One strange phenomenon came to characterize the way certain people have been characterizing the rise of Trump in 2016: allegation of authoritarian “personality.”
Supposedly, “authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.” There are problems with this characterization: how do we know if these are really “authoritarians”? The problem is that we don’t. We have precious little hard data to study real authoritarians. We have no reliable survey data from countries governed by real authoritarians like North Korea. We have only limited data from countries with semi-authoritarian governments, like Russia or Singapore. We wind up relying heavily on data from legitimately democratic countries, where the politicians that we deem “authoritarian” are often marginal politicians who appeal to voters of limited economic means and political connections. In other words, we wind up characterizing the attributes of marginalized voters who are excluded from mainstream politics as the characteristics of “authoritarians,” all the more so because they fit our stereotypes of what authoritarians’ support base should look like: surely, legitimate, respectable people would not droop so low as to support authoritarians!
Observes that this echoes the oft-mentioned association of Trump supporters with racism that I noted in a previous post. The notion that would-be-dictators with demagogues call on uncouth folk with low culture has a long history in American intellectual history, going back to Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics. More recently, this has led to potshots taken by liberal academics who accuse the conservatives of havng a naturally ingrained authoritarian tendencies.
But there has never been a real authoritarian in American politics. It may be that these people supported Wallace, Perot, and Buchanan. We know that these folks were outside the respectable “mainstream,” but were they really authoritarians? How do we know that, other than “our” instinctive dislike of them? It is also true, furthermore, that the kind of people who supported such “authoritarians” also (only “probably” in most cases–ANES data only goes so far back) supported Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson. They were also those who formed much of the actual fighting muscle of the Continental Army, even if the leaders came from the Colonial elite. Were these people authoritarians, too? If so, a strange elitist definition of “authoritarian” that would be.
I think this is dangerous, not only because this reflects dangerous and naive ignorance of real authoritarians and their coalition politics, but also an extreme elitist myopia and contempt of those whom they do not understand. An interesting recent essay reflecting on the politics implicit in the movie Idiocracy adds to the latter point. Commonplace though such characterization is, it is little grounded on facts: creationists are often subjected to this treatment, yet, on average, creationists are more, not less, scientifically literate than those who claim to subscribe to evolution. As Kahan observes, this is NOT the product of creationism leading to greater scientific literacy, but rather, the way evolution is taught engenders hostility and distrust from those who, for various cultural reasons, are inclined to accept creationism: creationists often KNOW the basic tenets of evolutionary theories; they just don’t believe them. The real question is not whether creationists or Trump supporters are “wrong,” morally or factually, but why they have trouble trusting their opposite numbers.
I’d been writing for some time already that Trump’s rise (and to a lesser degree, his Democratic mirror image Bernie Sanders) has been fueled by internal institutional paradoxes inherent in institutions. The elites who control the institutions of power do not want to be hamstrung by having to deal with too many hoi polloi whose views they find distasteful and find what excuse they can to exclude them from influence. The allegations of “authortarian personality” seems to strike me as another example of this.
When translated to settings outside the West, this misunderstanding can lead to tragedy. With regards 1979 Iran and again 2013 Egypt, we saw young cosmopolitans rising against authoritarian governments and imagined them representative of the next wave taking on the status quo backed by those with “authoritarian personalities.” It turns out, though, that the “democratic” replacements of the old authoritarian regimes turned out to be even more “authoritarian” in their personality than their predecessor. How could this be? This is because the Western notion of “authoritarianism” is naive and misguided, built on selection bias where the only “authoritarians” are those outside the mainstream. Where the authoritarians are the “mainstream,” it is the “respectable” people who form the backbone of support for the authoritarians. In Mubarak’s Egypt and the Shah’s Iran, as well as the old Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia, a sort of intercommunal equality based on multicultural cosmopolitanism was enforced. All communities got more or less equal share without exclusion as long as they were nominal supporters of the regimes–which all but the few overt opponents were, officially. This makes good sense: building a broader coalition stabilizes their rule, and for the authoritarians, the price of losing power is very high indeed, as it will mean death and destruction for themselves, their entire clans, and perhaps even all their ethnic kin.
In these cases, in fact, the “democrats,” at least those who come close to succeeding, are the exclusionists. In Iran and again in Egypt, the religious constituted the plurality, if not majority, of the society and enjoyed network of social linkages that made mobilizing their supporters relatively easy. They recognized that they were forced to share the resources of the society with those whom they hated–the secularists, the infidels, the heretics, and so forth. By seizing power themselves, they no longer had to put up with their version of hoi polloi. While they might normally lack the power to successfully challenge the authoritarians head on, destabilization of the government due to economic distress or such offers them an opportunity to supplant the equal, “liberal,” but unfree authoritarian regime with an unequal, illiberal “democracy” that only serves the plurality/majority that can organize effectively to the exclusion of others. Fareed Zakaria came close to realizing this, in his book The Future of Freedom, but not to the extent of recognizing how common and institutionally-ingrained societies and governing coalitions self subvert are–that credit belongs to the late great Mancur Olson, in his comparatively less known book, Rise and Decline of Nations, although his argument is rather different in focus and style. Paradoxically, indeed, this explains why so many Syrians are fighting so hard for the Assad regime against the Sunni exclusionists who rebelled against the government or why the military coups that overthrew democratically elected but largely illiberal regimes in Egypt and Thailand were welcomed by cosmopolitan urban elites in these countries.
None of these, I suppose, show that Trump’s supporters are not “authoritian” in their way of thinking or that they are not racists. Rather, my argument is that such things are besides the point: they adhere to some catalyst at times of distress because they have been systematically excluded and marginalized from the mainstream. By focusing on their alleged racism or authoritarianism, all that their critics do is to condemn them for what is that their fault: that they are excluded, that they are in economic distress, and that they are understandably resentful. Indeed, such inclination of smug elite self-justification can only further justify institutional rigging and exacerbate the exclusivist tendencies that instigated the problem in the first place. Perhaps we should learn a bit from the real authoritarians: stability built on broad base of support is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it means having to impose constraints on the “majorities” that can mobilize themselves, who due to inertia and friction common in everyday politics, are invariably reduced to a relative handful of insiders who impose their will without much resistance on the usually apathetic masses. When the masses start reacting differently, perhaps it is not the masses that are the problem, but the smug and self-righteous role the elites assigned to themselves.
PS. There is another post to be added, about stability and democracy. The advantage of democracy, I think, is that it systematically incorporates “stable instability” into politics and society, much the way Fly-by-Wire system allows a plane to achieve greater maneuverability by incorporating inherent aerodynamic instability, kept under control by a computer system that can adjust far more rapidly than a human can. The catch is that planes like F-16 (the first inherently unstable plane) cannot be flown without the computer system. The problem with democracy is that such an ingrained stabilizer is often lacking, and, as per the rise of new technology for electioneering today that allows for greater manipulation, what stabilizing mechanisms there were are now subject to even greater instability. But, like I was saying, that’s for a future update.