Friday, August 07, 2015

Trump authoritarianism

I've recently gone back to the various reports collected in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), the famous study by "Adorno et al," as it's usually cited. The was a major study headed by Max Horkheimer, head of the Institute for Social Research, more widely known as "the Frankfurt School." It is part of the Studies in Prejudice series that was a product of a project on prejudice and anti-Semitism sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the 1940s.

I was reminded that it is a rich source that I still hadn't fully explored by my friend Deborah Antunes in her recent book, Por um Conhecimento Sincero no Mundo Falso: 1 (2014) that discusses how this work fits into the development in the thought of Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and in the development of the larger field of Critical Theory.

In the strange precincts of the far right, this work was a target of one of the many paranoid political conspiracy theories on the crackpot right, "Cultural Marxism." But that's another story.

Trying to milk quotable stand-alone zingers out of the The Authoritarian Personality isn't an advisable undertaking. It involves the explanation and interpretation of a major sociological study, involving some complex philosophical, historical and psychological assumptions. And it is a publication from 65 years ago, discussing field work that took place several years before that. But there are nevertheless themes that resonate with today's Radical Right politics.

And Radical Right politics is more prevalent in the Republican Party today than ever before. Writing about today's party and its currently leading Presidential candidate for 2016, Donald Trump, Paul Krugman says (From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious New York Times 08/07/2015):

For while it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party. ...

Or to put it another way, modern Republican politicians can’t be serious — not if they want to win primaries and have any future within the party. Crank economics, crank science, crank foreign policy are all necessary parts of a candidate’s resume. [my emphasis]
And David "Bobo" Brooks has offered his Deep Thoughts on Donald Trump's surge in popularity in the Republican Party, Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology New York Times 08/04/2015. Bobo's analysis of today's political scene isn't quite so, uh, nuanced as Theodor Adorno's in 1950. Bobo:

The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be. ...

When Trump is striking populist chords, he appeals to people who experience this invisibility. He appeals to members of the alienated middle class ... who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do. He appeals to people who are resentful of immigrants who get what they, allegedly, don’t deserve.
Bobo's concluding sentence illustrates the profundity of his analysis, "He is deeply rooted in the currents of our time." As opposed to, I guess, people who died 100 years ago?

He also offers this puzzling description of Trump's message: "Society is led by losers, who scorn and disrespect the people who are actually the winners."

Adorno's famously dense prose is direct and clear compared to that!

Bobo in his column is using words and phrases which, strung together competently, sound Very Serious because they are so familiar. But these are the kinds of observations that politicians and pundits use to describe demagogues without saying their are appealing to hateful and violent impulses among their supporters.

Adorno in his chapter Politics and Economics in the Interview Material, isn't so delicate.

Here, I want to concentrate on Adorno's observations on what he calls "pseudoconservatism." Political terms like right, left, liberal, conservative, radical are famously plastic. Adorno in 1950 defined the difference between "genuine" and "pseudo" conservatives this way:

[A differentiation between scores in a group surveyed] was interpreted in terms of genuine and pseudoconservatives, the former supporting not only capitalism in its liberal, individualistic form but also those tenets of traditional Americanism which are definitely antirepressive and sincerely democratic, as indicated by an unqualified rejection of antiminority prejudices. ...

The idea [of pseudoconservatism] is that the potentially fascist character, in the specific sense given to this concept through our studies, is not only on the overt level but throughout the make-up of his personality a pseudoconservative rather than a genuine conservative. The psychological structure that corresponds to pseudoconservatism is conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness on the ego level, with violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere. [my emphasis]
Which more meaningfully describes the kind of voters to whom a rich, egotistical, belligerent bully like Donald Trump appeals? Bobo's "members of the alienated middle class ... who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do"? Or Adorno's "authoritarian submissiveness on the ego level, with violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere"? I'm thinking the 1950 characterization works better than the 2015 one does.

Adorno goes on to say:

This break-through of the nonconservative element is enhanced by certain supra-individual changes in today's ideology in which traditional values, such as the inalienable rights of each human being, are subject to a rarely articulate but nevertheless very severe attack by ascendent forces of crude repression, of virtual condemnation of anything that is deemed weak. There is reason to believe that those developmental tendencies of our society which point into the direction of some more or less fascist, state capitalist organization bring to the fore formerly hidden tendencies of violence and discrimination in ideology. All fascist movements officially employ traditional ideas and values but actually give them an entirely different, antihumanistic meaning. (p. 676) [my emphasis]
The "supra-individual changes" he talks about there probably refers in particular to the concern Sigmund Freud expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930, German: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur) that the increasing complexity of modern society brings with it an increase in internal feelings of guilt in individuals that also boosts aggressive impulses. Adorno's Frankfurt School colleagues Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm would elaborate on such concerns in the following decades.

He mentions two key things about the authoritarian inclination: contempt for the weak, and the use of "traditional values" to justify hostility, exclusion and violence rather than the building of community.

Authoritarian Ibérico Saint-Jean (1922-2012)

There is an infamous quote illustrating authoritarian attitudes toward the weak. It's from General Ibérico Saint-Jean, military governor of Buenos Aires Province 1976-1981:

Primero mataremos a todos los subversivos; luego mataremos a sus colaboradores, después a sus simpatizantes, enseguida a aquellos que permanecen indiferentes y, finalmente, mataremos a los tímidos

[First we kill all the subversives; later we kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers; after that, those who remain indifferent and, finally, we kill the timid.]
(See: Ibérico Saint-Jean Wikipedia, accessed 08/07/2015; ¡Basta de confrontación, argentinos! La batalla cultural n/d, accessed 08/07/2015)

Richard Hofstader also famously used the term "pseudoconservative" to describe the Radical Right of the 1950s: The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt The American Scholar Winter 1954-55. He said explicitly that he borrowed the term from The Authoritarian Personality. He framed it this way:

... its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower Administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive clinical evidence.
Here was Donald Trump's closing statement at the August 6 Republican Presidential debate, the last of the evening (Transcript of the 2015 GOP debate (9 pm) 08/07/2015):

Our country is in serious trouble. We don't win anymore.

We don't beat China in trade. We don't beat Japan, with their millions and millions of cars coming into this country, in trade. We can't beat Mexico, at the border or in trade.

We can't do anything right. Our military has to be strengthened. Our vets have to be taken care of. We have to end Obamacare, and we have to make our country great again, and I will do that.

Thank you.
This attitude, of course, simultaneously trashes conditions as they are and promises to "make our country great again."

Digby Parton notes of the August 6 debate (Fear & loathing at the GOP debates Salon 08/07/2015):

These Republicans are running on fear and anger and nothing more. Even their various ways of saying “let’s make America great again” are demoralizing. It’s understandable. They know they are unlikely to win the presidency as long as their angry, fearful, conservative white base insists on insulting everyone who doesn’t look like them but they have no choice but to roll with it.
One always has to keep in mind in talking about American politics prior to 1965, the left-right/liberal-conservative divide overlapped the two parties. On a variety of issues including segregation, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, as well as conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Hofstadter used these examples of the pseudoconservative phenomenon:

The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business to be fighting communism in Korea, but that the war should immediately be extended to an Asia-wide crusade against communism ...
Adorno addressed the situation of people with no realistic prospect of becoming very wealthy themselves who nevertheless identify with wealthy people who advocate policies designed to benefit people like themselves primarily or exclusively:

This socioeconomic aspect of pseudoconservatism is often hard to distinguish from the psychological one. To the prospective fascist his social identification is as precarious as that with the father. At the social root of this phenomenon is probably the fact that to rise by the means of "normal" economic competition becomes increasingly difficult, so that people who want to "make it"-which leads back to the psychological situation-are forced to seek other ways in order to be admitted into the ruling group. They must look for a kind of "co-optation," somewhat after the fashion of those who want to be admitted to a smart club. Snobbery, so violently denounced by the fascist, probably for reasons of projection, has been democratized and is part and parcel of their own mental make-up: who wants to make a "career" must really rely on "pull and climbing" rather than on individual merit in business or the professions. Identification with higher groups is the presupposition for climbing, or at least appears so to the outsider, whereas the "genuine" conservative group is utterly allergic to it. However, the man who often, in accordance with the old Horatio Alger ideology, maintains his own "upward social mobility" draws from it at least some narcissistic gratifications and felicitously anticipates internally a status which he ultimately hopes to attain in reality. [my emphasis]
He also addresses the superficially odd combination of hyperconservatism and identification with traditional values, on the one hand, and revolutionary/subversive rhetoric on the other. The latter is a common feature of gun-proliferation advocates and neo-Confederates, both of which are very common in today's Republican Party base, despite the recent image problems of the Confederate battle flag.

Rand "Baby Doc" Paul used such a combination last night when talking about his opposition to same-sex marriage and his support of religious-liberty arguments to justify persecution of LGBT people outside of the personal-life and church contexts:

Look, I don't want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington. And if people have an opinion, it's a religious opinion that is heartly felt, obviously they should be allowed to practice that and no government should interfere with them. One of the things, one of the things that really got to me was the thing in Houston where you had the government, the mayor actually, trying to get the sermons of ministers. When the government tries to invade the church to enforce its own opinion on marriage, that's when it's time to resist. [my emphasis]
Baby Doc was carefully hinting that resistance with guns against the lesbian mayor of Houston might have been justified in the issue to which he refers (and describes inaccurately).

The urban-legend analysis site Snopes explains the incident to which Baby Doc referred in Houston Hustle 10/17/2014. (Short version: it wasn't what conspiracy-theory fan Baby Doc made it sound like.) See also: Katie Zavadski, Is Houston’s Lesbian Mayor Really Out to Get Conservative Preachers? New York 10/15/2014, who explains that Houston's Mayor Annise Parker, actually criticized attorneys working on behalf of the city over the subpoena in a case which, like many topics that the Republicans and other conspiracy theorists blow up into tales of persecution, was actually a fairly obscure legal question on a narrow issue.

Adorno notes that for subjects who scored high on the authoritarianism scale, conspiracy theories were among their "favorite subjects." (p. 709)

He also notes that "conspiracy fantasies ... are so highly characteristic of the usurper complex." (p. 689) The topic of the "usurper complex" focused on Franklin Roosevelt during the time the study was done. It's notable that the theme of usurper has become now a standard Republican attitude toward Democratic President. And not just for official partisans. Sally Quinn's famous column expressing the contempt of the Beltway Village toward Bill Clinton, In Washington, That Letdown Feeling Washington Post 11/02/1998, gives great examples of this. She quotes the man who was for many years called The Dean Of The Washington Press Corps: "'He [Clinton] came in here and he trashed the place,' says Washington Post columnist David Broder, 'and it's not his place.'"

The usurper charge has more recently been embodied by the "birthers" like Donald Trump who have insisted that the first African-American President wasn't born in the US and is therefore ineligible to be President.

Adorno quotes an accountant in their study who:

... states quite clearly and in fairly objective terms the contradiction which seems at the hub of anti-Roosevelt sentiment:

Subject did not like Roosevelt because of WP A. It creates a class of lazy people who would rather get $20 a week than work. She feels that Roosevelt did not accomplish what he set out to do - raise the standard of the poorer classes.
The conceptions of communist, internationalist, and war-monger are close to another one previously mentioned-that of the snob. Just as the fascist agitator persistently mixes up radicals and bankers, claiming that the latter financed the revolution and that the former seek financial gains, the contradictory ideas of an ultraleftist and an exclusive person alienated from the people are brought together by anti-Roosevelt sentiment. One may venture the hypothesis that the ultimate content of both objections is the same: the resentment of the frustrated middle-class person against those who represent the idea of happiness, be it by wanting other people-even the "lazy ones" - to be happy, be it that they are enjoying life themselves. This irrationality can be grasped better on the level of personality than on that of ideology. [my emphasis]

Obviously, the rage of Republicans against the lazy is a favorite topic of conservation and of campaign appeals to "individual responsibility."

Adorno also notes the wide latitude that foreign policy gives leaders to offer a focus for expressing aggression and rage:

During the last several years all the propaganda machinery of the country has been devoted to promoting anticommunist feeling in the sense of an irrational "scare" and there are probably not many people, except followers of the "party line," who have been able to resist the incessant ideological pressure. At the same time, during the past two or three years it may have become more "conventional" to be overtly opposed to anti-Semitism, if the large number of magazine articles, books, and films with wide circulation can be regarded as symptomatic of a trend. The underlying character structure has little bearing on such fluctuations. If they could be ascertained, they would demonstrate the extreme importance of propaganda in political matters. Propaganda, when directed to the antidemocratic potential in the people, determines to a large extent the choice of the social objects of psychological aggressiveness. (p. 726) [my emphasis]
The pseudoconservatives of the postwar period still showed signs of prewar Isolationism. Hofstadter wrote of the pseudocon, "He is the most bitter of all our citizens about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the next one."

But the underlying nationalist belligerence was still there. The "libertarian" trend represented most prominently by Baby Doc Paul today has a similar posture. Baby Doc is critical of aspects US war policy. But he wants to bomb ISIS anyway.

Least surprising of all to those familiar with American politics is that subjects scoring high on the authoritarianism scale also expressed a higher intensity of white racism against blacks. This is from the chapter by William Morrow, Criminality and Antidemocratic Trends: A Study of Prison Inmates:

In the interviews, the principal traits ascribed to Negroes by high scorers are uninhibited sexuality, "laziness," "dirtiness," crude aggression, asocial acquisitiveness (petty thievery), pathological (infantile) lying, and exhibitionism. In a word, Negroes are held to be characterized by "untamed instincts," which keep them "primitive" and "childish." This imagery is partly expressed in questionnaire Item p: Negroes are "lazy, ignorant, and without self-control."

The most conventional of the prejudiced interviewees, Robert, summarizes this idea in general terms: "They have more of a primitive nature ... just want to exist as the cannibal type of man." The fascists tend to be more picturesque: "They're very closely linked with the jungle. They're built for it" (Floyd). Or, Negroes "originated from the apes" (Buck), and are "still half-African savage, no matter how dressed up they get" (Adrian).

Digby in Untitled Hullabaloo 08/06/2015 comments on the importance of race for the authoritarian base voters of today's Republican Party:

For all the blabber about Trump being the avatar of "tell-it-like-it-is", anti-Washington fervor, they [Republican base voters] really just love him for articulating their hatred for people who don't look and sound like them. That's what powers right wing populism, here and elsewhere. Sure they are against Big Gummint and bailouts etc. But mostly they just hate foreigners and African Americans taking things they don't deserve.

Regular Republican elites are nervous about all this because they can see the demographic problem they face nationally if large numbers of young American Latinos come to identify as Democrats and see Republicans as their enemies. (Party ID tends not to change.) It wouldn't last forever but it's likely to be a problem for quite some time, particularly since Mexican and Central American migration is different than earlier waves of immigration. It's always there. [my emphasis]

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