Book Rant: “Authoritarian Nightmare-Trump and His Followers” by John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer

Reviewed by Matt Sharpe

Research initiated in the immediate post-war years in the US on ‘the authoritarian personality’ has undergone a revival in the era of Putin, Trump and other right-wing authoritarians. The presuppositions and explanatory power of the idea that sections of populations have deep psychological predispositions to being seduced by faux salvific strong men are both contestable. Dean and Altemeyer’s Authoritarian Nightmare draws on updated theoretical modelling of the authoritarian personality, including Altemeyer’s own studies, from the previous five decades. The book firstly examines why Mr Trump is who he is, on the basis of what is now known about his pre-Presidential life (chapters 2-6). Secondly, in chapter 7-11, Dean and Altemeyer tackle why his ‘base’ continues to adhere to Trump, despite his craven amorality and –as the authors soundly predicted in 2020– his evident willingness to overthrow constitutional government if it opposed his will.

For many readers, it will be the second part of Authoritarian Nightmare which is more novel and informative. There are by now many accounts from people who have dealt with Mr Trump about his childhood, his pathological dishonesty, his bankruptcies in the 1980s and the early 2000s, his paternal and bank bailouts, his tantrums, lasting disinterest in anything beyond his own ego, and his patented misogyny.

Much left liberal criticism of Trump has remained at the moralizing level, ringing its hands at his coarse sexism, racism, and dog-whistling to the very worst parts of the American community and collective psyche. Yet, it was clear as early as 2016, and certainly after ‘Access Hollywood’ (185), that Trump’s monumental flaws do not matter one bit to the 41-45% of Americans who make up Trump’s base (those Steve Bannon affectionately calls the ‘hammerheads’ (181)). If anything, these flaws seem to further endear the man, solidify his supporters’ identifications with him, and attest to them his gruff authenticity as a nonpolitician sent by God to Washington to restore the greatness of white America.

Why are Mr Trump’s followers so loyal to the man, and so blind to his flaws and cons, in ways that seem at times to have even amazed the Donald himself? And what if anything can be done to break this spell, before Trump or a more efficient successor succeeds in making America into an openly authoritarian state? These are the pressing questions Dean and Altemeyer’s 2020 book addresses. The authors promise readers that (xiv):

We know how [Trump’s base] are created, where they are concentrated, how they think, why they are so easily led, why they are so aggressive, and even a lot that they do not know about themselves. Social scientists have been fascinated for decades by the authoritarian followers who, as Erich Fromm put it and as Dostoyevsky portrayed in ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov, want to escape from freedom.

Authoritarian Nightmare’s central claim, based on extensive social scientific research, 2016 election exit polling, and a dedicated 2018 survey of 1000 subjects from across the US, is that many contemporary Americans classify psychologically as ‘authoritarian followers’ (RWAs, ‘right wing authoritarians’) (214-30). A smaller, but seemingly growing number are ‘social dominators’ (SDOs) (104-124). A smaller number again (thankfully, as we’ll see) are ‘double highs,’ bringing together the worst attributes of RWAs and SDOs into one ethnocentric, angry, fearful, and ruthless combination (219-29). It is these personality types who predominantly populate Trump’s base. It is they who have resonated with him ever since he uttered the sentence about Mexicans as ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’ (117-19). And it is they who will likely continue to support him, disregarding all evidence attesting to his amorality, dishonesty, incompetence for office, and indifference to democracy.

For readers new to this field, the dramatis personae are as follows. ‘RWAs’ (chapter 6 & 8) deepest framing attitude towards the world is fear. For them, the world is a dangerous place, in which safety can be found by cleaving to integrated groups, closed to others. These groups, to remain strong, should be presided over by powerful leaders, capable of doing what it takes to keep the in-group safe. As their high scores in ‘the Right-wing personality scale’ developed by the authors (with Patrick Murray) for the 2018 National Survey (214-30) attest, these folk crave ‘a high degree of submission to the perceived established, legitimate authorities in society’ (124). They exhibit ‘a high level of conventionalism, insisting that others follow the norms endorsed by their authorities’ (124).

The darker flipside of this folksy wish for social order is that they are capable ‘high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities,’ should leaders sanction violence towards minorities or outgroups (p. 124). RWAs are also deeply anxious about critical thinking and questioning of authority (159-67). They resonate especially warmly with such hyper-conservative propositions as ‘there is nothing lower than a person who betrays his group or stirs up disagreement within it’ (167).

The study of RWAs predated research into the subgroup of authoritarians the authors call ‘social dominance oriented’ individuals (SDOs). And whilst the two cohorts share similarly intolerant attitudes to Others, their psychologies are different. If for RWAs the predominant affect towards others is fear, for SDOs it is contempt, scorn, or hatred for others whom they perceive to be beneath them in power and worth (104-23). SDOs’ profile seems close to that of clinical sociopaths or others on the narcissistic spectrum. They support inequality between groups. They tend to believe that their groups are (or should be) more powerful than others. Social dominators also apply their belief in natural inequality to the personal level. They tend to be ‘determined to gain power over people,’ every chance they get (108).

For such people—and Donald J. Trump without question maxes out the scale here—power is the only good. Every social interaction is one more contest to see who is top dog. Hierarchy is everywhere. ‘Strength’ and ‘weakness’ are the only realities. People are either ‘winners’ (them) or ‘losers’ who rationalise their inability to ‘win’ by spouting egalitarian claptrap. SDOs are hence those individuals who score in the top 25% of the ‘Power mad scale,’ where subjects are asked to register responses (from ‘strongly disagree’ through to ‘strongly agree’) to such edifying propositions as ‘[i]t’s a mistake to interfere with the ‘law of the jungle’; ‘[s]ome people were meant to dominate others’; ‘[w]inning is not the first thing; it’s the only thing’; ‘[i]t’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times.’  They will ‘strongly agree’ that it is good if other people fear them (290-92).

SDOs put themselves forward to lead, even if they are not qualified for office. They project their aggression onto rivals and outgroups. SDOs respond to challenge(r)s by escalation, force, and fraud. When a cohort featuring a small number of ‘double high’ RWAs with SDO traits played the famous ‘Global Game Change Experiments’ (197-203), this cohort nominated themselves to rule the different nations (or govern from behind the throne). Their arts of the deal quickly led the imaginary world, in one case, into thermonuclear war, and in a second case, to an arms race, imperialistic war-making, environmental depredation, the death of 1.6 billion people, and imminent apocalypse (202-3).

One criticism of the authoritarian personality research, as an explanation of why millions of people passionately identify with men like Trump, is that it seems to confirm what we hardly needed controlled social scientific experiments to verify. Who, excepting Trump supporters themselves (169-172), doubted that his base are especially insular, fearful, prejudiced, and credulous, ever ready to assume the conspiratorial worst about anything ‘liberal,’ and the best of their Leader and his allies? Who doubted that many people attracted to the Donald saw in him the glorious incarnation of the kind of apex predatorial ‘winner’ they wished to be, who was unafraid to tell it how it is? (117, 121).

The vital question which Dean and Altemeyer’s book does not address, anywhere near as robustly as we might wish, is: where do these authoritarians and social dominators come from? If RWAs and SDOs are natural psychological types, they would presumptively recur in every population in comparable proportions. So, where were they and who were they voting for in the US before 2016? Or, if their number has grown—to the around 40% who, it seems, will live and die MAGA supporters, even if he ends up imprisoned for sedition—what factors explain this growth? Psychological attributes are not produced in populations in sociopolitical, or socioeconomic vacuums. So, if America has become more fearful, resentful, and angry since (say) the 1970s, we would need other forms of explanation than Dean and Altemeyer’s approach allows.

With that said, the newer research into RWAs which Authoritarian Nightmare clearly exhibits does add considerable insight concerning the question of why the MAGA base shows itself so impervious to reasoned criticism of their hero, and so determined to stand by him despite two impeachments, January 6, and the fraudulence of his claims that he won the 2020 election. Some of the most interesting material in Authoritarian Nightmare comes when Dean and Altemeyer outline results concerning the ways high RWAs think, given their overwhelming, fearful commitment to order and in-group belonging, at nearly all costs. They are more prone than other cohorts to compartmentalization of conflicting ideas, which enables them to ignore contradictions in their beliefs (including backing a ‘law and order’ president who has shown his desire to discard constitutional limits again and again) (129-132). They apply double standards, based on their instinctive, Schmittian division of all the world into friends and enemies—so Clinton was ‘crooked,’ whilst Trump is the most honest of brokers, etc. (132-134). They have difficulty assessing evidence, and readily accept faulty logic and hearsay, if it supports their pre-established beliefs (think, ‘birther gate’ etc.) (137-39). They are inflexibly dogmatic, since their beliefs are formed on the basis of accepting the authority of in-group leaders’ ideas (‘since-you-say-so’) (147-49). They readily believe that everybody ‘really’ believes as they do, unless they are lying, as in ‘fake news’ (161). They lack self-awareness (169-70), and perceive their views as ‘moderate,’ even when test results show that their warm responses to propositions like ‘[o]ur country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us’ are extreme, relative to other cohorts (126, 164-66)).

As such, the commitment of RWAs to preserving the civil liberties (of others, as against of those like them) is paper thin (150-154). The 1982 ‘Posse’ experiments on high RWAs suggest that, if their leaders told them to persecute some outgroup (whether ‘communists,’ ‘homosexuals,’ or even ‘right-wing authoritarians’), they can readily be brought to dob on friends and neighbours whom they suspected of belonging to this group, hunt down and arrest these ‘reds,’ use violence and support the use of violence against the outgroup, up to and including executions (153).

Given this doxastic profile (that is, concerning how they form their beliefs), Dean and Altemeyer’s research underscores how impotent all moral criticisms of Mr Trump (or other authoritarian leaders) are likely to be, in turning supporters away from him. This research also suggests that the traditional mechanisms for holding authoritarian leaders like Trump accountable, through fact-based reportage and independent inquiries, are barely likely to touch the sides of the base’s love for the strongman.

For what is now motivating the authoritarian followers, as against the SDOs, is fear and anxiety that the world is a dangerous place. This makes their propensity to submit to someone like Trump –even when they proclaim themselves ‘born again’ (176-93), and even though Trump has been acing the seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride since earliest youth (177)– a non-negotiable thing. It can only be budged, at least in some of these folk or their possible successors, by lasting sociopolitical and wider changes which would cease to make the world seem to them such an insecure, uncertain, heartless, dog-eat-dog place.

However, as we commented above, the pursuit such changes, which would implicate political economics and collective organization and mobilization, is beyond the scope of Dean and Altemeyer’s book, which remains very much at the level of what Marxist theory calls the superstructure. The research on the authoritarian personality, so rich in insights concerning the psychosocial symptoms of later neoliberalism in its period of permanent crisis, points to the need to understand and politically redress the causes of such malaises.

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