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John Dean's Authoritarian Nightmare

Nixon's former attorney talks Trump, authoritarianism, and the Goldwater Rule.

 Melville House Publishing
Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and his Followers, by John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer, was published in August of 2020.
Source: Melville House Publishing

There are some startling statements in John W. Dean's new book, Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers, but the former White House counsel who famously testified against President Nixon about the Watergate scandal is adamant about them all. He backs up his conclusions with 40 years of research by his writing partner, psychology professor Bob Altemeyer, and the survey they conducted on the psychological make-up of President Trump's base.

Among their conclusions:

  • President Trump is an authoritarian leader.
  • Authoritarianism is deeply embedded in America today.
  • Trump's base is compromised of personality types that include social dominators, authoritarian followers, as well as "double highs" who combine the worst traits of the two.
  • Prejudice is the glue that holds this coalition together.
  • Religious beliefs are not really that important to those who identify as religious fundamentalist or evangelical; not compared with the power that fear and prejudice have over them.

Dean spends the first four chapters analyzing Donald Trump, leading to his label of authoritarian, or as stated on page 24, "a wannabe dictator conspicuously displaying his inchoate authoritarian rule." As you can tell, the book minces no words. When asked about the concern of analyzing a public figure from afar, Dean gave the kind of context that only someone in the inner circle of Presidential politics for so many decades could provide:

"We [in the book] relied very, very much on available evidence and overwhelming conclusions by clinical and other psychologists about, for example, the influence of parents on their children," Dean says.

"But to analyze somebody from afar, psychology and psychiatry have the Goldwater Rule, with which I’m very familiar; I’ve had long conversations with Senator Goldwater about it," Dean continues, stating that he'd known Barry Goldwater since he was 13 years old. "I’m very familiar with the lawsuit from which that emanated, and it has always been striking to me how the psychological and psychiatric associations misinterpreted the rule. What the abuse was, what Ginzburg, the editor of Fact magazine, did in polling psychiatrists, many of whom did make very legitimate analysis—even the Senator said, 'Right on'—but what [Ginzburg] did is he went through and selectively took information from his polling and his solicitations from these people, and he skewed it and he came up with a distorted result."

"The Goldwater Rule said these people shouldn’t even be making the analysis… well, I think they can make an analysis from a distance and if somebody walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he’s probably a duck."

It was Goldwater's public brawl with Jerry Falwell, Sr. and his Moral Majority, in fact, that first interested Dean in the body of research about authoritarianism.

"When I went looking for research, I ended up finding Bob Altemeyer and his work. He's one of a small group of scientists who really kept alive studies that started in the aftermath of World War II, when a group of German-Jewish scientists emigrated to Berkeley and started studying the authoritarian personality, wondering if what had happened in Italy and Germany under Mussolini and Hitler could happen in the United States. And these people have been writing that, yes, it could happen here, but we had plenty of time.

Well, given the last three years, we don't have any time. And that's why I did this book with him."

Dean and Altemeyer estimate a faithful Trump base of 50 million people. In the book, they state most of them have one of two scientifically established authoritarian personality traits or are members of a unique group that combines both. These people score highly as:

Social Dominators: People who believe in inequality between groups and think their own should control others, collectively and even individually on a person-to-person basis. Donald Trump, they assert, appears to be an extreme example of a social dominator. These traits are based on the Social Dominance Orientation Scale developed by Pratto, Sidanius, et al in 1994.

Authoritarian Followers: People who are submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life's threats. Their ethnocentrism is often based on religious training and they have been found to exhibit self-righteousness. These people score highly on the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) Scale that Altemeyer developed in 1981. (The "right" in the title does not refer to conservatism but to the Olde English word meaning lawful or proper.) The RWA Scale measures submission to established authority, aggression in the name of that authority, and conventionalism.

Double Highs: People who score highly as both a Social Dominator and an Authoritarian Follower, which, as Dean and Altemeyer state, at first seems confusing because that would make them dominating submissives. They offer two examples of how this can happen: a dominating person can strongly believe in other people submitting to authorities if they themselves are the authorities (they say Donald Trump himself would be a good example of this type of Double High); another example is submissive people who endorse their group's superiority over others as an extra level of protection.

Dean says all three categories show marked ethnocentrism and prejudice, which was echoed in the poll he and Altemeyer conducted in conjunction with Monmouth University specifically for this book.

"The glue that holds all these people and his coalition together, the underlying feeling, is prejudice. That was the thing that jumped out also in the Monmouth poll is how deep and strong the prejudice is in these people. They are anti-'the other' on so many issues. They get reinforced feelings when they go to Trump rallies, for example, and they see people who are thinking and feeling like they do, they find a comfort level in all this."

The authors cite a 1996 paper by the University of Western Kentucky's Sam McFarland and his collaborator Sherman Adelson, as "one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of social sciences that you never heard about" as crucial to understanding these phenomena. McFarland and Adelson researched 18 different personality tests to determine which could best predict prejudice against Black people, women, and homosexual people. Two of the 18 had a strong correlation: the Social Dominance Orientation Scale and the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale.

"If you want to know what aspect of personality psychologically connects to social prejudice, discrimination, ethnic cleansings and Holocausts—and that is one hell of a question—the answer is, more than anything else, authoritarianism!" they write.

Of course, not all Trump supporters are highly prejudiced, and the authors take care to state that, while also describing prejudice as a tie that binds many supporters to him, and to one another.

Religion also plays a huge part in this research into the psychological make-up of President Trump's base. In fact, they dedicate the whole of chapter eight to the subject. Dean and Altemeyer write, "A great deal of research over the decades reveals that Evangelicals usually score quite highly on the RWA scale. Thus, when the Republican Party actively recruited religious conservatives, it was simultaneously filling itself up with highly prejudiced authoritarian followers. Given that fact, one could predict from the outset that a dominating authoritarian leader like Donald Trump would appeal to Evangelicals." (Added in a footnote: What was not predicted was that this appeal would thoroughly overpower the many good reasons Evangelicals had for rejecting Trump on religious grounds.)

Their description of the RWA mindset, in particular highly compartmentalized thinking, desire for social reinforcement, and admiration of aggressive responses, in addition to an aversion to evidence when they don't like where it leads, is like a perfect storm coming together at the same moment an authoritarian leader rises to the highest level of politics. Why did these people's religious beliefs not take precedence? Dean and Altemeyer state that for a great many of them, despite appearances, religion is simply not important. The author himself was startled by this conclusion.

"That was an eye-opener to me and that’s based on solid scientific study that can be backed up with an awful lot of data," states Dean. "There are [also] stacks of studies that show there’s very little correlation between morality and Christianity. Those two explain how easy it is for this enormous part of Trump’s base - because this is the predominant element, this is the big, heavy-lifting pillar in his support - and the reason they can tolerate Trump’s behavior, he who is the antithesis of everything they teach and preach, but rather embrace him and his norm-busting, non-democratic behavior. It’s astounding, but they do so because it’s quite easy for them to set aside their religious convictions for their ulterior purposes."

 Melville House Publishing
John Dean, of Watergate fame, says this is a moment when the psychological and the political come together.
Source: Melville House Publishing

Beyond the psychological X-ray of Trump's base that Dean writes about, what he really hopes comes out of the book is for the psychological, psychiatric, and social science communities to start paying attention to the nearly half-century of research on the subject of authoritarianism.

"Most people are not even aware of these studies, and as I say it’s [40-]50 years and it’s very small subbranch of psychology that is not even considered mainstream, but yet there are a lot of academics who dive in this area every day. Altemeyer has led the way, particularly with the followers and the right wing authoritarian scale, which has been tested and retested and confirmed and is very good science. I would just hope that psychologists and people interested in this science would start talking about it. Not to sell books but to deal with the reason we wrote the book, which is to inform voters."


Dean, John W., and Altemeyer, Bob. Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers and it's appendices and endnotes. Melville House, 2020.

Murray, Patrick. “Authoritarian Tendencies in the American Electorate (Part 1).” Monmouth University Polling Institute, Monmouth University, 25 Aug. 2020,

The Principles of Medical Ethics, With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry” American Psychiatric Association, 2013 Edition,

Pratto, Felicia, James Sidanius, Lisa M. Stallworth, and Bertram F. Malle. 1994. Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67, no. 4: 741-763.

Altemeyer, Bob. Right-Wing Authoritarianism, University of Manitoba Press, 1981, pp. 148–155.

McFarland, S. , & Adelson, S. (1996, July). An omnibus study of personality, values, and prejudice. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Vancouver, Canada.

Altemeyer, Bob. The Other Authoritarian Personality. Edited by Mark Zanna, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Academic Press), 1998,