Earlier this year a researcher, Matthew MacWilliams, the founder of MacWilliams Sanders, a political communications firm, conducted a survey of registered voters in America. What he found was disturbing and explains the surprise election victory of Donald Trump:
Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.
MacWilliams is correct: authoritarianism has been exhaustively studied in the United States. In 1950, Theodor W. Adorno, the philosopher and guiding light of the Frankfurt School developed a personality test to measure fascist tendencies in the American population. The test - called the California F-Scale (F for "fascist) measured the following attributes:
- Authoritarian submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
- Authoritarian aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
- Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded.
- Superstition and stereotypy. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
- Power and “toughness.” Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension, identification with power-figures; overemphasis on the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.
- Destructiveness and cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
- Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
- Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on.” (Adorno et al. 1982 [1950
Those traits do seem to mirror what we know anecdotally about many Trump supporters.
Does this mean that American democracy is now threatened by a large-scale fascist movement? Probably not, but Adorno wrote something in his study The Authoritarian Personality. Studies in Prejudice. which should give us pause:
Personality patterns that have been dismissed as ‘pathological’ because they were not in keeping with the most common manifest trends or the most dominant ideals within a society, have, on closer investigation, turned out to be but exaggerations of what was almost universal below the surface in that society. What is ‘pathological’ today may, with changing social conditions, become the dominant trend of tomorrow.”
We see this unfolding rapidly in the US with the Trump Campaign and its fallout. Just a few short years ago the "Alt-Right" was viewed as a group of crackpots confined to the fringes of the Web. Now the Alt-Right has become mainstream, with the movement's leader picked to become Donald Trump's chief strategist in the White House. Neo-Nazis like David Duke, Christo-Fascists like Jerry Falwell, Jr., and White Supremacists make regular appearances on cable TV to "balance out" the political reporting. What was fringe is now mainstream. Will America - in the era of Trump - allow it to "become the dominant trend of tomorrow.?"