Election 2016

How Donald Trump Has Brought America's Darkest Political Obsessions and Beliefs Into The Open

Trump shows wide hunger for authoritarian leaders.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) A. Katz

Authoritarian leader personality-type and would-like-to-be-president, Donald Trump, after decades in the glare of media attention, instinctively understands exactly how to manipulate the fourth estate better than any political figure in modern America. By being himself, he is taking the country to school on how to dominate public attention with his inflammatory rhetoric, which he intuitively employs through unfiltered social media.

In the event you have been living in a cave, here is a very small sample of his increasingly offensive (to most people) comments. His comments are uniquely representative authoritarian personality behavior, and, in this case, of a man who has managed to place himself on the national stage where we can all better observe an authoritarian at work. This is Trump being himself. (Recently I spoke with an attorney who has been involved in a number of real estate disputes with Trump, over many years, who said Trump acts in a very similar fashion in his business dealings. He insults and belittles opponents, and is an extremely sore loser, whose standard operating procedure is to try to bully and bend the rules his way.)

Trump on Right Wingers. After calling presidential candidate Pat Buchanan a “Hitler lover” in October, 1999, Trump (temporarily) resigned from the Republican Party, hinting he would run for president. Regarding the leading current intellectual at Fox News, Charles Krauthammer, Trump tweeted (June 4, 2015): “One of the worst and most boring political pundits on television is @krauthammer. A totally overrated clown who speaks without knowing the facts.” He continued, “@krauthammer pretends to be a smart guy, but if you look at his record, he isn’t.”

Trump on Women. “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision,” (October 14, 2015). “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America,” (April 16, 2015). Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly raised Trump’s sexist behavior at the first GOP debate on August 6, 2015, reminding him: ”You have called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’, and ‘disgusting animals,” which resulted in his later calling Kelly a “bimbo,” who was bleeding from her “whatever.”

Trump on Immigration. After announcing he would deport some eleven million illegal Mexicans from the United States (“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”), and building a wall along the southern border of the country (to be paid for by Mexico), he has, in the wake of the ISIL-inspired terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, turned to Muslims. Initially he wanted them all registered in a database, but when his poll numbers softened in Iowa, he toughened his stance, igniting a new news media firestorm.

Trump Outdoing Trump: Most recently, on December 7, 2015, when Trump called for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he lit a fuse he understood would explode worldwide. This is not to say he understood what he was doing, for he is not a person who thinks through his actions, rather trusts his impulses, for he is good at correcting his blunders as he proceeds. Trump did not fully understand what he was doing in calling for a blanket ban that would also prevent American Muslims from returning home. (It appears Trump was unaware that Muslims have been in this country longer than his own family, that they are approaching two percent of our population, that they serve in our military, and they are the second largest religion in the world after Christianity.) So he tweaked his blunder, and without missing a beat, he doubled down on his ban to reach only on “foreign Muslims,” which the New York Times discovered might be constitutional.

Notwithstanding the overreaction of the news media, which included other Republican leaders gently rebuking Trump’s “un-American” and unprecedented religious test for entering the United States, it now appears that rank and file Republicans actually like Trump’s foreign Muslim ban. It appears that Trump was telling Republicans what they wanted to hear, which has only reinforced his position as the GOP front-runner, and has undoubtedly bolstered his confidence in his own instincts and that he can continue to bluff and blunder his way toward the nomination, because he is smarter than everyone else, and he can double talk himself in politics like he has in business, for he is a natural born con man. This is how authoritarian leaders think.

The more rational and experienced Republican Party leaders view it differently. They understand that while Trump’s demagogy might win him the nomination it will not win the general election, and it may destroy the GOP. Not only will the Republican Party stand to lose the White House with Trump as the standard-bearer, but Trump could help them lose one or both houses of Congress.

Frankly, I find Donald Trump’s presidential bid absolutely fascinating for it lays bare the often hidden nature of authoritarian politics. I do not find Trump’s over-the-top and politically dangerous rhetoric threatening, because I am a confident that the sun will rise in the morning and that Trump will never be our nation’s president. But his candidacy is revealing a potentially virulent strain in American politics: authoritarianism.

I wrote in July when Trump became a serious candidate that he is a textbook example of the authoritarian leader personality. He checks off every box on the list of authoritarian traits. As I have explained on other occasions these personalities are typically male; they are dominating; they oppose equality; they are desirous of personal power; they are amoral, intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, and dishonest; they will cheat to win; they are highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, and/or homophobic), mean-spirited, militant, and nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of “suckers,” and specialize in creating false images to sell themselves. They may or may not be religious, but usually they are both political and economic conservatives and/or Republicans.

Authoritarian leaders, of course, need followers. These are the people who social science describes as authoritarians as well in their willingness to follow such dominating and often blunderbuss leaders. As I explained in July, these followers typically have traits which somewhat mirror those of authoritarian leaders: “authoritarian followers are both men and women, who tend to be highly conventional, always and easily submissive to authority, while willing to work aggressively on behalf of such an authority. They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education, trusting of untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (e.g., with respect to gay marriage); they are typically mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive; they also demand loyalty and return it, have little self-awareness, and are typically politically and economically conservative Republicans.”

What is not known, rather can only be roughly estimated, is how many Republicans are actually “authoritarian followers.” I noted in July that from my data collection over the years, “I have come to believe that somewhere between a quarter and half of registered Republicans are authoritarians, not to mention they are the activist base of the party.” There are also a few authoritarian followers in the ranks of the Democrats. In short, there are enough authoritarian personalities in the GOP to nominate Trump. But there are nowhere near enough of these people to elect a such a domineering personality president. To the contrary, for good reason the overwhelming numbers of Americans who vote in presidential elections are fearful of authoritarian leaders like Trump, and they have never been able to appeal to others outside their natural authoritarian base.

One of the fascinating aspects of Trump’s candidacy is the information it is revealing about authoritarian politics. More specifically, Trump’s over-the-top call to at least temporarily ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States is providing telling data about how many authoritarian followers may reside in the GOP, not to mention a few who call themselves Democrats. It is not unreasonable to believe that those who support Trump’s thoughtless and fear-driven proposal are likely authoritarian follow-the-leader type personalities. (Social science testing shows authoritarian personalities are basically frightened people, which authoritarian leaders instinctively seek to exploit.)

The headlines from the first polling on this issue indicate Trump hit another home run with Republicans: “Bloomberg Politics Poll: Nearly Two-Thirds of Likely GOP Primary Voters Back Trump’s Muslim Ban; More than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him, according to an online PulsePoll conducted by Purple Strategies on Tuesday.” If these poll numbers can be transposed to indicate the number of authoritarian followers—and there certainly does appear to be a direct correlation—then there may be as many as 65 percent of Republicans who are such personalities. As the Bloomberg polls reveal, however, only 37 percent of all voters supported Trump’s ban, with 75 percent of Democrats flat-out rejecting it.

It must be remembered that Trump’s authoritarian politics are no guarantee he will win the GOP nomination because ALL the Republican presidential candidates are authoritarian leader type personalities. For some GOP authoritarian followers, many of whom are evangelical Christians, Trump’s multi-wives high-living lifestyle may turn them to one of the other candidates, like Ted Cruz, an authoritarian with views closer to their own.

We are going to know a lot more about authoritarian politics when the 2016 presidential race is completed. And Trump’s upfront and out-there authoritarianism has certainly made it more interesting.

 

John Dean was White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973 before resigning in the Watergate scandal. His most recent New York Times bestseller is The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. Other books include: The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment that Redefined the Supreme Court (2001), Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004), Conservatives Without Conscience (2006) and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (2008).

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