In the first two posts in the series called “Healing the Authoritarian Wound” I described 20 traits and behaviors of the authoritarian personality, 20 of the “terrible 30” traits and behaviors characteristic of authoritarians. In this post, I’ll continue with the last 10, rounding out the picture. If you’re interested in helping me with my primary research in this area, please take a look at my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire with an eye towards perhaps completing it. That would be much appreciated!
Here, then, are the last 10 of the “terrible 30” traits and behaviors of the authoritarian personality.
21. Lack of Compassion and Empathy.
If an authoritarian’s agenda is hatred-and-punishment, it will not serve him to access his compassion, empathy, or humanity. It isn’t that he doesn’t possess these qualities or skills—indeed, he may act very compassionately toward his dog or, as a conman, have honed his empathic skills beautifully. Rather, they don’t connect to or serve his central agenda. As respondent Mark explained, “When a co-worker of mine explained to our (very authoritarian) boss that he needed to leave early on a Friday because his wife was having a medical procedure, my boss replied, ‘You’re not having the procedure, are you?’ It was in a way—in a horrible way—fascinating how consistent he was with his lack of compassion toward everyone. You could absolutely count on him not caring.”
22. Conventionalism and Concerns with Social Status
One of the most robust findings across all of the authoritarian literature is the extent to which authoritarians are conventional in their thinking and intensely concerned with their social status and with looking good to others. Respondent Laura explained. “My uncle was the authoritarian in my life. He was a high school teacher and then later a principal. He and his wife were the epitome of enforced normalcy and operated from the oppressive assumption that ‘everyone’ knows what’s done and what isn’t done. They tried to crowd out everything and everyone that wasn’t ‘normal.’ There was something sharp, acrid and poisonous in this insistence on what was normal and I feel it to this day (and I’m in my early 60s.) Whenever my fear of not being accepted comes up, the specter of my uncle and his wife appear.”
23. Submissiveness and Cowardice.
In the authoritarian literature, there is a sharp distinction made between authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers. Both are authoritarians, but they have their significant differences. One major difference is that authoritarian followers, for all their hatred, belligerence, and aggressiveness, are also highly submissive, easily cowed by authority, and cowardly. As respondent Susan explained, “My mother was authoritarian but more of a follower than a leader, although she liked to present herself as strong and independent. When it came time to prove herself and her strength, she never followed through and always submitted to the opinions of others. She was terribly concerned with doing things ‘right’ and cared much more for what others, especially those she considered authorities, thought than what anyone in the family thought or felt. She was never on our side.”
24. Preoccupation with Sex and Promiscuity.
Authoritarians, who are filled with hate, hate it that anyone (themselves sometimes excepted and themselves sometimes included) is enjoying sex or being sexual. Respondent Roberta remembered: “The authoritarian personality in my mother did not emerge until my older sister hit puberty. I remember seeing my sister hide a boy she was dating in our closet—that led to her screaming when my mother held her hands over hot burners to teach her a lesson. My sister remained defiant—for instance, she would simply toss her sanitary napkins in the bathroom trash can. So as to teach her another lesson, mom made a soup out of those gathered used bloody napkins and forced her to drink some. I responded by being the most compliant, respectful girl imaginable. I was terrified by what I was witnessing.”
One way to punish is to destroy. Authoritarians are destructive—toward individuals, toward whole groups, and toward objects, too. As respondent Bill explained, “I was raised by an authoritarian father who could be loving at times but who also had an explosive rage. He never hit us but he destroyed objects like the television and the headboards of beds and front doors. His rages were terrifying and my mother never stood up to him and didn’t realize how sick he really was because he had a very fancy job, high up in the New York City business world. If we questioned him, we were screamed at or ridiculed. He was interested in sleeping around with women and making sure we looked good—and when he didn’t get his way he destroyed things.”
Authoritarians hold to the view that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and cynically presume that everyone is essentially as ruthless, exploitative, and self-serving as they are. As respondent Jack put it, “My boss had several pet expressions, all of them sexual and sadistic. One was, ‘Do it to them first—and harder!’ Another was, ‘Come from behind—never let them see you coming!’ His favorite was, ‘If they’re not screaming, you’re not winning!’ He made more money than anybody, bought a penthouse apartment, and came on to his friends’ girlfriends and wives—nothing gave him more pleasure than that. He loved it and it completely matched his cynical picture of life that so many of them ended up betraying their man with him. That really cemented his worldview!”
Authoritarians make use of the people around them while treating them miserably. As respondent Sara explained, “My parents acknowledge my existence and my accomplishments exactly insofar as it benefits them. They treat me as if everything I do in my life is for them to exploit for their own social or personal advancement. If what I’m doing or who I’m in a relationship with doesn’t benefit them or conform to their idea of success, they actively work to destroy it and attack me emotionally, no matter how happy I am and even though I am an adult. When I was in a relationship with a demonstratively abusive man, who was highly professionally accomplished, they encouraged and supported the relationship and closed their eyes to the obvious abuse. They still deny there was abuse and would like to see me together with him again, even though the relationship was horrible.”
28. Loyalty Demands
Authoritarians, though disloyal themselves, demand loyalty from those around them. “Loyalty” in this context translates as “the only principle is me.” Respondents repeatedly report that the authoritarian in their life, without making the slightest effort to earn it, demanded their unqualified loyalty, even if that includes lying and endangering themselves. Respondent Max recalled, “My older brother stole a car. When he got caught, he demanded that I tell the police that I stole it. He took me by the shoulder and said, ‘That’s what a younger brother does for an older brother.’ He actually had the gall to say, ‘You know, nothing matters more than loyalty.’ I looked him in the eye and said ‘No freaking way.’ We haven’t spoken since.”
29. Narcissism and Superficial Charm
You would not mistake most authoritarians for charm school graduates. But a certain percentage manifest a calculated narcissistic charm, especially in social situations and especially around strangers. As respondent Beverly put it, “My mother, my two sisters and I lived in fear of my father. He was an Air Force pilot, alcoholic, perfectionist, artist, cook, and voracious learner. I had tremendous admiration for him but a deep resentment of his drinking and his iron hand, which he exhibited almost exclusively when he drank. When he wasn’t drinking, he could be jovial, playful, and fun to be around—truly charming. But we all knew what resided just below that charm, which was why we were always cowering.”
30. Consistent Authoritarianism
Authoritarians are consistently themselves. That doesn’t mean that they are always punishing, ridiculing, yelling, destroying or “looking authoritarian.” Rather, it means that there is a consistent logic to their behaviors and completely understandable why they might be cynically charming one moment, aggressively tyrannical the next, passive and cowardly the next, and so on. As respondent Paul put it, “My dad could be sitting quietly reading the newspaper—and still, you knew exactly who he was and exactly what he was capable of. It didn’t matter if he happened to be patting the dog or whistling a tune—all that was needed for him to turn terrible was some stray thought passing through his head. He didn’t need provocation, though he was always looking for provocation; he didn’t need anything. He was a tyrant through and through—weak, sadistic, miserable—whether he was screaming or singing a show tune.”
This is a beginning picture of the authoritarian personality and what you can expect from contact with an authoritarian. Subsequent posts will shed additional light on this vital subject, leading to a description of a complete program of self-care for anyone attempting to heal from authoritarian wounding. More to come! And if you would, please fill out my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire. Your participation will be much appreciated!