Our Authoritarian Moment

Over the years we’ve talked a lot about right-wing authoritarianism here on The Mahablog. I’ve said in the past that much of the U.S. political and social Right amounts to an authoritarian movement dressed up to look like populism. That was before Trump; now it’s twice as true.

Tom Edsall has a column up called “The Contract With Authoritarianism.” He calls the Trump Administration an “authoritarian moment,” but he also notes that this moment has roots in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Actually it has roots that go back a long time before that Richard Hofstadter wrote about right-wing authoritarians (which he called pseudo-conservatives) back in the 1950s and 1960s, and he traced their origins to several decades before that.

Anyway, Edsall notes some new books coming out analyzing our current political climate in terms of authoritarians versus people who genuinely appreciate liberty and autonomy. One of the book authors wrote, “Authoritarianism is now more deeply bound up with partisan identities. It has become part and parcel of Republican identity among non-Hispanic white Americans.” Another said,

Over the last few decades, party allegiances have become increasingly tied to a core dimension of personality we call “openness.” Citizens high in openness value independence, self-direction, and novelty, while those low in openness value social cohesion, certainty, and security. Individual differences in openness seem to underpin many social and cultural disputes, including debates over the value of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, law and order, and traditional values and social norms.

Johnston notes that personality traits like closed mindedness, along with aversion to change and discomfort with diversity, are linked to authoritarianism:

As these social and cultural conflicts have become a bigger part of our political debates, citizens have sorted into different parties based on personality, with citizens high in openness much more likely to be liberals and Democrats than those low in openness. This psychological sorting process does not line up perfectly with older partisan differences based on class, because those higher in income and education also tend to be higher in openness.

So, in our endless squabbles over whether Trump voters were more motivated by economic anxiety or by racism, the answer seems to be that economic anxiety and racism are part and parcel of the same syndrome. The decades-long pattern of disappearing manufacturing, mining and other once-secure jobs and reduced opportunity in much of “red” America fuels resistance to other changes such as increasing racial and social diversity. And for decades our so-called “liberal” leadership in the Democratic Party has allowed this situation to fester without really addressing it in any comprehensive way. Republicans never addressed it either, of course, but then Republicans never even pretended to be for working people, until recently.

If you understand all this, it’s clear that what’s fueling much of our gun craziness is plain old fear. Firearm rights activists may talk about liberty, but what they mean by that is security. They are obsessed with being able to defend themselves against whatever frightens them. And, of course, to many of us their fears are irrational; the proliferation of guns (plus fear) themselves are a bigger threat. (See “Guns are responsible for the largest share of U.S. homicides in over 80 years, federal mortality data shows.”) But no amount of reasoning will help them see that.

Plus, people who genuinely value liberty do not use intimidation to deprive others of liberty. Intimidation is the tool of authoritarianism. In particular, what is “open carry” about but the right to intimidate?

This week the Right worked itself up into a frenzy because of reports of a caravan — which included women and children escaping violence — that was moving north through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

With a sarcastic half-smile, Nikolle Contreras, 27, surveyed her fellow members of the Central American caravan, which President Trump has called dangerous and has used as a justification to send troops to the border.

More than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, waited patiently on Wednesday in the shade of trees and makeshift shelters in a rundown sports complex in this Mexican town, about 600 miles south of the border. They were tired, having slept and eaten poorly for more than a week. All were facing an uncertain future.

“Imagine that!” said Ms. Contreras, a Honduran factory worker hoping to apply for asylum in the United States. “So many problems he has to solve and he gets involved with this caravan!”

The migrants, most of them Hondurans, left the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula on March 25 and for days traveled north en masse — by foot, hitchhiking and on the tops of trains — as they fled violence and poverty in their homelands and sought a better life elsewhere.

This sort of collective migration has become something of an annual event around Easter week, and a way for advocates to draw more attention to the plight of migrants.

If you were paying no attention to right-wing media you might not have heard of any of this, but I take it the Right went full-scale insane about the caravan. Trump watches Fox News, so he’s ordered National Guard to patrol the border. Meanwhile, a Latina friend on Facebook wrote,

It got so bad even a writer for Breitbart told people to chill.

The coverage became so distorted that it prompted a reporter for Breitbart News who covers border migration, Brandon Darby, to push back. “I’m seeing a lot of right media cover this as ‘people coming illegally’ or as ‘illegal aliens.’ That is incorrect,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are coming to a port of entry and requesting refugee status. That is legal.”

In an interview, Mr. Darby said it was regrettable that the relatively routine occurrence of migrant caravans — which organizers rely on as a safety-in-numbers precaution against the violence that can happen along the trek — was being politicized. “The caravan isn’t something that’s a unique event,” he said. “And I think people are looking at it wrong. If you’re upset at the situation, it’s easier to be mad at the migrant than it is to be mad at the political leaders on both sides who won’t change the laws.”

(Do keep reading ‘You Hate America!’: How the ‘Caravan’ Story Exploded on the Right.)

So, in other words, Trump is sending National Guard to the border not because there’s a crisis, but because of a routine movement of refugees seeking legal asylum from violence. But this is what authoritarians thrive on — manufactured fear and intimidation.

Another of the authors of the new books on authoritarianism wrote that “Western liberal democracies have now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate them.” I am reminded of the work of Erich Fromm, the psychiatrist and philosopher who escaped Nazi Germany and had witnessed the rise of the Third Reich firsthand:

We have seen, then, that certain socioeconomic changes, notably the decline of the middle class and the rising power of monopolistic capital, had a deep psychological effect. … Nazism resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. It mobilized its emotional energies to become an important force in the struggle for the economic and political aims of German imperialism. …

…It was the irrational doubt which springs from the isolation and powerlessness of an individual whose attitude toward the world is one of anxiety and hatred. This irrational doubt can never be cured by rational answers; it can only disappear if the individual becomes an integral part of a meaningful world. [From Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights]

And, again, I blame politicians of both parties for this. Globalism may be an overall good for economies, but too many people were left behind and people in power made no attempt to address their legitimate grievances. And now a large part of our population is uncomfortable with western liberal democracy — as Fromm wrote, they are afraid of genuine freedom — and long instead for the order and security that authoritarianism promises. This is a much deeper problem than just “racism.” I wrote in 2016,

We all have a deep need for a sense of connection to others and belonging to whatever society we are planted in, Fromm said. People who are jerked around and treated as disposable cogs for too long are likely to lose that sense of connection or belonging. And then they are likely to give themselves to an authoritarian dictator, because through him they think they will find power. That’s really what Trump was promising — stick with me, and you’ll share in my power. The system won’t kick you around any more.

There’s no question there’s a lot of racism and sexism and nativism and a lot of other things going on with Trump voters that cannot be tolerated or overlooked. My argument is that those isms are symptoms, not causes, but to deal with those symptoms requires making changes than enable alienated people to become integral parts of a meaningful world. And that won’t begin until we address their economic concerns a lot more seriously and aggressively than we have since Franklin Roosevelt’s day.

But we are reaping the consequences of non-action, and both political parties are to blame for it.