American Conservatism’s Authoritarian Streak

A really big chunk of Americans really like to be told what to do.

A really big chunk of Americans really like to be told what to do.

What do you look for in a political leader? Do you value intelligence? Religious faith? Commitment to national security? An assertion of family values? Or, do you find yourself drawn to leaders that separate the weak from the strong; that promise to use all of their accumulated power to advance the interests of the U.S.A. as the most dominant country on earth? If you find yourself identifying with the former description, then you just might be attracted to the presidential campaign of a certain billionaire braggadocio with a gnarled squirrel on top of his noggin.

That’s right, of all of the qualities that have transformed Donald Trump’s presidential run from a seemingly Quixotic national experiment in the limits of extreme narcissism into a viable path to the White House, few are more important than his appeal to conservative voters’ authoritarian instincts. While not necessarily interchangeable, conservatism and authoritarianism go together like peas and carrots, like bread and wine, like trigger-happy white police officers and unarmed black dudes.

As Politico’s Matthew MacWilliams notes, Trump supporters are a varied bunch united not by race, religion, gender, age, or income, but by their authoritarian inclinations. “Authoritarians obey,” MacWilliams writes, “they rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”

Authoritarianism has never been limited to one party, and it’s known to surface throughout the political spectrum. Depression-era left-wing populist Huey Long, for example, was no less an authoritarian than American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, though their political goals differed. Historically, however, authoritarianism has proved a comforting bedfellow to that particular element of American conservatism that goes apoplectic at the thought of losing its own privilege. Just think of your right-wing uncle who’s convinced that he’s the victim of anti-white male discrimination and believes that all political issues ought to be solved with guns, “running the government like a business,” and gettin’ rid of all the Messicans. Those stances are authoritarian; each involves force or the threat of force to reassert the power of one select group over a lesser group of subordinates. Defending the power of the privileged over their subordinates is what conservatism is all about.

There are two manifestations of authoritarianism that nonetheless go hand in hand. Political authoritarianism manifests in “the existence of a single leader or small group of leaders with ultimate political authority.” The other form of authoritarianism involves individual personality traits, and generally falls under the rubric of psychological authoritarianism. Psychologist Adrian Furnham notes that those with authoritarian personalities “have been shown to avoid situations that involve any sort of ambiguity or uncertainty, [and] are reluctant to believe that ‘good people’ possess both good and bad attributes.” Right-wing authoritarians, Furnham writes, display three core behavioural traits: total submission to established authorities, a general aggression towards the perceived “enemies” of those authorities, and “a blind adherence to established social norms and conventions.” As such, right-wing authoritarians “get obsessed by ordering and controlling their internal world and external world,” and they prefer “simplistic, rigid and inflexible duties, laws, morals, obligation and rules.”

Trump's Silent Majority has never really been silent. Just ask Fort Sumter.

Trump’s Silent Majority has never really been silent. Just ask Fort Sumter.

It should come as no surprise, then, that psychological authoritarianism often manifests in political preferences, and this is where authoritarianism and conservatism copulate and ultimately produce their blustery Trump offspring. Political scientist Chanchal Bhattacharya summarizes the three traits that best characterize conservatism: “(1) deference to established authority, (2) resistance to change, and (3) support for and adherence to conventional norms and values.” All of these traits, when amplified by the ceaseless, 24-7 political noise machine of the modern information age, manifest in authoritarian tendencies. Conservatives always support the untrammeled power of the selective few over the more marginalized many. Hence, they praise CEOs while disparaging workers and unions; they stand for the continued relevance of patriarchy even as feminism and equality reveal that father doesn’t always know best, and they steadfastly maintain that some form of higher power — whether God or capitalism — has a natural, authoritative right to direct people’s’ lives.

More importantly, however, conservatism’s counter-revolutionary nature is what fuels its authoritarian instincts. While it’s often presumed that conservatives prefer to hold onto staid traditions in the face of liberalism’s relentless attempts to change society for the worse, traditions are only worth preserving if they uphold the privilege and deferential powers from which conservatives reap their benefits.

Political scientist Corey Robin notes that while conservatism is first and foremost “an ideology of reaction,” it’s also an ideology that acts proactively in the form of counter-revolts against movements that advocate expanded rights and privileges for previously subordinated groups. Thus, conservatism seeks to both shore up the “traditional values” of old regimes while also co-opting the tactics of the liberalizing revolutionaries that it claims to be combatting in the very name of tradition. “What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses,”* Robin writes.

Authoritarian leaders promise immediate solutions to national problems, by force if necessary.

Authoritarian leaders promise uncompromising solutions to national problems, by force if necessary.

Therein lies the secret to Trump’s authoritarian appeal to conservative voters. The Donald makes privilege popular by touting the old canard that there are no classes in America, only millions of billionaires in waiting, and by targeting subordinate groups such as immigrants as objects of scorn, he provides a useful rouges gallery of “enemies” over which America’s traditionalist “Silent Majority” can exercise dominance. And he does this all via the authoritarian aura of a forceful leader who not only speaks for the nation, but also claims the power to alter that nation back in the Silent Majority’s favor. It’s no coincidence that much of Trump’s appeal stems from his CEO background. Few modern organizations mirror the hierarchical structure of the old feudalist system better than the American corporation, in which an all-powerful CEO exercises supreme dominance over a chain of command that filters all the way down to the non-unionized cubicle slaves who toil in the sweltering corporate bowels. From the point of view of the authoritarian personality, things get done from the desk of the chief executive, not from the voice of the squirming masses.

That the conservative conception of freedom depends on limiting the freedom of others is a truism that has repeated throughout American history. And while conservatives often veil their rather limited conceptions of freedom in gentle euphemisms such as “right to work,” “pro-life,” and corporate “flexibility,” they do, on occasion, make their true feelings known.

Consider America’s foremost conservative revolution, the secession from the Union of 11 slaveholding southern states in 1860-61 to form the Confederate States of America. Pro-slavery southern journalist and Confederate apologist J.D.B.De Bow made clear that the Confederate experiment was deeply counter-revolutionary. “We are not revolutionists — we are resisting revolution,” De Bow wrote, “We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution. We are conservative. Our success is the triumph of all that has been considered established in the past.” Of course, what had been “established in the past” and therefore enshrined into the realm of tradition was slavery, the protection of which lay at the core of the Confederate experiment. Confederate notions of freedom, then, rested on the denial of freedom to others in the form of coerced black labor.

The bombardment on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 began the conservative counter-revolution of the Confederate States.

The bombardment on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 began the conservative counter-revolution of the Confederate States.

While many Confederate leaders were loath to be so blunt about their movement, De Bow acknowledged, however defensively, that should the Confederacy fail in its bid for independence, “the civilized world will look coldly upon us, or even jeer us with the taunt that we have deservedly lost our own freedom in seeking to perpetuate the slavery of others.” Rarely in U.S. history has the authoritarian instinct been marked by such inward self-awareness. Of course, the Confederate experiment did fail when this self-proclaimed counter-revolutionary movement became outwardly revolutionary during the Civil War, its mantle of aggrieved victimhood a testament to how conservatives will co-opt the language of liberal freedom in the service of illiberal goals.

Just as it did in the Antebellum South, conservatism’s authoritarian inclinations still shine forth today, most obnoxiously in the billowing rhetoric of a real-estate tycoon-turned modern-day Charles Foster Kane. That Donald Trump’s popularity rests on his authoritarian appeal should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to GOP politics over the last several decades. If recent history teaches us anything, it’s that privilege is the oil that lubricates the American political Mustang, and that those who operate said vehicle seldom want to pull over when the sirens of equality flash in their rear-view. Traditionalist counter-revolutionaries become proactive authoritarians when the clamorous agitation of the legitimately aggrieved threatens their Silent Majority.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 43.

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  1. But..but…he’s going to make America great, again. You can tell, because it’s written on his hat.

  2. Authoritarianism gives me the heebie jeebies, even just reading about it. I don’t understand blind deference to someone else – especially someone like Donald Trump, whom in my view, is a tool who doesn’t give a shit about anyone except himself.

    • You’re right about that. Trump’s only ideology is narcissism. He’s less interesting than the people drawn to his candidacy – except for his hair.

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