany’s problems. In the U.S. the “illegals” are blamed for the collapse of the American Middle Class. Trump used the “illegals” as a scapegoat, and it worked. The battle over the border wall had nothing to do with national security. It was political and nothing more. Are there problems with immigration that need to be addressed? Yes. But not with the zeal Trump with which approaches it.
Modern-day fascists employ many of the techniques used by Hitler: scapegoating, appeal to an earlier, nostalgic, “better past” of the nation. In fact, Hitler said he was going to make “Germany great again.”
Obviously Trump and Hitler are far from the same. And it would be too much to lump them together. But the underlying psychological mechanisms that give rise to a Hitler also give rise to a Trump. What we should be worried about is not Trump, but the next demagogue, who may be far, far more dangerous than Trump.
Both the U.S. and pre-WWII Germany saw the Middle Classes being destroyed and the financial prospects of the people in ruins. When capitalism is in decay the people move toward fascism. Right-wing ideology is appealing to people because studies have shown that people become more conservative and security-oriented. Leaders who appeal to things like “protecting us from the enemies,” building up the military to keep us safe, celebrating militarism, traditional family values, fighting against moral degeneracy, racism, and xenophobia. All these are about purity, disgust, protection, and not not being “tainted.” Interestingly, when Trump is not nailing porn stars he is indeed worried about being tainted, and won’t shake people’s hands because he considers it “filthy.”
Fascism promises to protect the private property rights of the bourgeoisie. This is appealing because as capitalist systems fall apart there is the threat of the people rising up and causing unrest. They might even seize the means of production and become a socialist nation, as happened in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. That terrifies the élites, so with the fascists you have the strength of a dictator to ensure smooth operation of the government and military enforcement of private property rights. While Marxist-Leninist regimes are authoritarian, they are against private property rights with respect to the ownership of the means of production. They are based not on racism but on equality, and ethno-nationalism and bigotry are outlawed.
USSR propaganda. We aren’t in Nazi Germany anymore, folks!
Authoritarianism and racism go hand in hand. If there were a battle between fascism and communism for the future of America, fascism would win every time. In fact, it is very likely that if the U.S. government began exterminating illegal immigrants at the border and it was not confirmed but suspected, U.S. citizens would not do anything about it, or pretend to not know. We have reached that point.
In the early 2000s, as researchers began to make use of the NES data to understand how authoritarianism affected US politics, their work revealed three insights that help explain not just the rise of Trump, but seemingly a half-century of American political dynamics.
The first was Hetherington and Weiler’s insight into partisan polarization. In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, where their concentration gave them more and more influence over time.
The second was Stenner’s theory of “activation.” In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been “activated.”
THE SOCIAL THREAT THEORY HELPS EXPLAIN WHY AUTHORITARIANS SEEM SO PRONE TO REJECT NOT JUST ONE SPECIFIC KIND OF OUTSIDER OR SOCIAL CHANGE, SUCH AS MUSLIMS OR SAME-SEX COUPLES OR HISPANIC MIGRANTS, BUT RATHER TO REJECT ALL OF THEM
This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.
Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren’t “activated” — they’ve always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.
But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.
The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.
But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.
Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.
This theory would seem to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like the support base that has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to propel Donald Trump from sideshow loser of the 2012 GOP primary to runaway frontrunner in 2016.
Beyond being almost alarmingly prescient, this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.
And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?
IV. What can authoritarianism explain?
Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
In early February, shortly after Trump finished second in the Iowa caucus and ended any doubts about his support, I began talking to Feldman, Hetherington, and MacWilliams to try to answer these questions.
MacWilliams had already demonstrated a link between authoritarianism and support for Trump. But we wanted to know how else authoritarianism was playing out in American life, from policy positions to party politics to social issues, and what it might mean for America’s future.
It was time to call Kyle Dropp. Dropp is a political scientist and pollster whom one of my colleagues described as “the Doogie Howser of polling.” He does indeed appear jarringly young for a Dartmouth professor. But he is also the co-founder of a media and polling company, Morning Consult, that had worked with Vox on several other projects.
When we approached Morning Consult, Dropp and his colleagues were excited. Dropp was familiar with Hetherington’s work and the authoritarianism measure, he said, and was instantly intrigued by how we could test its relevance to the election. Hetherington and the other political scientists were, in turn, eager to more fully explore the theories that had suddenly become much more relevant.
NON-AUTHORITARIANS WHO WERE SUFFICIENTLY FRIGHTENED OF THREATS LIKE TERRORISM COULD ESSENTIALLY BE SCARED INTO ACTING LIKE AUTHORITARIANS
We put together five sets of questions. The first set, of course, was the test for authoritarianism that Feldman had developed. This would allow us to measure how authoritarianism coincided or didn’t with our other sets of questions.
The second set asked standard election-season questions on preferred candidates and party affiliation.
The third set tested voters’ fears of a series of physical threats, ranging from ISIS and Russia to viruses and car accidents.
The fourth set tested policy preferences, in an attempt to see how authoritarianism might lead voters to support particular policies.
If the research were right, then we’d expect people who scored highly on authoritarianism to express outsize fear of “outsider” threats such as ISIS or foreign governments versus other threats. We also expected that non-authoritarians who expressed high levels of fear would be more likely to support Trump. This would speak to physical fears as triggering a kind of authoritarian upsurge, which would in turn lead to Trump support.
WE WANTED TO LOOK AT THE ROLE AUTHORITARIANS ARE PLAYING IN THE ELECTION
The final set of questions was intended to test fear of social change. We asked people to rate a series of social changes — both actual and hypothetical — on a scale of “very good” to “very bad” for the country. These included same-sex marriage, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and American Muslims building more mosques in US cities.
If the theory about social change provoking stress amongst authoritarians turned out to be correct, then authoritarians would be more likely to rate the changes as bad for the country.
In the aggregate, we were hoping to do a few things. We wanted to understand who these people are, in simple demographic terms, and to test the basic hypotheses about how authoritarianism, in theory, is supposed to work. We wanted to look at the role authoritarians are playing in the election: Were they driving certain policy positions, for example?
We wanted to better understand the larger forces that had suddenly made authoritarians so numerous and so extreme — was it migration, terrorism, perhaps the decline of working-class whites? And maybe most of all, we wanted to develop some theories about what the rise of American authoritarianism meant for the future of polarization between the parties as well as a Republican Party that had become both more extreme and internally divided.
About 10 days later, shortly after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, the poll went into the field. In less than two weeks, we had our results.
V. How the GOP became the party of authoritarians
Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sign autographs during a Trump campaign event in Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty Images
The first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are. Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare1.
The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.
Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.
And at the other end of the scale, that pattern reversed. People whose scores were most non-authoritarian — meaning they always chose the non-authoritarian parenting answer — were almost 75 percent Democrats.
But this hasn’t always been the case. According to Hetherington and Weiler’s research, this is not a story about how Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. It’s a story of polarization that increased over time.
They trace the trend to the 1960s, when the Republican Party shifted electoral strategies to try to win disaffected Southern Democrats, in part by speaking to fears of changing social norms — for example, the racial hierarchies upset by civil rights. The GOP also embraced a “law and order” platform with a heavily racial appeal to white voters who were concerned about race riots.
This positioned the GOP as the party of traditional values and social structures — a role that it has maintained ever since. That promise to stave off social change and, if necessary, to impose order happened to speak powerfully to voters with authoritarian inclinations.
Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress — in other words, as the party of social change, a position that not only fails to attract but actively repels change-averse authoritarians.
Over the next several decades, Hetherington explained to me, this led authoritarians to naturally “sort” themselves into the Republican Party.
That matters, because as more authoritarians sort themselves into the GOP, they have more influence over its policies and candidates. It is not for nothing that our poll found that more than half of the Republican respondents score as authoritarian.
Perhaps more importantly, the party has less and less ability to ignore authoritarians’ voting preferences — even if those preferences clash with the mainstream party establishment.
VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear
Based on our data, Morning Consult data scientist Adam Petrihos said that “among Republicans, very high/high authoritarianism is very predictive of support for Trump.” Trump has 42 percent support among Republicans but, according to our survey, a full 52 percent support among very high authoritarians.
Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close. And as Hetherington noted after reviewing our results, the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.
Trump support was much lower among Republicans who scored low on authoritarianism: only 38 percent.
But that’s still awfully high. So what could explain Trump’s support among non-authoritarians?
I suspected the answer might lie at least partly in Hetherington and Suhay’s research on how fear affects non-authoritarian voters, so I called them to discuss the data. Hetherington crunched some numbers on physical threats and noticed two things.
The first was that authoritarians tend to fear very specific kinds of physical threats.
Authoritarians, we found in our survey, tend to most fear threats that come from abroad, such as ISIS or Russia or Iran. These are threats, the researchers point out, to which people can put a face; a scary terrorist or an Iranian ayatollah. Non-authoritarians were much less afraid of those threats. For instance, 73 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians believed that terrorist organizations like ISIS posed a “very high risk” to them, but only 45 percent of very low-scoring authoritarians did. Domestic threats like car accidents, by contrast, were much less frightening to authoritarians.
But Hetherington also noticed something else: A subgroup of non-authoritarians were very afraid of threats like Iran or ISIS. And the more fear of these threats they expressed, the more likely they were to support Trump.
This seemed to confirm his and Suhay’s theory: that non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.
That’s important, because for years now, Republican politicians and Republican-leaning media such as Fox News have been telling viewers nonstop that the world is a terrifying place and that President Obama isn’t doing enough to keep Americans safe.
There are a variety of political and media incentives for why this happens. But the point is that, as a result, Republican voters have been continually exposed to messages warning of physical dangers. As the perception of physical threat has risen, this fear appears to have led a number of non-authoritarians to vote like authoritarians — to support Trump.
An irony of this primary is that the Republican establishment has tried to stop Trump by, among other things, co-opting his message. But when establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio try to match Trump’s rhetoric on ISIS or on American Muslims, they may end up deepening the fear that can only lead voters back to Trump.
VII. Is America’s changing social landscape “activating” authoritarianism?
But the research on authoritarianism suggests it’s not just physical threats driving all this. There should be another kind of threat — larger, slower, less obvious, but potentially even more powerful — pushing authoritarians to these extremes: the threat of social change.
This could come in the form of evolving social norms, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation. It could come in the form of rising diversity, whether that means demographic changes from immigration or merely changes in the colors of the faces on TV. Or it could be any changes, political or economic, that disrupt social hierarchies.
What these changes have in common is that, to authoritarians, they threaten to take away the status quo as they know it — familiar, orderly, secure — and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing, but also sometimes because it upends their own place in society. According to the literature, authoritarians will seek, in response, a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, and to preserve the status quo.
This is why, in our survey, we wanted to study the degree to which authoritarians versus non-authoritarians expressed a fear of social change — and whether this, as expected, led them to desire heavy-handed responses.
Our results seemed to confirm this: Authoritarians were significantly more likely to rate almost all of the actual and hypothetical social issues we asked about as “bad” or “very bad” for the country.
For instance, our results suggested that an astonishing 44 percent of authoritarians believe same-sex marriage is harmful to the country. Twenty-eight percent rated same-sex marriage as “very bad” for America, and another 16 percent said that it’s “bad.” Only about 35 percent of high-scoring authoritarians said same-sex marriage was “good” or “very good” for the country.
Tellingly, non-authoritarians’ responses skewed in the opposite direction. Non-authoritarians tended to rate same-sex marriage as “good” or “very good” for the country.
The fact that authoritarians and non-authoritarians split over something as seemingly personal and nonthreatening as same-sex marriage is crucial for understanding how authoritarianism can be triggered by even a social change as minor as expanding marriage rights.
We also asked respondents to rate whether Muslims building more mosques in American cities was a good thing. This was intended to test respondents’ comfort level with sharing their communities with Muslims — an issue that has been particularly contentious this primary election.
A whopping 56.5 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians said it was either “bad” or “very bad” for the country when Muslims built more mosques. Only 14 percent of that group said more mosques would be “good” or “very good.”
The literature on authoritarianism suggests this is not just simple Islamophobia, but rather reflects a broader phenomenon wherein authoritarians feel threatened by people they identify as “outsiders” and by the possibility of changes to the status quo makeup of their communities.
This would help explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them. What these seemingly disparate groups have in common is the perceived threat they pose to the status quo order, which authoritarians experience as a threat to themselves.
And America is at a point when the status quo social order is changing rapidly; when several social changes are converging. And they are converging especially on working-class white people.
It is conventional wisdom to ascribe the rise of first the Tea Party right and now Trump to the notion that working-class white Americans are angry.
Indeed they are, but this data helps explain that they are also under certain demographic and economic pressures that, according to this research, are highly likely to trigger authoritarianism — and thus suggests there is something a little more complex going on than simple “anger” that helps explain their gravitation toward extreme political responses.
Working-class communities have come under tremendous economic strain since the recession. And white people are also facing the loss of the privileged position that they previously were able to take for granted. Whites are now projected to become a minority group over the next few decades, owing to migration and other factors. The president is a black man, and nonwhite faces are growing more common in popular culture. Nonwhite groups are raising increasingly prominent political demands, and often those demands coincide with issues such as policing that also speak to authoritarian concerns.
Some of these factors might be considered more or less legitimately threatening than others — the loss of working-class jobs in this country is a real and important issue, no matter how one feels about fading white privilege — but that is not the point.
The point, rather, is that the increasingly important political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism, or white working-class populism, seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed.
That is not to dismiss white working-class concerns as invalid because they might be expressed by authoritarians or through authoritarian politics, but rather to better understand why this is happening — and why it’s having such a profound and extreme effect on American politics.
HAVE WE MISUNDERSTOOD HARD-LINE SOCIAL CONSERVATISM ALL ALONG?
Most of the other social-threat questions followed a similar pattern1. On its surface, this might seem to suggest that authoritarianism is just a proxy for especially hard-line manifestations of social conservatism. But when examined more carefully, it suggests something more interesting about the nature of social conservatism itself.
For liberals, it may be easy to conclude that opposition to things like same-sex marriage, immigration, and diversity is rooted in bigotry against those groups — that it’s the manifestation of specific homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.
But the results of the Vox/Morning Consult poll, along with prior research on authoritarianism, suggests there might be something else going on.
There is no particular reason, after all, why parenting goals should coincide with animus against specific groups. We weren’t asking questions about whether it was important for children to respect people of different races, but about whether they should respect authority and rules generally. So why do they coincide so heavily?
WHAT MIGHT LOOK ON THE SURFACE LIKE BIGOTRY WAS REALLY MUCH CLOSER TO STENNER’S THEORY OF “ACTIVATION”
What is most likely, Hetherington suggested, is that authoritarians are much more susceptible to messages that tell them to fear a specific “other” — whether or not they have a preexisting animus against that group. Those fears would therefore change over time as events made different groups seem more or less threatening.
It all depends, he said, on whether a particular group of people has been made into an outgroup or not — whether they had been identified as a dangerous other.
Since September 2001, some media outlets and politicians have painted Muslims as the other and as dangerous to America. Authoritarians, by nature, are more susceptible to these messages, and thus more likely to come to oppose the presence of mosques in their communities.
When told to fear a particular outgroup, Hetherington said, “On average people who score low in authoritarianism will be like, ‘I’m not that worried about that,’ while people who score high in authoritarianism will be like, ‘Oh, my god! I’m worried about that, because the world is a dangerous place.'”
In other words, what might look on the surface like bigotry was really much closer to Stenner’s theory of “activation”: that authoritarians are unusually susceptible to messages about the ways outsiders and social changes threaten America, and so lash out at groups that are identified as objects of concern at that given moment.
That’s not to say that such an attitude is in some way better than simple racism or xenophobia — it is still dangerous and damaging, especially if it empowers frightening demagogues like Donald Trump.
Perhaps more to the point, it helps explain how Trump’s supporters have come to so quickly embrace such extreme policies targeting these outgroups: mass deportation of millions of people, a ban on foreign Muslims visiting the US. When you think about those policy preferences as driven by authoritarianism, in which social threats are perceived as especially dangerous and as demanding extreme responses, rather than the sudden emergence of specific bigotries, this starts to make a lot more sense.
VIII. What authoritarians want
From our parenting questions, we learned who the GOP authoritarians are. From our questions about threats and social change, we learned what’s motivating them. But the final set of questions, on policy preferences, might be the most important of all: So what? What do authoritarians actually want?
The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.
What stands out from the results, Feldman wrote after reviewing our data, is that authoritarians “are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties.”
This “action side” of authoritarianism, he believed, was the key thing that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other GOP candidates. “The willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters.”
Authoritarians generally and Trump voters specifically, we found, were highly likely to support five policies:
- Using military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States
- Changing the Constitution to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants
- Imposing extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent in order to curb terrorism
- Requiring all citizens to carry a national ID card at all times to show to a police officer on request, to curb terrorism
- Allowing the federal government to scan all phone calls for calls to any number linked to terrorism
What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality. The scale of the desired response is, in some ways, what most distinguishes authoritarians from the rest of the GOP.
“Many Republicans seem to be threatened by terrorism, violence, and cultural diversity, but that’s not unique to Trump supporters,” Feldman told me.
“It seems to be the action side of authoritarianism — the willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters,” he added.
IF TRUMP LOSES THE ELECTION, THAT WON’T REMOVE THE THREATS AND SOCIAL CHANGES THAT TRIGGER THE “ACTION SIDE” OF AUTHORITARIANISM
This helps explain why the GOP has had such a hard time co-opting Trump’s supporters, even though those supporters’ immediate policy concerns, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, line up with party orthodoxy. The real divide is over how far to go in responding. And the party establishment is simply unwilling to call for such explicitly authoritarian policies.
Just as striking is what was missing from authoritarians’ concerns. There was no clear correlation between authoritarianism and support for tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 per year, for example. And the same was true of support for international trade agreements.
These are both issues associated with mainstream GOP economic policies. All groups opposed the tax cuts, and support for trade agreements was evenly lukewarm across all degrees of authoritarianism. So there is no real divide on these issues.
But there is one more factor that our data couldn’t capture but is nevertheless important: Trump’s style.
Trump’s specific policies aren’t the thing that most sets him apart from the rest of the field of GOP candidates. Rather, it’s his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage.
And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening. That’s why it’s a benefit rather than a liability for Trump when he says Mexicans are rapists or speaks gleefully of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets: He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won’t let “political correctness” hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.
This, Feldman explained to me, is “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.”
- Hitler is no relic of the past. He is but one example of an authoritarian leader who gained power by activating the support of millions of other authoritarians given the right set of economic and social conditions, conditions we are seeing in modern politics today.
- Authoritarian-minded people have empathy only for those within their group. The group is people like them. Everyone else is “the other.” And if the leader demonizes them, then any kind of savagery against them is considered morally permissible. Many authoritarians derive their sense of morality from what is legal and what is “permitted” by the authority figures. And so if the leader says that exterminating a group of subhumans is okay, then in their minds it is okay. Most people do not advance beyond Stage 4.
3. Here on Quora I am finding more and more people who say that Hitler did nothing wrong, or that he was no worse than any other leader, just that Germany lost the war. I am not joking. So as the Greatest Generation dies out, the memories of what happened fade away. The Holocaust survivors are dying out too. As a society our collective revulsion for the Nazis is diminishing.
4. Hitler was not a psychopath. He was capable of empathy, and showed it very selectively. That speaks volumes. This means normal people can be this way too. And this is how Hitler was able to harness the authoritarian darker impulses of the people and direct them into such a cyclone of death and destruction.
5. Physicians in Germany were among the earliest-joining members of the Nazis. These were people who joined not out of conformity, but because they believed in Nazism. Alexander Finnegan’s answer to Why were doctors susceptible to Hitler’s regime?
6. According to Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler, throughout history there is a pattern of nations growing more and more unequal. As the inequality increases, social unrest increases. The élites refuse to accept these changes, and continue on as before. He found that there has never been a peaceful political resolution to inequality. Wars, plagues, and communist revolutions are the only historical examples of resolving massive inequality. As globalization has caused inequality to skyrocket, we are again seeing massive unrest among the people. Instead of turning to communism, they are turning to demagogues and fascist strongmen. Fascists find it irresistible to stay within their own borders. Franco is perhaps the exception to the rule, but most fascists start wars. Sadly, there are very few examples of fascists being defeated by peaceful measures. You cannot reason with a fascist. So the result is violence. WWII was an example. My fear is that the world is going to have a redo. Except this time there are nuclear weapons. At least we might see some regional wars that turn very ugly.
EDIT: I find it absolutely amazing that people are complaining about the post being “too long.”
Considering something “too long” is a result of the systematic reduction in attention spans of modern people living in Twitter and texting culture. You cannot explore a topic and debunk popular beliefs in a few paragraphs. This is discussed by Noam Chomsky when he talks about the power of concision.
To destroy lies it takes work. It means the layout of facts. You can’t just regurgitate some groupthink and move on. People don’t like to cover the facts. But without them you cannot understand things. During the time of Dickens and Melville your average person had no problem reading giant novels. The attention spans of people were trained to be longer. A literary attention span is different from a modern Twitter, texting, or hyperlink attention span. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr talks about how the brains of modern people have been changed by interacting with modern media. It makes us uncomfortable to read something that is long.
But this means that we are allergic to deep thought. Perhaps the most brilliant weapon of the masters of the universe is to promote the use of shallow social media, 30 minute sitcoms, reality TV, and other forms of entertainment that don’t really require us to think.
I write long posts. Please don’t complain to me that the posts are “too long.” I will never make my posts shorter because you have a short attention span. I am not going to degrade my analysis to fit your Twitter sized attention span. If reading a long post isn’t for you, stop, but don’t complain to me about it. If you don’t like the channel, change it.
Chomsky makes the excellent point that to debunk a lie takes 10x longer than it does to repeat it. Why? Because lies are lazy. They rely on groupthink. So you must address and knock down improper assumptions if you are to uncover the lie. The problem is that the news media doesn’t have time for that. Second, most people are too lazy to read longer things. The prevailing logic is “Don’t make me think.”
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing I have heard was from someone who claimed that I am full of it because my answers are “too long,” “based on sophistry,” “cherry-picked for the facts,” and “If you cannot explain something simply, you don’t understand it.” Einstein said this. However, he was required to show his work, and not present his theories in cartoon form. Unpacking lies takes time, especially when dealing with a heavily indoctrinated audience.
The other issue is novelty. If you make statements that are outside the groupthink, you need to support them. They will sound crazy to the closed-minded. But the open-minded will hear you.