So far, 500 people have registered with the Federal Elections Commission to run for President of the United States. Needless to say, all but a few of these aspirants lack any chance whatsoever of becoming president. To the surprise of many, Donald Trump has fully registered with the FEC and surfaced as the early leader for the Republicans.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who has a very good crystal balls for predicting presidential contenders and races, has broken the massive GOP want-to-be field into five tiers to establish who is and who is not a viable potential. Professor Sabato’s first tier GOP candidates are (alphabetically): Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. Donald Trump, who is currently leading in the polls, ranks in lowest—or fifth—tier by Professor Sabato, who labels Trump a “gadfly.”
Political pundits everywhere are scratching their heads asking what is going on with Trump. How can a clown like Trump be in front of the “serious” GOP candidates? Most blame the news media for giving Trump’s antics too much attention. But much more than media attention is at work in explaining Trump’s success. In fact, Donald Trump has emerged as America’s leading authoritarian political figure, representative of a type of leadership for which many Americans yearn.
I looked closely at authoritarians in Conservatives Without Conscience, and the information I developed and shared in 2006 is equally, if not more, relevant today. Actually, Trump is far more aggressive in his authoritarianism than his predecessors. To understand the Trump phenomenon, it is essential to appreciate political authoritarianism, as well as its limits and boundaries.
Political Authoritarians—The Followers
Americans were introduced to “the authoritarian type” in a 1951 book that was controversial from its publication: The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, and Daniel J. Levinson. While the book had its flaws, time has also shown much of the analysis was accurate, if not prescient, in explaining this type of personality. When studying these personalities I discovered the later work of an American-born professor at the University of Manitoba, Bob Altemeyer, whose book The Authoritarian Specter updates, expands upon, and solidifies the work of Adorno’s team.
Altemeyer was extremely helpful in assisting me translate decades of academic works by social science into meaningful material for the general reader. After he saw the interest in my book, I was able to persuade Dr. Bob to summarize some of his own work for the general reader, which he posted online, and it is free. The work is entitled The Authoritarian, and it has been visited by over a half million people. Trump’s candidacy should send more people to read it.
I am only going to briefly summarize the authoritarian types, who can be broadly broken down into “leaders” and “followers.” Starting with the followers, who are more prevalent and who are characterized by their submissiveness to established authorities, a trait that becomes combined with a general aggressiveness toward others. Altemeyer labels these followers “right-wing authoritarians,” and from his studies I developed a laundry list of characteristic and traits consistently found in these people.
Specifically, as I noted in Conservatives Without Conscience, the authoritarian followers are both men and women, who tend to be highly conventional, always and easily submissive to authority, while willing to work aggressively on behalf of such an authority. They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education, trusting of untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (e.g., with respect to gay marriage); they are typically mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive; they also demand loyalty and return it, have little self-awareness, and are typically politically and economically conservative Republicans.
These are the characteristics and traits of Donald Trump’s followers. They are a special breed of conservatives, many of whom identify themselves as Tea Party Republicans, although there are a few Democrats who fall in these ranks, and would love to see Trump in the White House.
With any group of authoritarian followers you will find a few in the ranks who are not only among the loyalist of loyal followers, but who also want to be leaders. They are biding their time. In fact, testing shows one of the reasons they are such good followers is that they believe when they are one day leading, their followers should be as loyal as they have been. These authoritarian leader types, who are typically men, will always have four clear characteristics or traits that distinguish them: They are dominating; they oppose equality; they desire personal power; and they are amoral.
While it may seem I am merely describing Donald Trump, in fact, these essential distinguishing features have surfaced time and again over decades of testing by social scientists, but Trump clearly fits the pattern. In addition, Trump reflects many of the other characteristics or traits that identify the authoritarian leaders, which I similarly spelled out in Conservatives Without Conscience—a point I make here to clarify that I am not making this up with Trump’s arrival as a near perfect authoritarian leader type. Among the additional personality features, these people are usually intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheat to win, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of “suckers,” specialize in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious, and are usually politically and economically conservative and Republican.
It is striking that Donald Trump appears to have all these characteristics. Without question, Trump is the most prototypical authoritarian leader to ever so prominently seek the American presidency, and we have had several authoritarian presidents and vice presidents, most recently including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, followed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But Donald Trump appears to fall within the indicia of the authoritarian leader far more than any of the others. This raises the question of how far a truly authoritarian leader can go in America.
How Far Can an Authoritarian Leader Go in America?
Not surprisingly, authoritarians excel in many fields such as law enforcement, the military, and business. Donald Trump has spent decades developing and harmonizing his authoritarian nature with his intellectual and interpersonal skills, and his efforts have been reinforced by his successes. While others may not take him as seriously as he takes himself, rest assured he knows exactly what he is doing. He has spent his lifetime doing what he is now doing.
Given Trump’s years as a public personality, plus his years hosting an authoritarian reality television shows—“The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice”—he understands the media better than any of his Republican rivals, and how to play himself publicly. Unlike most candidates, who can be embarrassed into following the rules by exposing foul-play, Trump is going to set the rules this time because he knows he can bully and manipulate everyone necessary to get his way. Trump is thoroughly enjoying being the loose cannon of the GOP 2016 Primary; he is making it up as he goes along. In short, do not look to Trump to restrain himself, nor the media criticizing him as a restraint. Trump knows the American public has less respect for the news media than politicians—while he sees himself as neither, rather a successful businessman who loves his country and wants to fix it for himself and his friends.
The only restraint on Donald Trump will be voters, but Republican voters love authoritarian leaders. Republicans have spent the last seven year portraying President Obama as wishy-washy and spineless, with Trump, of course, claiming he is not even an American nor as smart as he pretends to be. (Otherwise he would produce the transcript of his college grades, as demanded by Trump!) It is difficult to determine exactly how many Republicans are authoritarian followers—thus naturals for the Trump bandwagon—but in discussions with social scientists I have come to believe that somewhere between a quarter and half of registered Republicans are authoritarians, not to mention they are the activist base of the party. While the entire field of GOP presidential candidates evidence varying degrees of authoritarianism, none can top Trump.
In my informal conversations with many people who view themselves as part of the GOP base, Trump is very popular. He is telling them what they want to hear. Trump will not appeal to the Iowa evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucuses, but if he makes a strong showing in New Hampshire and South Carolina, there will be no stopping him. Many Wall Street big-shots live in Trump’s upscale Manhattan buildings, and they view him as one of their own. Wall Street would not likely try to block him.
As I have watched Trump proceed in 2016, I keep recalling Bob Altemeyer’s troubling observation in The Authoritarian Specter: “If you think [Americans] 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 that state.” While Trump is no Hitler, we have never had as serious and off-the-charts authoritarian leader vying for our highest office.
To cut to the bottom line: I can envision a number of scenarios where Trump could capture the GOP nomination, and they all start with him making respectable showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina. If Trump is going to decide to go home and stop playing the game due to it being a waste of money, it will be after South Carolina. If he is in play at that time, he could win the nomination.
But I can find no scenario in which he could win the White House. Too many voters still remember Nixon, Agnew, Bush, and Cheney, who ranked high on the authoritarian leaders scale, albeit not as high as Donald Trump. Should it happen that Trump wins the GOP nomination, he will surely all but finish the destruction of the Republican Party, which began with the ascendency of the religious right and Southern conservatives leaving the “Big Tent” Democratic Party to make the GOP their unspoken racist home. The authoritarian base of the GOP has been steadily growing, and Trump could test its strength.
Of only one thing am I absolutely certain: Donald Trump will never be President of the United States, so rest easy. Authoritarians remain a minority in America, thankfully.
The anguished GOP elite have no one but themselves to blame for the Trump spectacle. For years they motivated, nurtured and pandered to the ill-informed racist xenophobes who now make up the Tea Party — once the GOP’s fringe, but now its activist base. They unleashed the extremists onto the party, and are now paying the price.
Excellent column, and I agree on all points except for two details we could quibble over. (1) I agree about Cheney being highly authoritarian, but not about Bush, unless perhaps as a follower being manipulated by Cheney and previously by Rove. (2) I think today’s neo-GOP has already hijacked the brand, and there are no meaningful similarities with the progressive and liberal Republican Party led by Lincoln or the GOP led by Teddy and Ike.
Keeping it short largely to avoid typos and slow cycling through the moderation, but I certainly don’t blame Mr Dean for having better uses for his time than moderating the comments on Internet discussion forums. (Perhaps “celebrity email” to the rescue?)
John W. Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to the president, and a convicted felon.
Amusing fake name, but racist, and yet no surprise you’re too cowardly to actually speak on your own behalf. Or is it simply that you know your own name has no credibility? Responding at your own level, my guess is you watch and possibly even worship the anti-hero of this little poem:
Harumpty O’Reilly sat on a wall,
Harumpty O’Reilly had a great fall.
All the Koch brothers and all the FAUX women
couldn’t put the cowardly lying bully together again.
Rather a convicted felon who repented and speaks the truth than an un-indicted criminal continuing to lie, or a coward hiding behind a racist name.
And if you had been in Dean’s position in the White House at that time, what would you have done? I have a fair idea what I would have done, although I’m not completely sure. But I’m not going to judge him. He’s not your common garden strangler or “stabist”, is he? I, personally, am hesitating to judge him. Some might think, were I to do so, that I was being hypocritical. And his convictions simply don’t affect his IQ or political savvy. And even if we resort to the old “it takes one to know one” line, his insights are still worth listening to. ;-)
jus wait an see.
…seriously! And how would YOU catagorize Democrats in your authoritarian mix given you fixated attack on Republicans as part of the demographic group that exhibit the most abhorrent characteristics but not all by a long shot. Btw: your clear attack portrays you as very narrow minded and a malevolent bully. Sure seems to fit characteristics you defined. don’t get me wrong I can’t stand Donald Trump and move to Siberia sooner than stay in this country of that moron took office but even more I loath simple minded fixated malevolence. Those characteristics are what got us into this pickle in the first place, e.g., far too many lemmings on any level no matter how defined. Don’t get me wrong I can’t stand Trump I’d sooner move to a deserted desolate island than stay in this country if that moron took office but even more repugnant are simple, e.g., narrow minded leaders followers. We are overwrought with whiners who complain about the outcomes but are too lazy to do their homework in advance to prevent said outcomes as our history proves out a pattern and practice not likely to in the future.
How would YOU catagorize Bill Clinton’s antics did his abhorrent amorality narcissism and immorality bother you or do you have a sanitizing definition for him because you like the “political group/party” he emanates from, and, that I presume you identify with, e.g., any who do NOT identify as Republican, seemingly the true focus of your article used for a loosely veiled attack
I think you missed the part where Dean said this analysis was not based on Trump (his own book was written in 2006 and Adorno’s in 1950) and that it applies to authoritarians of every stripe. It clearly applies equally to Democrats, Peronists, Liberian dictators, Austrian-born Fuehrers, … well, you get the idea. In this piece I see Dean trying to explain the Trump phenomenon, not specifically attacking Republicans.
That’s because you were paying attention.
Why haven’t you banned this creature from this forum yet —
“Progressive Republican” — not only does it display the Nazi Swastika
symbol with each post, but it also is a paid liberal shill (look at how
many posts it has made in less than 5 years, OVER 12,000 — that’s not a
hobby, but a JOB !!!).
Your forum is for regular folks, right? ———– Not for paid shills to post asinine repetitive propaganda — so why is
this paid shill still posting here…?!
I thought this was the John Dean who was Nixon’s council at the White House. I doubt that he is a democrat — even now. And I don’t doubt that he could give a thorough rundown of Clinton’s deficiencies if forced to. Perhaps he is one of those Republicans who wants to save the party. I didn’t see this as suggesting there are no Democrats with the same characteristics. But the US Republicans have gone much further than most centre-right parties do to pander to extremists. Perhaps they are paying the price for that and need to take a bit of a look at themselves.
OMG Mr. Dean..I am re reading your book Conservatives without Conscience and I finally understand WHY people say”: OBEY THE POLICE NO MATTER WHAT! “Poor Sandra Bland was a victim of just such beliefs and now I know who keeps saying that on comment boards..and on news for that matter..strong RWAs and also explains why so many are totally willing to vote against their own best interests..thank you for your studies and sharing them with us..PLEASE DO NOT STOP COMMENTING ON THIS ELECTION..IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAT EVER!
I don’t know about the rest of the Americans, but I am sick of “party lines” and “politics as usual” and “taxes” as usual. The American public has paid a huge price for the “change’ they wanted in Obama and the country is tottering on the brink of absolute catastrophic demise for that liberalism from my uneducated assessment and practical survey. It appears to me that we, the working backbone of this country, are ready for less involvement of government in our personal lives and for this country to run like a business with a PRESIDENT THAT WILL FOLLOW THE LAWS. I believe you’re either here legally or not. I believe that those that pay the least (or no) taxes consume the most government dollars. The concept of funding illegal aliens in medical, civil and criminal arenas is killing our ability to meet the needs of American citizens. Having been in politics and inside the judiciary and part of the medical field, I know without a doubt that at least 30-35% of our resources are going to non-citizens. Why do single moms struggling in middle class jobs trying to pay the bills get denied access to lunch assistance for their kids based upon what they have to swear to as their job incomes when illegal aliens do not declare their incomes or the situational support system of “cash jobs” and get everything free? WRONG CONCEPT! And the continued additional cost of translating every single thing into additional languages is exhorbitant! No other country in the world liberalizes like! Since when could you go to any country and expect not to be asked if you were there legally to receive benefits? The job of the President is to protect the ‘citizens’ of the United States of America and when the shift is politically motivated such that the rights of the citizens is subject to the rights of those illegally present, we have a huge problem. I believe we need Ted Turner’s no-nonsense business approach to running this country and although he would inherit a huge pile of poo from two “give away the farm” terms of Obama, he is the ONLY CANDIDATE that is willing and capable of assessing this country’s financial status and expenditures and trimming it out for survival, so help me God. He is uniquely able to turn away “favoritism” for support because he is financially capable of standing without being beholding. I’m hoping for a bright future and believe that if folks realized that the GOP elite are antiquated and a new “definition” of the average Republican that is not a hard-liner is at hand, they could find a positive way to evaluate the situation.
John, thanks! From where I sit (near Mt. Shasta, red-neck region of inland California), I think he’ll probably win. When Reagan got elected as governor of California, I was so shocked I moved out of state. I couldn’t believe people could be so stupid or easily manipulated — but I was sure wrong! Reagan got elected because he had “easy answers” and said, basically, “don’t worry; we’re the good guys — we’ll win!” to an American populace that didn’t want to put on a sweater (instead of turning up the heat), or buy a tiny car, all of which Jimmy Carter was advocating. “Tighten your belt,” is not a saleable message to the vast majority of people in this country, not just the lunatic fringe of tin-foil hats & Zionist conspiracies or “we blew up the twin towers.” Just about everyone in Europe sees Trump as THE AMERICAN STEREOTYPE. He is that. He can win, or he wouldn’t be running. As a business person, Trump doesn’t waste time & money on acts that can’t be turned to a profit. And he’s very typical of the many RE developers as a type–full of bullshit and bluster–but basically, clear about their own & everyone’s motives, when it comes to why we are all at the table, or the lunch.
I think Obama really got under Trump’s skin when Obama made Trump the butt of his contempt, openly, at the Correspondent’s Dinner the year the Seals got Ben Laden (while they were, in fact, flying into ben Laden’s compound/) I think Trump began seriously looking into what he could do to rub Obama’s nose in it, as Obama turns the government over to Trump. Trump isn’t a social climber; he’s an existent “upper class” American, in terms of what counts with such folk– cash. Romney admires Trump, not the Bush’s. So do all the ambitious white collar folk and small business blue collar trade journeymen.
I cringe as I watch all “the smart people” try to write who and what Trump represents off, trying to hang on to the fiction so many of us tell each other– that intelligence, character and breeding “count,” more the dollars and deeds.
I used to tell people, in my years as a real estate broker, “the best way to take over the world is to BUY it! Then, the laws work for YOU.” I still am pretty sure that is the real bottom line, in the world of power & politics.
But I don’t think Trump is a mad man. He won’t bomb anybody. He may make a pass at kicking the latinos around, even deporting students — but I am sure he’s quite clear that a constitutional amendment isn’t going to happen, in this polarized community. He can just bullshit, like the rest of them do and have, but he is clear on what is bs and what is a binding contract, plus he’s not suicidal. I don’t know where this ends up, down the road, but I greatly prefer an up front Trump to all those “giant fur armed insects” the William Burroughs saw, as a child, growing up in a prominent family. No Kocks, Bushes, or disgusting oil millionaires & gamblers behind a curtain, pulling stings. That’s the scary prospect, really. We can live with Trump; he’s “one of us.”
Like if USA has ever got a proper president within “proper GOPs”.
Maybe is not such a foolish idea to have Trump for president.
While authoritarians have a recognizable cluster of characteristics, what are the characteristics of the agar plates these stinking bacteria grow in? For decades we have always believed the Germans adopted Fascism because they had been traumatized by a broken economy and WWI reparations. However, we are now witnessing virtually all the Western democracies becoming authoritarian.