“Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”:
Trump and Authoritarianism
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
August 7, 2016
All over the globe, including here in the U.S., there is a resurgence of
muscular authoritarian politics. How that trend unfolds and is enforced
varies country by country, but the core is recognizably neo-fascist, to a
lesser or greater degree, often emerging from the extreme right wing.
This rise of authoritarianism is as true in Turkey as it is in Russia, in
the turbulent greater Middle East as it is in the Philippines — and, of
course, as it is in the Trump movement in America.
To be sure, there are occasional left-wing strongmen as well, but these
days, most of the autocratic rulers seem to congregate on the far-right edge
of the political spectrum.
It behooves those of us dedicated to the viability of democratic
institutions to try to understand the genesis of this rising authoritarian
movement in order to better counter its brutal programs and policies and its
In this essay, I’ll be focusing on what’s happening in the U.S., and
pointing to a commonality on the global scale.
“STOP THE WORLD, I WANT TO GET OFF!”
The major changes taking place all over the world — in technology, in
medicine, in income inequality, in gender roles, in the law, in sexual
mores, in world trade, and so on — are coming at all of us with such
rapidity that it’s almost dizzying. American society likewise is undergoing
these ground-breaking changes at near-warp speed.
The upcoming generation, especially those in their 20s and 30s, seems more
comfortable in adapting to these rapid sociological/technological shifts.
Older citizens, possibly more frightened by rapid change, often seek succor
in the old-fashioned mores and verities and behaviors. Status quo ante
as comfort food, so to speak.
Demagogues and would-be autocrats — in the U.S., read: Trump — play on that
fear of rapid change, and promise a return to a (mostly fictional) quieter,
less-chaotic time and pace, when everything and everybody kept to their
ordained place. Those well-ordered societies didn’t feel the need to deal
with seismic shifts in demographic and economic trends or with issues
arising from waves of new immigrants.
The order-imposers, the police, were, if not universally respected,
universally feared and obeyed, no questions asked. In today’s
cell-phone-camera world, tweeting millennials are demolishing that
THE LEADER ON A WHITE HORSE
When societies seem to be spinning out of control, when the traditional
center no longer holds, when citizens’ frustrations and fears reach critical
mass, the temptation arises to fall behind a leader promising a rescue by
cracking heads and bringing rigid order to roiling societies: the
stereotyped strongman on a white horse.
In the 1930s in key countries, it was a Hitler in Germany, a Mussolini in
Italy, a Stalin in the USSR, a Franco in Spain, et al. In our own time, it’s
a Putin in Russia, an Erdogan in Turkey, a Xi in China, a Thaksin in
Thailand, a Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a Duterte in the Philippines, an al-Sisi in
Egypt — and,
our own homegrown Mussolini in America, Donald J. Trump.
It must be understood that these authoritarians often differ widely in their
origins (Erdogan, for example, assumed power through elections) and methods
of operation, degree of brutality, etc. Every society has a multiplicity of
forces affecting its manner of governance. There is no one template that
explains the various expressions of authoritarianism across the globe.
But there are enough similarities to draw some tentative conclusions.
*For example, there is often a strong religious component:
fundamentalism in the U.S., militant Islam in many Moslem countries.
Religion provides certainty, simple answers, a set of strict norms and
*There is often a dread fear of “The
Other,” outsiders, foreigners. Immigrants and minorities — and women —
often bear the brunt of this fear.
*There often is a fear of change brought about by developments in
science and technology. Many authoritarian rulers crack down on sources
of information they can’t easily control: the internet, the press,
social media, etc.
*Because reality is so frightening and frustrating, authoritarians
invent their own realities. (Remember the George W. Bush adviser who
justified the administration’s lies and arrogance with this assertion:
“You are part of the old reality-based culture; we are an empire now; we
make our own reality?”)
*Those with authoritarian proclivities tend to look to a strong,
domineering leader to carry them over the shoals of their disorienting
confusions and their inchoate angers and frustrations.
*These followers tend to see these charismatic leaders as generally
flawless. What they assert is accepted as truth. And they don’t tell
lies. When the leader they trust is caught out having told lies, he is
excused because his lie is in the service of his justifiable agenda or
is deemed excusable because his behavior is sanctioned by religious
HARD-WIRED FOR AUTHORITARIANISM
Conservatives have a "heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty,"
notes one social researcher quoted by John W. Dean in his insightful 2006
“Conservatives Without Conscience.”
Authoritarianism and fundamentalism, you see, seem to provide a safe harbor,
a simple "quiet" way in the midst of all the world's ambiguity and "noise,"
that helps in dealing with the frightening and contradictory cacophony
outside the religion. There is good and there is evil, a right way and a
wrong way, Revealed Truth and dangerous falsehood, you're with us or with
our enemies, that sort of simplistic understanding of the world. “Gott mit
Uns” -- God is on our side, so why should we compromise with or pay
attention to those who do not believe in The Truth?
But, says Dean, in addition to the doctrinal underpinnings, something in the
personality of many fundamentalist religious leaders, and their followers,
may be working even more strongly: a built-in tendency toward
He quotes from voluminous studies by social psychologist/researcher Bob
Altemeyer, who -- after examining the attitude of tens of thousands of
subjects in interviews and questionnaires -- concluded that "acceptance of
traditional religious beliefs appear to have more to do with having a
personality rich in authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and
conventionalism, than with the beliefs per se."
So keep this in mind when observing how primed-for-violence Trump
supporters, egged on by The Donald himself, treat those opposed to their
point of view.
As I write this, Trump, according to recent polls, is within the margin of
error in many key states. It is not impossible to believe that despite his
daily outrageous statements — or maybe because of those outbursts (after
all, he is The Finger to the elites so reviled by his base) — he could amass
enough Electoral College electors to actually become President.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
That Trumpian base, loaded with angry, frustrated, authoritarian-hungry
citizens — may hang with him, through thin and thin, all the way to
November. It appears he was voicing a major truth months ago when he said he
could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his polling numbers would not go
down. These are true believers.
Those die-hard Trump supporters seem impervious to traditional, logical
attempts to change their minds, so, how can those of us who believe in
old-fashioned liberal democracy make a dent in his support?
*The post-conventions Democratic plan appears to have abandoned those
ordinary strategies dependent on logic and instead is taking dead-aim at
traditional conservative (“moderate”) Republicans who are appalled by
their party’s nominee and embarrassed to be associated with him. Maybe
they can be peeled away for this one election to vote for Hillary
Clinton or, if not that, to at least stay home on Election Day.
*One would like to believe that eventually Trump — an insecure, ignorant
narcissist — will keep shooting himself in the foot to the point where
he reaches a tipping point and down he goes. But we can’t count on Trump
doing the work for us.
*A further-out hypothesis: Trump will
never accept “loser” status and he doesn’t really want to have to do the
hard work of being the president; he has to be the victim of nefarious
forces aligned against him. So he keeps on keeping on until he’s dropped
or loses, and he can blame those people who knifed him in the electoral
back. With his supporters in place, he can then remain the major domo of
the extremist right, with his very own storm troopers.
*No, as Bernie Sanders reminded us, our current political-revolution
battle is not only about who gets the most electoral and popular votes
on November 8, but who is also willing to stay organized and push the
revolution/reform ball forward to combat the authoritarian cohort and
push them to the political sidelines. Unless we do that, our work will
have been largely in vain as new, more-sophisticated Donald Trumps
emerge to drag our democracy downward into the mud of bad history.
That's why the down-ballot voting is so important. Retaking the Senate
and House would be an enormous head start in the electoral/political battle.
But even if Trump and the other extremists are denied an electoral victory,
the struggle continues on November 9.
Organize. Organize! ORGANIZE!
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international
relations, has taught at San Diego State, Western Washington State and San
Francisco State Universities, worked as a critic/editor for the San
Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and serves as co-editor of The Crisis
Papers (crisispapers.org). Contact: