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.