Summary: The hot meme on the Left is that Trump is an authoritarian. It’s a reflex by the Left to opposition to declare them illegitimate rather than debate specifics (or for Trump, to admit the overlap in their views). While gratifying to the faithful, such declarations show the inward focus of the Left that has led to their loss of influence. After decades of such declarations, who cares anymore? This post examines the claims, the research behind them, and their real role in US politics.
The Left has mastered the tactic of declaring their foes to be illegitimate, therefore avoiding the need to confront their views. Hence their announcements that Trump is an authoritarian (or like Hitler). Populism be gone!
This July 2015 article by John Dean at Justia was perhaps the first essay in this genre. It is one of the best; its flaws were common in those that followed. Alternet ran it as “Trump Is the Authoritarian Ruler Republicans and Some Dems Have Been Waiting For — How far can a truly authoritarian leader go in America?”. Dean was counsel to President Nixon and the author of Conservatives Without Conscience (2006). He rigorously defines his terms, and roots them in historical and social science research. I recommend reading this. But on this foundation he makes broad assertions about Trump and his followers without a shred of evidence.
More typical is this: “It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why.” by Pippa Noris at WaPo. She gives no evidence that Trump is an authoritarian. She is a lecturer in politics at Harvard. There are scores of such essays out there.
About Trump’s authoritarian supporters
It’s fun to declare those who support your foes to be fools or evil, or even evil fools. How sad that doesn’t win elections.
“The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter” by Matthew MacWilliams at Politico, 17 Jan 2016 — “And it’s not gender, age, income, race or religion.” Very exciting to the Left, with 214 thousand shares! He is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Also see his article at the London School of Economics blog, and this at AlterNet: “How Authoritarianism Took Over the GOP and Allowed for the Emergence of Emperor Trump” — “Trump’s doctrine is authoritarianism, which explains why he continues to exceed conventional expectations.” He’s discovered there is a big market for telling people what they want to hear!
Here’s a good summary of this genre: “The rise of American authoritarianism” by Amanda Taub at VOX, 1 March 2016 — “A niche group of political scientists may have uncovered what’s driving Donald Trump’s ascent. What they found has implications that go well beyond 2016.” Comprehensive and cartoon-like; blind to the similar things said by Sanders and Trump.
This is what I (& others) have said since August: “Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?” by Eric Oliver (prof of pol sci at U Chicago) and Wendy Rahn (prof of pol sci at U Minnesota) at WaPo, 9 March 2016.
“But in our research, we find no evidence that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than those who like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). …Instead, Trump’s supporters are distinctive in another way: They are true populists.”
What do these terms mean?
The description of an “authoritarian” personality type comes from a 1950 book of psychobabble: The Authoritarian Personality (available on Kindle: vol 1and vol 2). Bob Altemeyer (prof psychology at U professor at U Manitoba) updated this in a widely cited monograph “The Authoritarians“.
The most often used definition of an authoritarian government is from Juan Linz’s 1964 essay, later published as Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. The concept has broadened over time (to even include “democratic authoritarian regimes”), but has several characteristics — chiefly these (from Wikipedia):
- Limited political pluralism, constraining non-executive political institutions and groups (e.g., legislatures, political parties and interest groups).
- Identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognizable societal problems” such as underdevelopment or insurgency.
- Suppression of political opponents and anti-regime activity.
- Broad and undefined executive powers.
As usual in politics, these things are matters of degree, not kind. They are found to varying degrees in most mass movements. However, neither mainstream American conservatives nor Donald Trump advocate these things to an unusual degree — or more than the Left (e.g., see the Left’s attempts to criminalize those who disagree with their views about climate change).
People often speak of an authoritarian leadership style. Wikipedia describes it with a long grab-bag of traits, adding up to meaning “leaders I don’t like”. John Dean (who worked for Nixon) describes such leaders as dominating, amoral, seeking personal power; and opposing equality. The first three traits are commonplace among political and business leaders (many are psychopaths) — Nixon and LBJ are classic examples. The latter is a defining characteristic of conservatism. Not much juice is a label that fits so many people.
The usefulness of this in Campaign 2016? Little or none, other than to remind us why we don’t listen to political scientists. These claims probably divert attention from the better-founded reasons to oppose Trump — and the larger long-term decay of the US political regime. But these are not appeal to reason; they serve to delegitimize populism, the standard response of the political establishment to its resurgence. Time will tell if they succeed.
Here is the authoritarian spirit in America
The actual role of authority in this election
Max Weber described the three forms of political authority: charismatic, traditional, and bureaucratic. Societies evolve through them, then refresh their legitimacy by re-starting the cycle (which may or may not succeed). In this election we have a candidate for each: Clinton, Sanders, and Trump.
- Max Weber explains Trump 2016: we want a charismatic leader to restore America.
- Hillary’s weakness: traditional & charismatic leaders attack her bureaucratic authority.
For More Information
- What the press won’t tell you about Trump and populism — See Walter Russell Mead’s famous essay about Jackson.
- Why the Left is missing the rising populist movement.
- Liberals look at Trump and populism, but see only their prejudices.
- Why they lose: the Left tells us that Trump is like Hitler.
- Edward Luttwak: Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.