Robert Anthony Altemeyer (born 6 June 1940), also known as Bob Altemeyer, is a retired Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba. Altemeyer also produced the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale (or RWA Scale), as well as the related Left-Wing Authoritarianism Scale (or LWA Scale).
The Authoritarian Specter (1996)
- Cambridge: Harvard University Press
- Sometimes, when I tell people that I study authoritarian personalities, they say things like, "Oh, you mean neo-Nazis and the Klan." When these people are psychologists at conventions or the president of my university, I say "Right," because I know they will probably instantly forget whatever I reply. But I am more forthcoming with others. Most people seem surprised when I say, "No, I study normal folks, not Nazis." Few people, unless they are familiar with the history of fascism, understand that people as ordinary as you and I, and our friends and neighbors, might bring down democracy if the going got tough enough. But we are the people who, driven by fear and cuddling in our own self-righteousness, could create the wave that would lift the monsters among us to power. And once the monsters acquire the powers of the state, their evil explodes. Can one credibly talk about fascism in the North American context as we approach the year 2000? Is it even remotely possible that the horrors of Nazi Germany could someday occur in Canada or the United States? When I talk about prefascist personalities, do I seriously propose that many North Americans could act like Hitler, Himmler, Hoess, and so on? [...] although the Nazis did monsterous things, it is a mistake to thing that only ardent fascists and psychopathic killers became Nazis. Adolf Eichmann struck some as a bland person, not particularly anti-Semitic, who basically wanted to advance his career and so worked hard to impress his superiors. His evil was "banal." I can also imagine that many of those who made the arrests and transported the victims to the death camps would have been described as "good, decent people" by their families and neighbors. So would many of those who ran the slave labor camps in which hundreds of thousands of prisoners perished and maybe even the SS soldiers who massacred whole villages. You can be an ordinary Joe, or Lieutenant Calley, and still do terrible things. One of the first things Americans learned about the militias, in an Associated Press story dated April 27, 1995, is that they were "ordinary people who feel pushed."
- p. 305
- If you think our countries could never elect an Adolf Hitler to power, note that David Duke would have become governor of Louisiana if it had just been up to the white voters in the state. Many people vote for extraordinarily High RWA candidates today. Many more would want one during a crisis. About a quarter of American state legislators are already poised to "stomp out the rot." And if you think a North American dictator could not find the people he needed to kill Jews, or professors, or Communists, or trade union leaders, or defiant clergy, or religious minorities, or the mentally "unsuitable," whomever he wanted to eliminate, then you might want to look at what Milgram found.
- p. 305-306
- I am now writing the last page in my last book about authoritarianism. So, for the last time, I do not think a fascist dictatorship lies just over our horizon. But I do not think we are well protected against one. And I think our recent history shows the threat is growing... We cannot secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, and our posterity, if we sit with our oars out of the water. If we drift mindlessly, circumstances can sweep us to disaster. Our societies presently produce millions of highly authoritarian personalities as a matter of course, enough to stage the Nuremberg Rallies over and over and over again. Turning a blind eye to this could someday point guns at all our heads, and the fingers on the triggers will belong to right-wing authoritarians. We ignore this at our peril.
- p. 306
Amazing Conversions (1997)
- Amherst: Prometheus Books. Co-written with Bruce Hunsberger in third-person narrative style.
- Think back on your own past. What did you do when questions arose about religion? Some questions probably came up. "Is there a God?" "Is there really a heaven?" "Why do tornados sometimes destroy churches and miss saloons?" Whom did you go to with these questions? Parents? Priests? Peers? You might naturally have gone to the people who had taught you the beliefs in the first place. You might also have prayed to God for help, and read scripture or some other book of religious guidance a minister might have recommended. Maybe you talked things over with friends sharing the same religious background. You do not have to be a psychological genius to know that all of these reactions would probably have confirmed the original religious beliefs. The people who taught you your faith, or who share it with you, are not likely to answer your questions with "Hey, I never thought of that. Our religion must be wrong!" If you want to take a wider, more "two-sided" approach to the questions, you would have to search farther afield.
- p. 17
- Eleanor's questions caused some anxiety, since "you are taught that you have to go this way or you'll go to hell." Near the end of her confirmation classes she gave a speech "intended to really question a lot of the beliefs." However, "it was so subtle that I guess nobody really caught on to it and they were all saying it was such a great speech." This made Eleanor feel guilty, since she appeared to be supporting religion when she had meant to question it. She did have some discussions with her minister about her questions, but found the answers to be unsatisfying. Sessions with a devoted Christian friend were much more influential. The two friends would often debate Christian teachings, with Eleanor taking the questioning position, and her friend defending religious beliefs. Similar discussions occurred in a high school English class. Eleanor's purpose in these debates was to make religion work for her. "I was trying at that point to tie everything to a religious framework that would allow me to believe in Christianity." But she couldn't find the answers she was looking for, and became less religious. She also hunted for answers in the Bible, which she read every evening before she went to bed. Eleanor misses those readings even today, "because it gives you a focus and if you believe in it, you have all the answers you're looking for right there in the Bible." But they were answers she could not accept.
- p. 54
- Eleanor now considers herself an agnostic, having stopped thinking of herself as a Lutheran in a religious sense whens he was about seventeen. However, "I'm still a member of the Lutheran church. I still go on Christmas Eve and all that," and "if I get married, I'm going to get married in a Lutheran church." She is now at peace with her agnosticism and no longer feels any guilt or fear because of her beliefs. "Just because I don't believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, I'm not going to be damned to some eternal hell, if there is such a thing. It just does not make any sense to me." If she could find some way to reconcile religious teachings with her current belief, Eleanor could conceivably go back to being an active Lutheran. But it isn't likely because "I just don't believe that, really, any religion has the absolute answer." In response to the "Back to the Future" scenario, Eleanor said that she would tell her younger self about the intolerance, contradictions, closed-mindedness, and so on that she saw in religion. Her fourteen-year-old self would have been surprised at all this, and "a bit stubborn," but she "would have gone home and thought about it and started looking at things on her own." Why is Eleanor different from most people her age, who question but then accept religious teachings? "I have always considered myself to be really analytical about things. I can't knowingly have two beliefs that contradict each other." Also, it would be hypocritical to pretend to believe in something that she cannot accept, something she believes many "religious" people do.
- p. 55
- Could it be that the more parents and clergy stress religion to a child, the more likely the child will feel guilt or fear when questions arise later? If so, the emphasis becomes self-defeating at this critical time, because parents and clergy want children to bring these questions to them, not hide the seeds of doubt. But the more times a child has heard that her religion has a hold on the absolute truth, the harder it may be for her to ask for help in reconciling cracks that appear in the absolute.
- p. 113
- But the original question as, "Why is there still religion?" and the data above show that religion satisfies some important human needs about knowing who we are; why we are here; what will happen to us after we die; how to feel safety, love, and fellowship, and so on. These things logic and science do not do, at least not nearly as well. We would, as scientists, actually find some joy, happiness, and comfort in science's "poor showing." Science is not supposed to be emotional but objective, dispassionate, and even-handed. (We hope that the reader who has gotten to the end of this book is not surprised to hear us say this.) If some scientific theories or discoveries are "beautiful" (such as relativity); or "thrilling" (such as the genetic code), that is pure gravy. The endeavor is based in the cerebral cortex, not the adrenal glands. But as "Star Trek"'s Dr. McCoy kept telling Mr. Spock, human emotions undeniably enrich our lives and often govern us. They make us irrational at times, they may cause much of our worst as well as our best behavior. But to ignore them and their role in human enterprise- "That would be illogical."
- p. 247
- Our studies have focused upon the religious decisions made by college freshmen both because they are a convenient group for psychology professors to examine and because they have just emerged from an often turbulent time when they scrutinized the family religion. But will the decisions reached by eighteen-year-olds hold for the rest of their lives? If they have decided to stay in the fold, will they still be found there decades later? If they have decided to chuck the family religion, will they come back to it when they have children of their own? Speaking as middle-aged adults who once thought that "Fifty is really old," but who now consider fifty "much younger than sixty," we can testify that one's views can change as the growth rings accumulate. So maybe youthful decisions to keep or abandon the family religion will be reversed later.
- p. 248
- It probably takes considerable courage to turn your back on your background, your family, and your friends and join another faith. In a way, the Amazing Apostates show the same courage. But "deep converts," like AAs, and BBs, are rare. Most of the believers in Table 1, most of the way through their lives, still accepted the religion in whcih they group up. Which leads to our concluding point. If there is one ultimate, simple, definite, fundamental lesson to be drawn from the studies we have considered in this book, it is this: Do not underestimate the power of socialization when it comes to religion. Even in the cases where it seems socialization has been overthrown, it has just worked in "mysterious ways."
- p. 252
The Authoritarians (2006)
- High RWAs tend to feel more endangered in a potentially threatening situation than most people do, and often respond aggressively. In 1987 my colleague Gerry Sande and I had five-man teams of male introductory psychology students role-play NATO in an “international simulation” involving (they thought) another team of students playing as the Warsaw Pact. Some of the NATO teams were composed entirely of low RWA students, and other NATO teams were stocked entirely with highs. (We experimenters secretly played the Warsaw Pact.) The simulation began with a couple of ambiguous moves by the Warsaw Pact, such as holding military exercises earlier than anticipated, and withdrawing divisions to rear areas (possibly for rest, or --as Dr. Strangelove might argue--possibly for redeployment for an attack). The NATO teams could respond with nonthreatening or threatening moves of varying magnitudes. But if they made threats, the Warsaw pact responded with twice as much threat in return, and the NATO team would reap what it had sown as an escalation of aggressive moves would likely result. The low RWA teams did not interpret the ambiguous moves at the beginning of the game as serious threats and thus seldom made threatening moves. The high RWAs on the other hand usually reacted to the opening Warsaw Pact moves aggressively, and sowed a whirlwind. Over the course of the simulation, the high RWA teams made ten times as much threat as the low teams did, and usually brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
- p. 26
- So (to foreshadow later chapters a little) suppose you are a completely unethical, dishonest, power-hungry, dirt-bag, scum-bucket politician who will say whatever he has to say to get elected. (I apologize for putting you in this role, but it will only last for one more sentence.) Whom are you going to try to lead, high RWAs or low RWAs? Isn’t it obvious? The easy-sell high RWAs will open up their arms and wallets to you if you just sing their song, however poor your credibility. Those crabby low RWAs, on the other hand, will eye you warily when your credibility is suspect because you sing their song. So the scum-bucket politicians will usually head for the right-wing authoritarians, because the RWAs hunger for social endorsement of their beliefs so much they’re apt to trust anyone who tells them they’re right. Heck, Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany running on a law-and-order platform just a few years after he tried to overthrow the government through an armed insurrection.
- p. 90
- The need for social reinforcement runs so deeply in authoritarians, they will believe someone who says what they want to hear even if you tell them they should not. I have several times asked students or parents to judge the sincerity of a university student who wrote arguments either condemning, or supporting, homosexuals. But some subjects were told the student had been assigned to condemn (or support) homosexuals as part of a philosophy test to see how well the student could make up arguments for anything, on the spot. Other subjects were told the student could choose to write on either side of the issue, and had chosen to make the case she did. Obviously, you can’t tell anything about the real opinions of someone who was assigned the point of view of her essay. But high RWAs believed that the antihomosexual essay that a student was forced to write reflected that student’s personal views almost as much as when a student had chosen this point of view. In other words, as in the previous experiments, the authoritarians ignored the circumstances and believed the student really meant what she had been assigned to say--when they liked what she said.
- p. 91
- Fundamentalist parents could talk to their children about being Christians before talking about being Baptists. They could talk about being God’s children before talking about being Christians. They could talk about all being brothers and sisters before that. They could.
- p. 238
- I similarly think you’ll likely be wasting your time trying to convince authoritarian followers that they are being systematically misinformed and played for dopes by their leaders. It’s too important to them to believe otherwise, and just your raising the question will likely put you into their huge out-group and make them suspicious of you.
- p. 239
- Often one person can steel another, and another and another, until many are working together. You don’t have to form a majority to have an effect. Two or three people speaking out can sometimes get a school board, a church board, a board of aldermen to reconsider authoritarian actions. Lack of any opposition teaches bullies simply to go for more. But it takes one person, an individual, to start the opposition.
- p. 244
- Eleven years later, as I am now definitely writing the last pages in my last book on the subject, I believe circumstances such as “9/11" have nearly swept us to disaster, the authoritarian threat has grown unabated, and almost all the protections I saw in 1996, such as a “free and vigilant press,” are being eroded or have already been destroyed. The biggest problem we have now, in my view, is authoritarianism. It has placed America at one of those historic cross-roads that will profoundly affect the rest of its history, and the future of our planet. The world deserves a much better America than the one it has seen lately. And so do Americans.
- p. 246
Postscript on the 2008 U.S. Election (November 2008)
- "Postscript on the 2008 U.S. Election", November 5, 2008.
- Despite all the factors handicapping the Republicans from the start, and the painfully inept, lurching, hypocritical, unfocused campaign they ran, some 60 million Americans voted for McCain/Palin. That’s a pretty sobering realization. I think it shows Barack Obama was working against a significantly stronger headwind than John McCain was, yet he prevailed.
- Unfortunately, the wretchedly divisive 2008 GOP campaign will, I fear, poison the country for some time. High RWAs have been told over and over again by their trusted sources that Barack Obama is a Muslim socialist/Communist America-hating dictatorial terrorist intent on destroying the country. They have been led to intensely dislike, if not hate the president-elect, and it’s no accident, I submit, that the Secret Service noted a sharp increase in the number of threats to the Democratic standard-bearer as Palin’s crowds became more rabid. Furthermore the Republican National Committee, Fox News, and so on have sold authoritarian followers the myth that the Democrats won through massive voter fraud, because the media conspired to keep Americans from discovering “the truth” about Obama, and that the Democrats caused all the problems that have occurred over the past eight years. You could easily find postings on various blogs in the last weeks of the campaign saying people should be ready to “take up arms” against an “illegal Obama tyranny” to “preserve democracy and the Constitution.”
- Thus while Barack Obama may genuinely seek a more inclusive, consensual approach to the country’s dire problems, many high RWAs may say “Count me out.” Their leaders–social dominators pursuing their own agendas–will instead stoke the often racist dislike for Obama that was so evident at Republican rallies in the closing days of the campaign.
Almost nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing the research on authoritarian personalities become totally irrelevant, now that we have seemingly put the nightmare behind us and begun anew. I’d much rather people get interested in my next book instead, which is about a far more pleasant subject: my studies of the sexual behavior of university students. But I’m afraid www.theauthoritarians.org will remain worth people’s visiting for the next little while at least.
Sex and Youth (2009)
- So if a man and a woman do the same thing, the man is much more likely to be labeled a homosexual. The double standard was especially pronounced among the male students, and everyone knows how freaky guys get about male homosexuality. But you could find it in the thinking of both sexes. Why does the double standard exist? I suspect it's because people consider male homosexuality so much worse than female-female love making. The greater social taboo implies that if a guy does something seriously "homo," it says more about what he must be, about impulses he can't control, than it would say about a woman doing the same thing, because it's not condemned for women. It's a pernicious attribution, to be sure, but double standards are not known for their fairness. Neither, for that matter, is homophobia.
- p. 215-216
- I'm not saying that people shouldn't be able to get a divorce. I'm saying that there's a teensy-weensy bit of hypocrisy in a group opposing gay marriage on religious and "save the family" grounds when one-fifth to one-third of its members have themselves been divorced.
- p. 217
Comment on the Tea Party Movement (April 2010)
- "Comment on the Tea Party Movement", April 20, 2010.
- Today’s Tea Party movement began in early 2009 in reaction to the American government’s efforts to stabilize the banking system and keep the nation from sinking into economic turmoil. In October, 2008 the Democrat-controlled Congress passed a “Wall St. bailout” bill (the “TARP” bill) proposed by the Bush administration, which Bush immediately signed. This bill deeply offended some economic conservatives who held a “let the chips fall where they may, no matter what” view of free market economics.
Anger among economic conservatives rose yet higher in early 2009 when Congress responded to President Obama’s call for a massive economic stimulus to keep the recession from turning into a Depression. Almost every major Western government, whatever its political stripe, went deeply into the red at this time to keep its economy afloat. Republicans in Congress voted massively against the bill, and Democrats took the heat for trying to stop a recession that the Republicans had largely caused by deregulating the banking system.
- As a moderate and an Independent, I would like to see at least two sets of well-thought-out policies to choose from when I vote. But who is left to shape and guide conservatism in America now? Sarah Palin? Rush Limbaugh? Glenn Beck? Sean Hannity? Newt Gingrich? Michelle Bachmann? Mitch McConnell? John Boehner? Mitt Romney? Scott Brown? Mike Huckabee? Ann Coulter? The best and brightest Republicans have been shown the door. As was true during McCarthyism, some GOP leaders must be deeply concerned about what is happening, but few dare speak. They’ve seen what happens when someone challenges Rush.
- It will seem strange that persons protesting against the government would be labeled “authoritarian followers.” But the concept of authoritarianism centers on submission to those whom one views as the legitimate, established authorities. And the whole point of the “birther” campaign against Obama is that he is an illegitimate president. As well, many Republican rank-and-file members believe the Democrats were unfairly favored by the media in 2008, and stole the election through massive voter fraud engineered by ACORN.
Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers (July 2016)
- "Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers", July 18, 2016.
- Authoritarians did not disappear after George W. Bush left office and the United States avoided financial collapse. Instead they flocked to the Tea Party Movement, which the Republican Party cleverly (it thought) helped create and gathered unto itself. But the movement drove moderates from the GOP and sent radical conservatives to Congress. The “Tea Party Party” produced eight years of non-compromising stalemate in Washington as they imposed their own agenda on the Republican leadership. Now American authoritarians have united behind a presidential candidate who unabashedly says he wants to destroy the traditional Republican Party and deal a devastating blow to the Democrats as well. Is that anything to worry about?
- Research indicates that a bed rock 20-25% of the adults in North America is highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. These people are constantly waiting for a tough “law and order,” “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a person 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 surge Donald Trump into the White House are authoritarian followers. But they almost certainly compose his hard core base. Where are the rest coming from? Various places, such as white males who fear their status in society is eroding and those who cannot abide a Hillary Clinton presidency. But authoritarianism rises in a population that feels threatened, and many Americans today are anxious about their family’s economic future, not to mention the throbbing fear of terrorist attacks. Many of them are clutching at straws.
It’s been noted that if 25% of the American population is always ready to vote for a dictator, that’s half-way to a majority. If the “right” kind of crisis comes along, it could create enough newly panicked citizens to vote a tyrant into office who would overthrow the Constitution, the rule of law, you name it.
- A wannabe dictator is all about dominance. He wants to dominate everyone and he will do whatever he can get away with to become “Number One.” Often the movement he leads becomes a personality clique, because ultimately it is really just about, only about, him. Trump appears every bit as narcissistic as he is aggressive and constantly striving for dominance.
The most remarkable thing about Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader, in my mind, is that he’s so obvious about it. Look at his comments about Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-un. While he has some negative evaluation of each, he praises all three for becoming autocrats and using their power to dominate their countries. How hard is it to see what he’s hoping to do? Who will stop him if he becomes President?
Why Do Trump's Supporters Stand by Him, No Matter What? (August 2018)
- "Why Do Trump's Supporters Stand by Him, No Matter What?", August 23, 2018.
- In another sense, however, the fidelity of Trump’s base remains astounding. He has made so many unforced errors because of his lack of understanding and low problem-solving intelligence, his vast ignorance, his enormous, never-ending dishonesty which seems as reflexive as his breathing, his explosive hostility, his uncontrollable vanity, his despicable demeaning of women, his squalid vulgarity, the stupidity of his stereotypes, the shabbiness of his thinking, the buffoonery of his parading, his attacks on the institutions he needs most to safeguard the country, his incredibly poor judgment about the character of those whom he has brought into his administration, his equally mind-numbing lack of judgment about foreign leaders, friend and foe, and his willingness to inflame Americans’ disagreements and turn them into conflagrations which make us that deeply divided house which the Gospels and Abraham Lincoln warned against—how can his supporters have stood so solidly behind him? You’d think they’d be having some second thoughts at least.
- The main reason, I submit, is that most of Trump’s backers are authoritarian followers—people who submit too much to the leaders they consider legitimate, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want. “Well yeah,” you might say. “But that’s like saying an apple is an apple because it’s an apple.” And it would be golden delicious example of a rhetorical tautology except social scientists have had a good, independent way of measuring this kind of authoritarianism since the 1970s. And it was clear from the first studies that political “conservatives”—from ordinary voters to elected officials—tended to score highly on this personality test (Chapter 6 of The Authoritarians, the book on this website). We can gain considerable insight into Donald Trump’s supporters from the research on authoritarianism.
- Ethnocentrism comes naturally when we identify with a group, but authoritarian followers are profoundly ethnocentric. Whereas some people will deliberately expose themselves to different ideas, experiences, cultures to avoid living in an “echo chamber,” followers want to live smack dab in the middle of one and are glad to do their part of the echoing. Surrounding themselves with people who agree with them, clapping together, chanting together, cheering together, and marching together is convincing evidence for them that their beliefs are right.
- One consequence of the followers’ strong need for consensual validation, experiments have found, is that they will trust someone who says things they believe, even if there is a lot of evidence that the person does not really believe what he says. They’re just so glad to hear their views coming back to them, they ignore solid reasons why the person might be insincere or outright lying. Relatively UNauthoritarian people, on the other hand, are downright suspicious of someone who might have ulterior motives for reinforcing their beliefs.
It is therefore much easier to “con” authoritarian followers, as many a TV evangelist, radio shock-jockey and flag-waving politician knows. It’s no accident that Donald Trump, who had only loosely organized and not particularly right-wing political beliefs, became a Republican politician when he decided to declare war on both the Democrats and Republicans. That’s where the “suckers” are most concentrated, the people you can fool all of the time. (It’s another story, but the GOP largely brought this on itself by deliberately courting these folks.)
- There’s a hidden danger to authoritarian leaders in all this. When they discover their followers will believe anything they say, even things that contradict something they said earlier, they get sloppy with their lies. Maybe Donald Trump always was careless with the truth. But it seems that over the past two years he has become downright reckless. His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind.
The trouble is, for him and the future of his presidency, Truth happens. Constantly. It may be seen differently by various folks, but things did happen as they happened, not something else. You can only ignore the truth so long, and then reality will inevitably catch up with you. It will destroy you if you have been massively denying it.
- But the core connection between himself and his followers was their great fear of the future. As Ann Coulter, his strong promoter during the campaign and reputed source of his anti-immigration rhetoric, said “He had me with ‘Mexican rapists.’” Trump’s MAGA slogan resonated with masses of “forgotten Americans” who indeed felt America wasn’t great anymore. Everything was changing. All the old standards were being trashed. The things that gave them whatever precarious advantage they had in life, being white (and for most of them) being male counted for less and less. Instead the United States was filling up with bad people who would blow up your church, steal your jobs and get your kids hooked on drugs.
- The long run prospects encourage one. Trump has solid support among my generation of Americans, for example, especially men, but we are not going to last forever. Some suppose that people become more authoritarian as they age, and so one batch of old white men will just be replaced by another. But studies show that political opinions tend to be set in early adulthood and endure. Today’s youth, better educated and wonderfully less ethnocentric than their predecessors, give one great hope for the future of American democracy in the long run.
But this is like climate change. We were warned plenty that we were creating a disaster in the only atmosphere we’ve got, and we kept on doing it. Now we are facing the consequences. Whether American democracy endures could well depend on what happens at the polls in 2018 and 2020. Authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers have no great love of freedom and equality. Those who do had better organize and get out the vote, or they will make Donald Trump look like the super-genius he believes he is.
Authoritarian Nightmare (2020)
- Brooklyn: Melville House. Co-written with John W. Dean in third-person narrative style.
- Eternal vigilance. Remember, no one said democracy would be easy.
- p. 282
Lessons of the 2020 American Election, January 6, and Beyond (October 2021)
- "Lessons of the 2020 American Election, January 6th, and Beyond", October 20, 2021.
- Republicans fear the wrath of Trump so much because he owns the GOP base. Always ready to emphasize the obvious, I have said many times that without a crowd of ardent supporters, a wannabe dictator in a democracy is just a clown on a soap box. The crowd is now well-assembled in America. Indeed it was brought together by Republican strategists for their own ends, with only a few like Barry Goldwater anticipating the newcomers would turn the “big tent” into a tabernacle and drive out all the non-believers. Having sown the seeds of its own destruction, the GOP is now reaping the whirlwind.
We understand quite well who Trump’s followers are. The October 2019 Monmouth Poll reported in Authoritarian Nightmare found they are the most prejudiced people in America. Their prejudices and many other shortcomings are rooted in authoritarianism, and studies show that authoritarian followers have many emotional and cognitive weaknesses which explain why they are longing for a strong leader who will take their side against the “others” they find threatening. They are highly fearful, ethnocentric, and have uncritically copied the ideas of the authorities in their lives. Their beliefs are highly compartmentalized, even contradictory; they use many double-standards in their judgments; they have lots of trouble distinguishing good from bad evidence; they are highly defensive and dogmatic; they have little self-insight, and a host of other imperfections. Demographically, the two pillars of Trump’s base are white Christian evangelicals and white male blue-collar workers. Both groups score highly on a measure of submission to authority named the RWA Scale.
- The New York Times found the death rate from COVID in counties which Trump won handily in November 2020 was nearly five times as high as the rate in counties where he ran poorly. And even those who thus far have remained unaffected are unwittingly developing a mini-herd immunity to herd immunity, creating a residue of targets for the disease that mass inoculations cannot protect. Yet they support and even adore the person who has caused their suffering more than anyone else, Donald Trump. He has led many of his supporters to their graves and crippled others for life, and they love him anyway. That’s loyalty.
It is also deep and abiding authoritarianism. Trump’s core supporters have plighted their troth to him whole hog. They have crossed over into his reality and become anti-matter to the truth. You cannot reach them with facts, studies, or logic. If you try to have a rational conversation with them about Trump, immigrants, COVID, the election, capitalism versus socialism versus communism, whatever, the righter you are, the more they will cling to their beliefs. No matter what Trump does, they will believe his account of it. No matter what he asks them to do, they will trust his reason for doing it. They are ready to risk death rather than doubt. So, many, many of them are doomed.
- Demographically, the odds line up against Trump’s reelection. He draws much more support from older voters than he does from younger ones. But really old voters (and this is being written by someone in his 80s) kick the bucket a lot more than fuzzy-cheeked youths. And it turns out people do not inevitably get appreciably more conservative as they get older, but instead seem to carry forward the beliefs they formed in their younger years. Republicans have known for a long time—and that’s why they started recruiting politically inactive white evangelicals en masse—that the up-and-coming generations will be clenched-teeth liberal on balance. Generation Z could give an authoritarian leader nightmares. Add to this the fact that Trump supporters are dying faster than necessary from a disease their leader encourages them to catch, and you can see the climb is getting steeper and steeper for Republicans in 2022 and 2024.
But Trump’s loyalist candidates can still win control of Congress in 2022, and he can still become president again in 2024, if enough persons who oppose him do not vote. You can’t possibly think that people who are ready to die for him won’t bother to show up at the polls, and they’ll proselytize like crazy to bring in converts the way they did in 2020. The question is, will his opponents show up too, especially given all the roadblocks Republican legislatures have thrown up to prevent them from voting? The GOP knows this is game-set-match for them personally. They are considerably outnumbered, but by no means defeated. Authoritarians commonly think they will prevail by steely force of will, and sometimes they do. You have to meet their attack with resolve and commitment, or they will win.
- These dangers can be parried. The United States has far more authoritarian followers in its midst than democracies usually do, but even so they do not comprise a majority of the nation’s population. If they did, Donald Trump would now be enjoying his second term—likely for the rest of his life. High RWAs can be defeated where it counts, at the ballot box, but it will take a lot of work because authoritarians vote more often than Moderates and Lows. Furthermore, various Republican state legislators are doing all they can to keep their opponents from being able to vote at all.
Democracy will probably only survive in America if the non-authoritarians there plow through all the barriers and resolutely cast ballots in elections for the next decade or so. It will take yet more monumental energy and effort like that which carried the day in 2020. But the Americans who rise to defend their country in its hour of need will not only be saving themselves, they will be protecting the blessings of liberty for everyone’s posterity around the planet. We are at a crossroad in history, but take heart: You can do something about it. Involve others who do not appreciate the situation. Determine the outcome.