Monitor Board of Contributors: Rise of authoritarianism shouldn’t come as a surprise

For the Monitor
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
I had promised myself not to add to the media frenzy surrounding Donald Trump. Lord knows, he’s had enough undeserved publicity. But certain questions continue to plague me. Why would someone so obviously unfit for the presidency, so shamelessly ego-driven, so obscenely banal, so compulsively jingoistic have won the steadfast allegiance of millions of Americans? Why is it that the more we learn about him, the more bigotry and sleaze is revealed, the more flagrantly he trashes our principles, our sense of fair play, the more his followers cling to the myth that he, and he alone, can “make America great again”?

I’m not satisfied with the conventional theories: People are seeking an “outsider,” an anti-establishment leader. (Can anyone in the race possibly be more closely linked to the financial and political centers of power than Trump?) Or that he is the only one who “tells it like it is.” (Is there any candidate who so regularly contradicts himself and who fabricates one untruth after another?)

Now, thanks to a Vox article by Amanda Taub, I think I have found an answer, one that is more frightening than Trump himself: Dynamic social and economic changes have unleashed a level of fear and resentment among a subset of the American populace that can only be assuaged by the coming to power of an American strongman – a homegrown version of a Vladimir Putin, a Mussolini or, God forbid, someone who will use his strength to turn back the clock on social progress and who will unite us in a battle against racial, ethnic or religious minorities whose growing presence threatens our very identity as (white) people.

Who are ‘authoritarians’?

Such people, the article tells us, can be described as “authoritarians,” people who, as UMass researcher Matthew MacWilliams puts it, are “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.”

In the 1850s, a similar “threat” from German and Irish Catholic immigrants spawned the “Know-Nothing” movement.

When MacWilliams polled voters in South Carolina, his criteria for authoritarians predicted “support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator” – and, Taub continues, “Trump embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

I am not labeling Trump supporters as political crazies or chronic paranoids. They live among us as neighbors and fellow citizens, folks who under most circumstances are friendly, even kindly. It is when such people look around them at an America that is more ethnically diverse, more tolerant of alternative lifestyles, an America that has elected a highly educated, rational-thinking, black president – along with an economic system unfriendly to those with low levels of education – that the sense of panic sets in and the search for a strongman rises.

Taub quotes NYU professor Jonathan Haidt that under these circumstances, it is as if a button is pushed that says, “In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different and punish those who are morally deviant.”

I find the historical ramifications of such attitudes truly horrific.

Is it all related to 
child-rearing attitudes?

Taub cites another academic, Stanley Feldman, who was able to predict the authoritarian personality by asking which characteristics are “more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders; obedience or self-reliance; to be considerate or to be well-behaved; curiosity or good manners?” Obviously, not all those who hold conservative views on child-rearing are authoritarian Trump supporters – that would be a gross misrepresentation. But evidently all, or almost all, Trump supporters would rather have their kids be obedient than curious or tolerant of others’ differences.

This is what is so troubling, the idea that the “Trump phenomenon” is not a one-off, freak political anomaly, but the predictable outcome of the nurturance by major factions of the Republican Party who preach hostility to gays, to Muslims and other ethnic minorities, along with the barely veiled racism that goes by the name of the “Southern Strategy.”

What is currently tearing the Republican Party apart is the product of fostering over the years a Tea Party, anti-immigrant, anti-diversity mentality, where tolerance for difference is denounced as “politically correct” cowardice. Taub points out that “what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.”

If behavior toward protesters at Trump rallies is any clue, we face the prospect of American political life getting sucker-punched by our homegrown equivalent of Hitler’s Brownshirts.

Trump may well fail, this time around. But if these researchers are to be believed, “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

How do we respond?

The tough question is, how do we engage with our angry neighbors, these newly emergent “authoritarians” who have become so malevolently energized by Trump? They are, after all, our fellow citizens, men and women who may be filled with irrational fears and misplaced anger but who are not by nature lunatics or thugs. The fascist analogy falls short when we actually encounter people to whom Trump has given license to vent their nativist delusions. They are hurting, undeniably. They feel discriminated against. Something precious has been lost to them, even as other victimized groups have had their shackles loosened, their hopes renewed.

I think we can empathize with the loss of pride and sense of personhood on the part of displaced industrial workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas, those who received the short end of the stick when they were in school. We can remind ourselves that these people, too, are victims of a forced polarization at the hands of cynical political operatives and, yes, by some radicals on the left who treat them with contempt.

We can ask them: “What will it take to make us feel like one nation, one people, again?” and hope that their answers do not bend toward racism or homophobia – and if they do, to try to change the conversation to unifying themes, such as protecting the things we all love and honor about America. We can listen to them as we try to imagine what it is like for someone who feels so much less secure in today’s America than their parents did and who is afraid their children will be the losers in a global economy.

If we can respond with empathy along with firmness in our values, it is possible, even likely, that “authoritarianism” will go the way of other malevolent “isms:” fascism, communism, McCarthyism. And the “Know-Nothingism” of an earlier era.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at

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