Authoritarianism: The Terrifying Trait That Trump Triggers - Pacific Standard

Authoritarianism: The Terrifying Trait That Trump Triggers

Latent authoritarianism is surprisingly common—and a threat to liberal democracy. Psychologist Karen Stenner explains how it is triggered.
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President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11th, 2017.

President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11th, 2017. 

Can It Happen Here?,new collection of essays that ask whether America is susceptible to creeping authoritarianism, includes a startling assertion by psychologists Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt.

"Western liberal democracies," they write, "have now exceeded many people's capacity to tolerate them."

Their analysis of a survey conducted at the end of 2016 found "about a third of white responders across 29 liberal democracies proved to be authoritarian to some degree." That large chunk of the population is predisposed to support authoritarian leaders in times of real or perceived threat.

In their research-driven essay "Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness," they offer a compelling clarification as to how Donald Trump holds onto the support of 30 to 40 percent of Americans, even as he displays authoritarian tendencies. Furthermore, their findings help explain our increasing political polarization.

"The things that multiculturalists believe will help people appreciate and thrive in democracy—appreciating difference, talking about difference, displaying and applauding difference—are the very conditions that encourage authoritarians not to heights of tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes," they write.

Stenner is an Australian political psychologist and behavioral economist. A former faculty member at Princeton and Duke universities, she is director of Insight-Analytics, and one of the world's foremost researchers on the psychology of authoritarianism. She explained the reasons for its recent rise in an email exchange.

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To begin, how do you define authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism is a deep-seated, relatively enduring psychological predisposition to prefer—indeed, to demand—obedience and conformity, or what I call "oneness and sameness," over freedom and diversity. Authoritarianism is substantially heritable—about 50 percent heritable, according to empirical studies of identical twins reared together and apart, a standard technique for separating out the influence of nature vs. nurture.

How does it differ from the two types of conservatism we're used to discussing, social and economic?

Laissez faire conservatism is generally associated with a tendency to disavow government intervention in all affairs of the individual, whether economic or political, social or moral. Status quo conservatism is a tendency to prefer stability and preservation of the status quo over change.

You can think of status quo conservatism as an aversion to difference over time (things being changeable, unsettled, or uncertain), as opposed to authoritarianism, which is an aversion to difference across space (things being complex, varied, or disordered). This distinction matters for the preservation of liberal democracy, because status-quo conservatives will be inclined to defend and preserve an established regime of diversity and freedom, so long as it is authoritatively supported, institutionally entrenched, consensually accepted, and a source of social stability.

Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America.

Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America.

Your analysis of the 2016 EuroPulse survey, which was conducted in all 28 European Union countries plus the United States, concluded that 33 percent of white respondents were predisposed to authoritarianism, while 37 percent were non-authoritarian and 29 percent were neutral. What types of responses led you to conclude that someone had an authoritarian predisposition?

I usually gauge latent authoritarianism with a low-level measure of fundamental predisposition: typically, respondents' choices among child-rearing values. For example, when asked what qualities should be encouraged in children, authoritarians tend to prioritize obedience, good manners, and being well behaved over things like independence, curiosity, and thinking for oneself.

Pitting this bare-bones measure of authoritarianism against any variety of conservatism, and the whole roster of sociodemographic variables—including education, income, gender, class, and religiosity—I have shown that authoritarianism is the principal determinant of general intolerance of difference around the globe.

You also found this tendency tends to lie dormant until a threat is perceived, at which point it is activated. Please explain the trigger process as you understand it.

The conditions that significantly activate authoritarians, and greatly exacerbate the expression of their authoritarianism in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors, are what I call "normative threats," (which are) threats to "oneness and sameness." In diverse, complex, modern societies not sharing a single racial/ethnic identity, the things that make "us" an "us"—that make us one and the same—are common authority, and shared values.

So the classic conditions that typically activate and aggravate authoritarians—rendering them more racially, morally, and politically intolerant—tend to be perceived loss of respect for/confidence in/obedience to leaders, authorities and institutions, or perceived value conflict and loss of societal consensus/shared beliefs, and/or erosion of racial/cultural/group identity. This is sometimes expressed as a loss of "who we are"/"our way of life."

Fears about immigration can play a role here, especially given perceptions of clashing values/way of life. But growth of moral permissiveness, increased political dissent, and, of course, conflict and strife and perceived impudence/challenges from domestic racial/ethnic minorities tend to play a very significant role, even in the absence of issues around immigration. These threatening/reassuring conditions can be real and/or perceived. They can reflect actual changes in political/social conditions, and/or be a product of media coverage/political manipulation.

You write that evidence "that populism is mostly fueled by economic distress is weak and inconsistent." According to your analysis, is the "those immigrants are taking away our jobs" argument mainly a socially acceptable way of saying "we're uncomfortable with all these new people who don't look like us, and talk like us?"

My strong sense from the best available evidence is that fears around racial identity/race relations/immigration, moral permissiveness/”moral decay,” political conflict/dissent, etc., are sometimes displaced onto, or expressed as, economic fears. Those fears (can) relate to the financial standing of one's own household, or the perceived economic decline of the nation/identity group. When economic threats do prove significant in an analysis, they almost always involve perceptions of national economic decline rather than household financial distress. Personal financial insecurity seems to be pretty irrelevant.

Is a first step toward national reconciliation acknowledging that such discomfort is natural for many people (rather than calling them "deplorables")? Do liberals who show empathy for immigrants and the poor also need to try to empathize with those who are frightened by this rapid rate of demographic change?

I haven't seen hard data on this, but I do believe that the "deplorables" comment was particularly ill-judged and likely to have boosted Trump's support.

It is important to recognize that authoritarian predisposition is another way of being human and not intrinsically/necessarily evil. It is a natural variation in human "political character," largely heritable and relatively immutable, and, most importantly, pretty much immune to—and, in fact, more likely to be aggravated by—democratic experiences/socialization and the promotion of multiculturalism.

The most fundamental point is that a true democracy cannot just demean and dismiss a third of its citizens, and simply fail to take any account of (even allow the free expression of) their preferences. It is better that they should be openly expressed, and seriously considered, and managed within mainstream political processes, than suppressed and ultimately driven to extremes/to the lawless fringe. This is much more dangerous in the long run.

You and your co-author Jonathan Haidt argue that we should strive for unity "by an abundance of common and unifying rituals, institutions, and processes." What sorts of things are you thinking of? America has always had plenty of patriotic rituals, but they don't seem to have the unifying powers they once held.

A large part of the problem is that America actually has too much democracy for the tastes of a third of its population. Consider there are three separate branches of government purposely set in permanent opposition to one another. The U.S., of course, also has many levels of government, with voters passing judgment on all, from the president right down to the school board and dog catcher. Thus, there are constant demands for electoral participation and endless exposure to political debate, dispute, and conflict. This is indeed a vibrant democracy, but you have to understand it is simultaneously, for the same reasons, anathema to authoritarians.

Shared social institutions, practices, and experiences; unifying celebrations; common rites; etc. are more what I had in mind ... alongside less appearance of/public airing of political conflict and partisanship. Working across the aisle, less demonization and greater civility in public discourse would be a really big help, as would voluntary commitment to more restrained and temperate coverage, in both traditional and social media, of all of the above.

Yes, there are lots of patriotic rituals already. But part of the problem is that Americans from different racial/ethnic, social, and economic groups just don't live in the same neighborhoods or go to the same schools. If you're not in each other's neighborhoods, schools, and lives, these can't exert much of a unifying effect. Shared, positive experiences are key.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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