Understanding American authoritarianism

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well the problem with the phrase physical threats is that was is found truly threatening can vary depending on the cowardice of the Republican.



I would have expected the correlation to be higher, so, isn’t this kind of an anti-result, meaning: “38 % of non-authoritarian US voters still do support Trump?”


You can download Altemeyer’s The Authoritatians for free.


I put some feedback on Bob Altemeyer’s site, suggesting he comment on Donald Drumpf, and, well, I got a response. I’ll just quote it verbatim. He asked me to share it.

I posted it online here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/03/02/1494504/-A-word-from-Dr-Bob-Altemeyer-on-Donald-Trump-and-Authoritarian-Followers


Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers
Bob Altemeyer*

In 1998 I tried to explain why social scientists who are worried about our freedoms have focused on the crowd that would lift a dictator aloft rather than the autocrat himself.

“Wanna-be 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 suggests that 20-25% of the adults in North America are highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. These people are waiting for a tough “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a man 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 carry Donald Trump to the presidency are authoritarian followers. But they likely compose his hard core base. Furthermore, many authoritarian followers presently support Senator Ted Cruz for religious reasons. You can expect most of them to slide into the Trump ranks once Cruz drops out of the race. By summer, the vast majority of authoritarian followers in the United States will likely be for Trump. And so will many others for various reasons.

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 a dozen things established by research.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 experiencing stronger fear than most people do.
  3. 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.
  4. They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.
  5. They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic majorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.
  6. Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs exist side-by-side in adjacent boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.
  7. 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.
  8. They are highly dogmatic. Because they have gotten their beliefs mainly 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.
  9. They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know, almost every news broadcast they see, almost every radio commentator they listen to, tells them they are. That is, they screen out the sources that will suggest that they are wrong.
  10. 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.
  11. They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.
  12. They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do.

I hasten to add that almost anyone would become more ethnocentric, frightened, self-righteous, and so on if their situations, or our country’s situation, changed enough. And studies find examples of these twelve things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.

If, as you went down this list of things experiments have discovered about authoritarian followers, you found yourself saying, “Yeah, you can sure see that in the Trump supporters,” and if you believe that a President Trump would be a very stiff test of democracy the United States, then what can you do—without becoming a highly ethnocentric person yourself?

Well, it’s not going to be easy changing highly aggressive, dogmatic, insular people who will dismiss you out of hand as “the enemy”? They have been that way for most of their lives, and they have built a lot of supports, including straight-out denial, to keep their views intact.

Authoritarian followers in America today are tremendously energized by fear and anger. They’re scared, and they want someone really strong and confident to protect them. It’s a very natural, understandable reaction. As well they’re intensely angry about the way their country is changing, and most pointedly furious with the Republican Party which has won many elections because of their support, and then utterly failed to “get things right again.” So they feel betrayed, and that is a very powerful motivator.

One suspects they will feel even more betrayed if Trump becomes president and turns out to have been conning them all along too. But he is going to keep telling them he’s one of them, and keep them scared and angry while selling himself as the Toughest Guy They Ever Met. Authoritarian followers are always waiting for The Leader, and now they firmly believe they’ve found him.

But let me not stoke your fears too high, for we do have to fear fear itself. There is a simple way out of this situation: Others can outvote them. But even though most of the American electorate says now that they would never vote for Trump, he’ll become the next President if those folks stay home on election day. If Trump’s opponents do not get as energized as Trump’s very loyal followers are, his supporters will carry him on their shoulders to the highest office in the land.

*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 home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/


Eh, Simpsons did it.

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I think the conclusions are far from unique to Americans. There are at least three good 20th century examples to contemplate. Two ended badly, but the Franco régime in Spain ended rather peacefully.

I keep saying this and I may be wrong, but to me Trump seems the least worrying of the Republican front runners. He may act as a lightning rod for the authoritarian and stress-authoritarian voters, but in power he will have the Republican establishment against him, not to mention Wall Street. Clinton is a Wall Street fifth columnist offering voters some limited progress (by rest of advanced country standards) in exchange for Wall Street continuing its dominance. But Rubio and Cruz know exactly what they want, and it is a very toxic brew of status quo ante (civil rights) bellum. They are authoritarian leaders who want on a small scale what ISIS wants on a larger one - fundamentalist doctrinal purity and a rigid hierarchy of rich and poor.

We have a mirror situation in the UK where we have a government that continually makes authoritarian noises but is internally divided about actually taking action. (Unlike Blair, they even announce that they are going to bomb Syria and then admit that well, we’ve hardly used any of those expensive missiles at all.) But in the wings we have our version of Trump - Boris Johnson - who appeals to the populist Right. The difference is that like Cruz and Rubio he has access to the nastiest reaches of the Conservative machine. If he comes to power in the wake of a vote to leave the EU, by the time Americans vote they’ll have the example of a charismatic right wing leader presiding over a failing State to contemplate. Complete with special hair.


Thank you so much for getting this straight from the horse’s mouth and forwarding it to us!


As the old saying goes:

A Conservative is a liberal that’s been mugged. A Libertarian is a Conservative that’s been audited.


Another relevant perspective: Adam Curtis and “The Power of Nightmares”, essentially the most successful politicians are those that can simultaneously conjure up the most compelling terrors, and then claim to have the means to protect you from them.


It’s about time you noticed there’s more than one type of conservatism.

Judging by comments on right-wing blogs, I’ve noticed that Trump supporters mention some issues more often than others.

Illegal immigration: Very often. Some of them regard it as the only issue.

Legal immigration: Moderately often.

Foreign trade and the TPP treaty: They’re against it.

Excess government spending: Sometimes (usually in the context of how the Republican Establishment betrayed the Tea Party by not cutting budgets enough).

Gay marriage: Sometimes (usually in the context of how judges appointed or confirmed by the Republican Establishment betrayed American traditions).

Gun control: Not that often, especially when compared to conservatives in general.

Abortion. Rarely (usually in the context of reprimanding Cruz or Rubio supporters for over-emphasizing it).


I have never understood this. A liberal who has been mugged is likely to understand that this is a result of lack of social cohesion, a failed criminal justice system,and possibly a corrupt police force. These are more associated with right-wing governments.


This might be one reason but I don’t think it is the only one. I think, like most things, there are a number of reasons for his popularity. One I have found most common is that Trump supporters have a very literal literacy. They hear Trump say he will make America great again and take that as true despite the lack of evidence. They hear him say he is a great businessman and believe it despite the evidence to the contrary. I’m reminded of Janice Radway’s research on romance novel readers where she found that readers though the main characters in romance novels were powerful independent women even though they would often spend much the the novel being weak and dependent on men because the characters said they were strong and independent. (this came out in 1984. romance novels may have changed since then)


If Trump and Johnson won their respective elections and then ever met officially, I can imagine their hair becoming entangled, like some hideous Rat King.


Can use myself as an example that this is bullshit?

Before I was targeted for violent abuse my political beliefs were somewhere between being disillusioned Labour and Green party. After that I started moving further towards the libertarian left and now my beliefs are borderline anarcho-syndicalist/anarcho-communist (although I like anarchism without adjectives in it’s original sense as an idea.)

It is true that I don’t think of myself as a liberal anymore, but I am definitely not a conservative/reactionary. I’m happier with radical left, or just radical.


I think these characteristics apply very well to broad swaths of humanity. They’re not limited to authoritarians.

I could make an argument that these characteristics apply to feminist support for Clinton. Clinton supporters and feminists would likely disagree, but my argument would resonate with others, just like these characteristics resonate with us when applied to Trump supporters.

My point is not that it’s incorrect to describe Trump supporters as authoritarians and utter fucking idiots and the greatest threat to Western Civilization since high fructose corn syrup. They obviously are. My point is that our worldview may be rooted in the same set of characteristics.


I’ve never been mugged, but my house was robbed when we were out years ago by a drug addict. I recall a tremendous feeling of violation. However my liberal views weren’t changed, because they are based on scientific training and personal ethical standards that transcend such things.

I doubt being mugged would change them either, unless there was significant damage to the relevant areas of the brain, in which case my personality would be drastically altered.


If you read the article, it seems more like a conservative is a liberal that is afraid. But even that isn’t really correct. The question is after all of the things that happen to you cause you to be afraid then perhaps the latent authoritarianism in you will be activated. Doesn’t necessarily make you conservative, it’s just that is the group these days in the US that are using/succumbing to it. There are socialist and communist dictatorships also.

My advice - Be Not Afraid.


From the article:

Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

I’m not sure “unknowingly” is right there. I mean, they probably didn’t understand authoritarian personalities very well, but they had a pretty firm idea of what they were trying to accomplish and who they were trying to get on board.

In other words:

Let us dispel once and for all with this fiction that the GOP didn’t know what it was doing. They knew exactly what they were doing. Let us dispel once and for all with this fiction that the GOP didn’t know what it was doing. They knew exactly what they were doing. Let us dispel once and for all with this fiction that the GOP didn’t know what it was doing. They knew exactly what they were doing.


Let’s interrupt the circlejerk a bit, because let’s look at Political Compass’s analysis of the 2012 Presidential election:

Ask yourself:

Should the government have the right to tell you whether or not you can have an abortion?

Should the government have a right to tell you whether or not you can own a gun?

Should the government have a righ tto tell you whether or not you can marry someone based on your partner’s gender?

Should the government have a say in how much money you get to keep for yourself?

Should the government be allowed to force you to remove a woodstove from your home, citing CO2 emissions concerns?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be an authoritarian.