Authoritarianism I

I really wanted the title “If Authoritarianism is Trump, We Need a New Deal.”  Alas.  It was too long to use.

It is a presidential election year in the United States. A Summer Olympics year everywhere else. This year, more than ever, I hope that the Olympics will be beautiful and that everyone will want to watch because the presidential election in the U. S. is going to be ugly and the fewer people around the world who see it, the better.

Because of Donald Trump’s candidacy—as I write this, he is a candidate for the Republicanauthority 2 nomination—there has been a lot of talk about “authoritarianism.” On behalf of the political scientists of the world, let me invite you to the discussion. We talk about authoritarianism pretty much all the time. It’s just that this year, some of our stuff is landing on editorial pages and is being read by a broader audience.

I like the attention to “our topic,” but frankly, I am not too happy about the way the word authoritarian—that’s spelled with a scarlet A in quite a few papers—is being used. And making good use of it, especially in this election, seems important to me, so I’m going to spend a little time on it. As you see, I am calling this piece Authoritarianism I. I have no idea how far this will go.

I have three questions in mind for today. I will treat all three as serious questions, although you might think that the first two are too easy to be serious about and the third one “merely” definitional.

Question 1: Is Donald Trump authoritarian?
Question 2: Are Trump voters authoritarian?
Question 3: What do you mean, exactly, by “authoritarian?”

You see the problem.

Answer 1: No. That will depend, of course, on our coming to a useful shared notion of what that word means; it will depend also on whether it is the inner, personal, intimate Donald Trump or the outer, public Donald Trump. The outer one is the only one I care about.

authority 1In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [1], Hannah Arendt raises the question of whether Adolf Eichmann was, himself, anti-Semitic. As I read her, the answer is either “No, he was not,” or “He might have been but it didn’t matter to his work.” [2] Arendt came very close to saying that Eichmann really wasn’t bright enough to be a thoroughgoing anti-Semite. She does say, clearly and repeatedly, that Eichmann’s operation of the Nazi death camps would not have been altered by so much as a single Jew if he actually had been an anti-Semite.

Would Donald Trump’s campaign—his posturing, his pronouncements, his race-baiting—be altered by so much as a single epithet by his actually being authoritarian? I don’t think so. That’s why I said No in answer to my question.

If Trump cares about anything at all in an urgent and persistent way, it is his image [3] or as people say these days, his “brand.” That means that we can count on Trump for a certain kind of speech. He doesn’t just want “a wall” between the U. S. and Mexico, for instance, but he wants the Mexicans to pay for it. It’s the language of outrage. It should not be expected to make sense. It is not a policy proposal. It is a scream in the dark. It is emotionally identical to Howard Beal’s famous, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”[4]

But if Trump is just “brand tending,” then what will he say when the situation changes? If he were a proponent of authoritarian policies—another possible meaning of the word—he would hang onto those policies no matter what. He doesn’t do that. He shifts the topics and the proposals so that they express the outrage his followers feel. Following Arendt’s line of thought, I would say that Trump is no more an authoritarian than Eichmann was an anti-Semite.

Answer 2: Some are, some aren’t. The question, remember, was: Are Trump voters authoritarian? This is a question we will have to come back to when we have spent more time on actual measures of authoritarianism, but for now, let’s just say that there are “external” or situational Trump voters and “internal” or character-based Trump voters.

My argument at this point is that some people think that this is a crucial time in Americanauthority 3 history in which a bold “take no prisoners” kind of leader is required. Imagine for a moment that you are the superintendent of a school district and that one of your school is a chaotic mess filled with incorrigible students. You may have the most fanciful liberal arts dreams in mind for this school, but first you are going to have to establish law and order. So you choose a law and order principal. He is flamboyant. He drives a fire engine red sports car which has a driver’s side door fitted with a scabbard for his Winchester.  He encourages his teachers to carry guns in class.  The parents who are desperate for order are enthusiastic and reduce his offenses to mere peccadilloes. The others are horrified that some blowhard clown is in charge of their kids’ high school.

In due course, law and order are established and the way is clear for a softer and gentler vision of educational opportunities, at which point you take the next step and choose a mild-mannered liberal arts type as the new principal of the high school. When you chose that first principal, you looked like an educational authoritarian. What is it about you, the horrified parents wanted to know, that makes you value bluster over diplomacy, power over reason, punishment over tolerance. An unhappy childhood perhaps?

What we know about you is that you care deeply about the educational success of your high school and its students. In order to take the next step toward that goal, you needed a tyrant who knew how to play the egotistical maniac. That’s what the sports car and the rifle and the armed teachers are for. But that is not your goal. When you are free to pursue your goal directly, you choose an educational leader for her gentleness and tolerance.

Are you an “authoritarian” superintendent? Of course not. You don’t even like the first principal you chose; it was just what the circumstances demanded. So, the analogy goes, people who support Trump because he is the right man for the job are only “external” or situational or instrumental supporters. They are not really authoritarian, themselves. They are just pooling their votes and their donations with the crazies who are genuinely, internally, psychologically authoritarian.

I see now that I am not going to get to Question 3 today. I thought about going back and changing the “three” to “two,” but I decided to leave it. “Authoritarian 2” will begin with the work of Marc Heatherington and Jonathan Weiler on measuring authoritarianism. When we have got that down, we’re going to go around to the other side—to the voter’s side—and see what their choices are.

In the meantime, take a look at Howard Beal’s rant on the YouTube clip from the movie, Network. It will do you good.

[1] I see that on, they are advertising it as The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt and the “Final Solution.” The blurb indicates that it is the same book so don’t worry about the change in title.
[2] The movie version of this part of Arendt’s life, called Hannah Arendt, is well worth seeing. In the scene in which she finally defends her views against her critics, she makes the same case I am making here.
[3] The word idolatry was devised to refer to the worship of “an image,” not of “one’s own image.” Still, if you could extend the meaning to Trump’s worship of his own image, I would have no trouble calling him an idolater. NOTE TO THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN: All of  the -olater words are based on the Greek verb latreuo, “to worship.” I didn’t invent it just for you guys.
[4] If you’d like to invest a minute and forty seconds into Beal’s pitch, just google “I’m mad as hell…” and watch it on YouTube. You will be surprised, I think, at how little the language of alienation has changed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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