Mass Psychology in the Age of Trump

tags: liberals, Trump

John T. Jost is Professor of Psychology and Politics and Co-Director of the Center for Social and Political Behavior at New York University. Orsolya Hunyady  is a Psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.

… Social scientists have long known that highly threatening historical periods are accompanied by an increase in authoritarianism in the general population. Thus, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a predictable uptick in support for authoritarian conservatism, as well as decreased commitment to tolerance and the protection of civil liberties. Similar shifts have occurred in response to bombing and terrorist attacks in India, Israel, and throughout Europe. The fear of terrorism has broadened to encompass the so-called “migrant crisis.” And there is plenty of reason for economic anxiety after 40 years of flat wages (despite increased worker productivity) under capitalist economic systems that have become more and more efficient at exploiting resources of labor.

Whatever the proximal psychological causes, we are bearing witness—all over the world—to the rebirth of extreme right-wing movements that thrive under conditions of anxiety. These movements promise a return to “traditional” (often religious) values, a curtailing of reproductive and other rights of women (as well as sexual minorities), and a revival of nationalistic (often ethnic) pride and the “restoration” of national boundaries, along with a dismantling of the “administrative” welfare state and the imposition of illiberal reforms and vindictive immigration policies. Once in power, they flirt with (and sometimes embrace) totalitarian practices, such as intimidating and even incarcerating protestors, journalists, academics, and any others whom they find potentially threatening or disruptive. With the support of conservative voters, illiberal governments have gained power in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many other countries. Radical right-wing parties are also resurgent in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. Understanding mass psychology in this day and age, and the ways in which authoritarian politicians have so successfully tapped into it, is of paramount importance for understanding how this happened and how it can be fought; that is, for the long-term preservation of democratic systems.

Even before Donald Trump was elected President, many worried that his campaign style signaled a sea change in American politics—a new danger that right-wing authoritarianism would finally triumph at home. Other Republicans had been accused of dog-whistle politics, using coded language to cue fairly subtle racial biases, but Trump makes comments that come off as overtly, unabashedly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. To some citizens, these comments are taken as evidence of Trump’s authenticity—a breath of “fresh air”—and principled opposition to “political correctness.” To others, it has been shocking to see a successful candidate for President using crass language and defending violence. According to Time, Trump said he’d “like to punch protesters in the face and offered to pay the legal fees of supporters who did.” His rallies were “punctuated by his roar—‘Get ’em out!’—when a dissenter [began] chanting or raising a sign.”

The reality of the situation throws into stark relief the fact that political scientists today are working with an impoverished conception of authoritarianism—one that emphasizes little more than child-rearing values of obedience and conformity. Contemporary researchers often distance themselves from Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, in part because of methodological problems that were not as obvious in the 1940s as they are now, but also because these authors were influenced by Marx and Freud, who have fallen out of fashion. Some social scientists have backed off from using the concept of authoritarianism altogether for fear of alienating social conservatives. Others simply put a smiley face on authoritarianism, claiming that in-group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the desire for “purity” are legitimate moral values that liberals ought to respect rather than suspect.

It is worth recalling that [after World War 2 Theodor W.] Adorno and his colleagues identified nine characteristics of the authoritarian syndrome (not just one or two or three): (1) aggression against those who deviate from “the norm,” (2) submission to idealized moral authorities, (3) uncritical acceptance of conventional values, (4) mental rigidity and a proclivity to engage in stereotypical thinking, (5) a preoccupation with toughness and power, (6) exaggerated sexual concerns, (7) a reluctance to engage in introspection, (8) a tendency to project undesirable traits onto others, and (9) destructiveness and cynicism about human nature. These characteristics provide an uncanny description of Donald Trump. It is as if he has been doing authoritarianism by the book….

Read entire article at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

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