To Fight and Survive Trump's Presidency, We Must Understand the Appeal of Authoritarianism in All of Us

I’m one of the growing majority of Americans who oppose Trump’s presidency. For us, job one is thwarting him and job two is preventing his successors from continuing his absolutist crusade.

Job three is identifying the root of the wider problem. What is it about us humans that tilts us toward a movement like Trump’s? What makes humans tick—like a time bomb?

If you're over 30, you remember a time when we thought we had discovered the means to defuse the time bomb. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With two world wars behind us and democracy stable and spreading we long harbored a sense that the arc was beginning to bend.

Maybe in the very long run, it’s bending, but the time bomb of human nature may not give us that long. At present, the arc bends toward authoritarianism. Our proud sense that it can’t happen here has proven wrong. Authoritarianism can happen anywhere people are part of the equation.

In this, we’re like a recovering alcoholic, confident he has clawed his way out of the pit of addiction only to find himself sliding back in. Apparently whatever measures the addict took weren’t enough. Time to rethink his prevention plan. And his diagnosis.

It’s a great time for us all, even those who opposed Trump from the start, to wonder what it is in us all that makes the arc bend not toward justice but authoritarianism, the default form of government the world over.

The question has long been central to psychological research. In Freud’s id or Jung’s shadow, we see first attempts to identify what makes us tick in socially destructive ways. These first attempts, while admirable, should not be the last word. We should continue to seek greater precision in identifying the features of the human condition that makes us go wrong at any scale from one-on-one relationships to worldwide society. Here’s my current guess.

It’s not the beliefs we hold but how we hold them—absolutely, as though we have discovered and integrated into our very being an airtight formula for deciding the right response to any situation we feed into the formula. It’s as though we envy computers their certainty. We may fear that people are becoming more like computers, but something in us also wishes we could be computers, programmed with the perfect formula for solving the mystery of living once and for all.

It’s not so much being a know-it-all as a solve-it-all. Give the authoritarian any problem and they’ll output the one perfect solution to it. Sometimes the formula is as simple as “less government is always the answer,” “the word of God is always the answer,” or “kindness is always the answer.” Sometimes it’s a far more complicated formula. No matter how complex it is, it’s absolute and final, the last word forevermore. Authoritarian leaders like Trump pretend they have such a formula. Authoritarian followers believe them.

So what is it about us that would find such formulas alluring, especially given their history of failing miserably? Hoax springs eternal. There’s a sucker born every minute, unaware of all the failed formulas in the past. But it’s more than that. It’s that the alternative, surrendering to lifelong guesswork, negotiation, debate, unlearning, and learning is excruciating.

Freedom from self-doubt is a formula’s fundamental allure. All else is window dressing including whatever philosophy one’s authoritarianism embodies. We see it in the way the formulas are wielded, never consistently, always with plenty of wiggle room by which the crusader who wields it can remain doubt-free, as though he has climbed up the one true path to the one true and highest plateau, never at risk of falling again.

Such formulas with their self-serving wiggle room are what license proud hypocrisy, confident claims to be living in complete compliance with the formula while doing whatever the hell one wants.

Trump is a controlled experiment in this allure. What’s his vision? What is he crusading for? No one knows and his followers don’t care. He’s an authoritarian without a cause. One thing’s for certain – he is certain he has the formula that frees him from all uncertainty.  His followers lap it up.

Often we hear more about what authoritarians are against than what they’re for. They’re all against some existential threat, barbarians at the gate ready to tear it down and slaughter us if we don’t act with unified conformist resolve.

And these barbarians, what drives them? Some other flavor of the same authoritarianism.  Christian authoritarians are merely defending against Muslim authoritarians who are merely defending against Muslim authoritarians. Capitalist authoritarians are merely defending against communist authoritarians who are merely defending against capitalist authoritarians.

There ought to be a grand authoritarian coalition: Authoritarians Against Authoritarianism.

Stepping back, and ignoring the distracting content of authoritarian campaigns, what we find is a world populated by people who claim an end to their guesswork at a cost to everyone else’s.

“I’ve done all the thinking I’ll ever have to do. I’m done hoping I’m right. I know I am. You, on the other hand, are wrong, so you better start rethinking everything until you too embrace my formula. I’m just trying to unify the world around what’s right, and I’ve got it already, so you had better start doubting yourself.”

Now so far, this might read like the shit other people do, not me, not you, not us because we can see the problem. The problem is simply other people’s authoritarian tendencies.

That is not how to look at this problem. While some people are far more receptive to authoritarianism than others, the vast majority of us are far more receptive to authoritarianism than we think. We all find other people’s authoritarianism repugnant, but how about one that resonates with our deepest, dearest assumptions, an authoritarianism after our own hearts gathering momentum among the people we trust and depend upon? Research shows that most of us would fall toward one or another authoritarianism. None of us are exempt from the risk.

And why? Because it’s not just the psychologically deficient who find the guesswork of real life excruciating. We all do.

To have doubts open up about your lifelong assumptions and commitments is a bit like discovering that you’ve got cancer. The news hits and you’re in for a whole lot of work, pain, disappointment, and loss you hadn’t counted on. And it may not end well. You’d have to be more selfless than any of us are to really welcome with open arms news that your deep assumptions require rethinking.

Finding The Formula would be like landing on the platform after tightrope walking at high altitude in high winds. Such a relief! No more balancing act no more shifting your weight around to try to maintain balance. 

Given our universal practical dread of doubt and our compensatory craving for some kind of doubt-proof formula, we need a way to both accommodate the dread while curbing the craving.

I’m serious about Authoritarians Against Authoritarians. We should admit to the universal appetite for certainty and even accommodate it in each other. We should allow each other to grandstand about our formulas some, but design society in ways that prevent any authoritarianism from escalating toward dominance. What does that entail? Checks and balances like the ones being tested to their limits these days, but also universal public education in the American way, the old way, democracy as protection against the demagogic urge that lives in all of us. 


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