Authoritarianism may be thought of as a psychological retrovirus, an intellectual crippler whose victims often remain unaware of its presence, until it is triggered.
The allure of Donald Trump was one such triggering mechanism. What ensued was a pandemic of twisted thinking and feeling that contained the power to destroy American democracy. We West Virginians are a breed who generally have our wits about us. Yet, many of us, perhaps unaware that we already carried the authoritarian trait, were vulnerable.
Research on the authoritarian personality, which dates to the 1950s, sheds light on how Trump’s authoritarianism caused some to exalt him, while others, not possessed by the underlying tendency, saw through him as if he were a pane of window glass.
Those who study authoritarianism define it as a tendency to succumb to a powerful leader who will provide for one’s needs and safety, but who demands complete obedience. It is a preference for being submissive to whomever one deems to be the authority. The University of Manitoba’s Robert Altemeyer is, perhaps, the preeminent authority on the authoritarian personality. In 1986, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science awarded him its prize for behavioral science research for his decades of exploration into the subject.
Much of Altemeyer’s work is discussed in John Dean’s (of Watergate) 2006 book, “Conservatives Without Conscience.”
To conduct his research, Altemeyer constructed a scale to measure authoritarianism. He included dozens of statements asking participants to either agree or disagree with each. One was, “Our 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.” Another was, “Once our government leaders give us the ‘go-ahead,’ it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.”
Altemeyer also collected information about participants’ religious and political leanings.
He discovered that conservatives, and particularly Christian conservatives, tended to agree with the authoritarian statements, while, at the same time, they disagreed with statements such as, “A ‘woman’s place’ should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.”
By the 2000s, Altemeyer had synthesized what might be termed a profile of authoritarian followers’ characteristics: Their thinking tends to be based on what they are told by their powerful leaders, rather than on their own critical judgement. They travel in tight circles; evince numerous double standards; are hostile toward minorities; and see the world as dangerous, filled with evil and violence. They think of themselves as guardians of public morality. Many consider themselves to be more upstanding and moral than others and use their self-righteousness as a rationale for their aggression, often in the name of “freedom.”
One would have to be employed full-time in the business of denial not to notice the commonalities between Altemeyer’s conclusions regarding the “authoritarian personality” and the perspectives of Trump’s devotees who attempted an overthrow of the government on Jan. 6.
Thus, as we learn more from the House Select Committee’s ongoing investigation of the attempted coup, and from researchers such as Altemeyer, it seems probable that authoritarianism, like prostitution, will always be with us. It will simmer at low heat until we again are faced with another charismatic demagogue, a powerful “leader” who promises to take care of all our needs, if only we fall in prostration before him and pledge our unquestioning fealty.