Will Donald Trump Be the GOP Presidential Standard-bearer?

Posted in: Politics

For the past several months, and as Donald Trump has continued winning more state Republican presidential primaries than anyone one else, I have been asked again and again: “How did you know Trump would make it so far?” “Can he really be the GOP nominee?” These questions have been prompted by my Verdict column about Trump’s presidential prospects, which I wrote some eight months ago—back on July 24, 2015—laying out what he might do and why. People who read the column were struck by its prescience.

Be clear, however, I am no political prognosticator, but I do understand authoritarian personalities and the way they operate. In 2006, I wrote a book about these people after they had taken control of the Republican Party, titled Conservatives Without Conscience. (I have thought about writing an update chapter for the book, putting Trump on the cover and reissuing it. But the situation with authoritarians controlling the conservative political movement and Republican politics is going to last a lot longer than Donald Trump, so there is no reason for a special issue of the book.)

But I am going to update my prior column, by doing a recap while adding some additional information because to understand the Trump phenomenon, it is essential to appreciate political authoritarianism, as well as its limits and boundaries.


Americans were introduced to “the authoritarian type” personalities 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 prophetic, in explaining this type of personality.

Retired academic, Bob Altemeyer, from the University of Manitoba in Canada, devoted his professional career to updating and expanding on the work of Adorno’s team. And Altemeyer was kind enough to tutor and guide me when I did a deep-dive into this subject a decade ago.

To understanding authoritarianism, as revealed by a half-century of experiments and work by social science, obviously requires much more than a few-hundred-word summary. But broadly speaking, authoritarians can be divided into “leaders” and “followers.” Labeling and describing these people is not intended to be pejorative, but descriptive. And these descriptions are in most cases openly given by those who wear the labels proudly, and have reported this over decades of testing by social scientists.

Political Authoritarian Followers

Authoritarian followers, who are far more prevalent than leaders, can be characterized by their submissiveness to established authorities, a trait that is typically combined with a general aggressiveness toward other people. They are both men and women who tend to be highly conventional in their daily lives, yet they are easily submissive to authority and willing to work aggressively on behalf of such authority. Social scientists designate these followers “right-wing authoritarians” based on their distinctive characteristic and traits. These are Donald Trump’s strongest supporters and most consistent voters.

In Conservatives Without Conscience, I catalogued the characteristics and traits of the authoritarian followers. While a follower need not have all the traits, many do: They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education; and they are trusting of untrustworthy authorities. Far more prejudiced (e.g., homophobic or racist) than the general population; plus they are mean-spirited, narrow-minded, and intolerant. They are bullies, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarians, and often severely punitive; they also privately are very frightened people. They demand loyalty and return it; and they have very little self-awareness.

Today, authoritarian followers are typically politically conservative Republicans, openly identifying with special breeds of conservatives, such as Tea Party Republicans. While there are a few Democrats who fall in these ranks, they are extremely rare.

Authoritarian Leaders

Within any group of authoritarian followers, you will find a few in the ranks who are not only among the loyalist of loyal, but who also want to be leaders. They are simply 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 totally amoral. Donald Trump is a classic authoritarian leader.

As I spelled out in Conservatives Without Conscience, authoritarian leaders are often naturally intimidating and bullying, somewhat hedonistic, relentlessly vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, and very willing to cheat to win; they are highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of “suckers,” and specialize in creating false images to sell themselves; they are highly narcissistic, and they may or may not be religious but are most always politically and economically conservative.

As noted in the prior column, without question Trump is the most prototypical authoritarian leader to ever seek the American presidency so prominently, although 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. Trump’s pursuit of the presidency raises the question of how far a truly authoritarian leader can go in America.

How Far Can Trump Go?

As I explained earlier, 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. Since writing the earlier version of this column, I have talked with a number of people who have done business with him, and all describe it as an extremely unpleasant experience. Or as one told me, the art of the deal to Donald is getting his way.

Given Trump’s years as a public personality, plus hosting 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 will set the rules as he wants them, bullying and manipulating everyone necessary to get his way.

Trump is thoroughly enjoying being the loose cannon of the GOP 2016 nominating process; he is making it up as he goes along. In short, do not look to Trump to restrain himself, nor to the media criticizing him as a restraint. Trump understands the American public has less respect for the news media than politicians—although he sees himself as neither, rather as a successful businessman who loves his country and wants to fix it for himself and his friends, which will benefit everyone.

The only restraint on Donald Trump will be voters, but Republican voters love authoritarian leaders. It is difficult to determine exactly how many Republicans are authoritarian followers—thus naturals for the Trump bandwagon—but in my ongoing discussions with social scientists I have come to believe that up to as many as half of all registered Republicans are authoritarian followers.

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. The GOP establishment, such as it is, understands that Trump is using their party for his own purposes, but they are so disorganized and inept, their effort to block him will fail. Trump is currently starting to hire a few people who actually understand the GOP presidential nominating process, because I am told he has shared with friends that he has far exceeded his own expectations. While all of the GOP presidential candidates evidence varying degrees of authoritarianism, none can top Trump.

Bottom line: Donald Trump is going to win the GOP nomination unless he blunders by failing to out-cheat, out-bluff, and outfox the only authoritarian leader who shares all the same characteristics and traits of Trump and is giving him the best fight, Ted Cruz—the most openly loathed peer in the U.S. Senate. Of this we can be absolutely certain: the GOP presidential nominee in 2016 will be an irreconcilable, cast-iron, died-in-the-wool authoritarian personality. I would bet on Trump, who—because this is his one shot—will do anything to win the nomination.

9 responses to “Will Donald Trump Be the GOP Presidential Standard-bearer?”

  1. Frank Willa says:

    Thank you for the update. In my view you accurately describe the who- the authoritarian personality, the how they operate, and what they will do should they succeed. They seem to be able to sell the notion that they will “save democracy, and bring about economic prosperity”; even though they are the least democratic in their way and “Reagan-omnics”- transfer more wealth to the wealthy through the government has failed most people. The followers find exactly what they want in Trump and Cruz; although it is likely to produce results that will hurt them financially in the long run. It will, however, satisfy their individual personality reinforcement goal.
    It is amazing to me that Cruz is cast as a reasonable alternative by the establishment republicans; they have lost themselves in the ever more extreme shift the the right over the last 35 years or so. Cruz proposes abolishing the IRS; this would effectively dismantle the government. How would he pay for the military to carpet bomb, have a border patrol to control immigration, or an FBI to thwart terror? This begs the question: have the beltway media reduced themselves to nothing more than “glorified gossip columnists”, just repeating cocktail party consensus?; no longer able to fulfill the role of an effective Fourth Estate?
    In my response to your prior column I suggested the reason that I thought explained why the authoritarian personalities come about. In short, my view is that these personalities are those whose development is ” arrested in adolescence”. Further, that closer to 40% of the population fall into this part of a continuum.

  2. elixelx says:

    Are you the same John Dean who betrayed your employer, lied to Congress, went to jail and who remains a cancer upon the world?

  3. elixelx says:

    An analogous situation…?
    If a woman were being stalked by a man who, she thought, was trying to kill her, could she kill him first? what would be her punishment?
    If this same woman hired/suborned a hit man to kill her stalker, what would be her punishment?
    Yes in both cases she has done something illegal and even with the mitigating circumstance of the stalking she should be punished in some way!!
    And what about the hitman? Is he guilty of something and what should be his punishment?
    Now let’s call the hitman an abortionist, the woman the stalked, and the fetus the stalker!
    Ah, you say, killing the fetus that is stalking is not the same as killing the stalker; after all, it is LEGAL to kill a fetus, but not so a stalker.
    So, paying/suborning an abortionist/hitman to kill your fetus/stalker is OK UNLESS the fetus is in the Third trimrster, when it becomes murder…?
    So the abortionist and the woman who perform and undergo an abortion in the third trimester are indeed guilty of crimes and must therefore be punished…which is what Donald Trump said…

    • shanen says:

      You again? You must get 50 cents for each comment. But won’t they give you another nickel if you can say something intelligible?

  4. shanen says:

    On the one hand, there is a normative assumption here that the obedience or submissiveness of these authoritarian followers is wrong, and that assumption is somehow bothering me… I feel like it may be based mostly on projection by people who value their freedom and who project that love of freedom onto other people. Acting freely is actually a lot of work, and I’m not sure how much moral culpability we should assign for something that is basically laziness, stupidity, or ignorance. I currently summarize my philosophy of freedom with this ‘equation’:

    #1 Freedom = (Meaningful – Coerced) Choice{5} ≠ (Beer^4 | Speech)

    On the other hand, I certainly agree that the authoritarian followers can be dangerous, especially when they are acting as angry mobs. I also agree that Donald Trump seems to be exploiting their tendencies and that we are seeing mob behavior on his behalf. Even worse that he seems to be encouraging it, but I remain unconvinced that he is actually an authoritarian himself. Is he that sincere? Maybe he’s just playing an authoritarian leader on TV along with all of his other lies?

    However, whatever Trump is, I’m ready to agree that it is not good. If he’s smarter than he acts, he could be a classic sociopath, but many of them are apparently successful, especially in big business as the American rules define that game.

    • elixelx says:

      So many words, such shallow meaning;
      Dean is a scallywag, a turncoat, a trig!
      Such people should NEVER be heard from; at least Haldemann, Erlichman, Liddy etc. had the decency to never show their faces in public again, much less try to write faux-psychology pieces which only demonstrate puerile understanding of both the subject and the audience.
      Proof? His only defender (1solitary commenter)–that would be you shamen!–is himself a bloviator and hater who thinks that taking the Koch shilling is the hidden reason for disagreeing with his fellow-catamite!
      Does it occur to you Shamen that I question Dean’s bonafides to pontificate on the basis of what he has done–the illegality, the treason, the disloyalty–and you question my bonafides to comment on the basis of your own ignorance and cupidity?
      I live in Israel, have never lived in your god-forsaken, god-denying neck of the woods; have never voted in your down-and-dirty elections; have taken no man’s shilling!!
      How about you? How clean is your mind, your soul, your hands?

      • shanen says:

        Congratulations on earning your 50 cents. Yes, you were overpaid for the “reply”, but I’m only vaguely curious if you are paid by the Chinese propagandists or the Koch brothers.