What You Can Expect From an Authoritarian
Recognizing the 30 traits and behaviors of the authoritarian personality.
Posted November 8, 2017 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
There has never been a more important time to understand authoritarianism and its effects on each of us. As individuals, we are seriously harmed by the authoritarians in our life. As citizens, we are likewise harmed by authoritarianism in high places. What can we expect in dealing with an authoritarian? In this series of posts, I want to share what I’m learning from my analysis of the authoritarian personality and authoritarian parenting literatures and from my extensive primary research into the effects of authoritarian wounding.
As to that primary research, I would love it if you would contribute to my understanding of the effects of authoritarian wounding by taking my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire. Even if you answer only a few of the questionnaire’s questions, that will provide me with invaluable information about this vital subject. Respondents are discovering that answering the questions is itself eye-opening and healing, so I invite you to take a look at the questionnaire and, if you’re moved to do so, answer it in full or in part.
A research headline is that authoritarians are fueled by hatred and by a powerful need to punish. Much else that we have come to associate with authoritarianism flows from this basic hate-and-punish agenda. What else exactly? Well, when you come into close contact with an authoritarian because he or she is your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your mate, your adult child, or someone else in your immediate sphere, like the leader of your church or your boss at work, you can expect to encounter many and sometimes all of a particular “terrible 30” traits, attitudes, and behaviors. In this post, we’ll look at the first 10 of these “terrible 30.” If you’ve been in close contact with an authoritarian, I’m guessing that these 30 are going to ring a bell.
The central truth about an authoritarian is that he or she is coming from a place of hatred. As respondent Max put it, “My father hated just about everything. His hatred was very different from anger or resentment or even rage. It wasn’t an emotion, really, but a position, an attitude toward life. Anything could be hated, including things that he’d claimed to love and admire just the second before. You could fall from grace in a split second because he was so ready to hate—it was like hatred was always right there on the tip of his tongue.”
2. Punishment and Cruelty
Because they are full of hatred, authoritarians need to punish others. They are likely to advocate for capital punishment, for harsh punishment for all offenders, and to angle for punishment obliquely, for example by adopting a “right to life” position so as to punish women for getting pregnant. They are always alert for an opportunity to punish someone, especially family members. As respondent Mary explained, “My mother had an authoritarian personality, was angry all the time, and would explode and strike out with verbal or physical abuse at the drop of a hat. An incident that encapsulates my experience occurred when I was about 5 years old, when I got stung by a bee. I remember the searing pain and crying and running to her—only to be beaten for crying! That about sums up my childhood.”
3. Violence, Aggression, and Assaultive Behavior
Authoritarians are regularly assaultive and violent and even more often—sometimes constantly—in a state of barely suppressed near-violence. Here’s how respondent Cynthia put it: “My grandmother nearly killed my mother when she was 16, at which point my grandfather removed my mom from the home and put her in a halfway house. My mother became pregnant with me at age 19, and grandmother successfully lobbied to get her committed in order to take over guardianship of me. She continually called me a whore, a slut, and a good-for-nothing, and told me that I would never amount to anything. I was removed from the home at age 16, after my grandmother beat me with her cane and broke my collarbone for having a boyfriend.”
4. Threats and Scare Tactics
Authoritarians want their victims to fear them. Respondent Robert explained, “I was married to an authoritarian woman. I always felt afraid of her in little and big ways. I quickly learned that she slept with a gun under her pillow and on numerous occasions, she threatened to kill me if I didn't do something she wanted me to do. We fought constantly and she would always win because she was willing to "go for the jugular" and hurt me. My self-esteem went down the toilet, I felt ashamed for being bullied by her, and ashamed of myself for not leaving.”
5. Quixotic, Unclear Rules
Authoritarians, who may or may not have any personal interest in abiding by rules, love rules for other people. The more quixotic and unclear the rules, the better, since quixotic, unclear rules are the least possible to follow. Such rules are inevitably broken, opening the door to punishment for the rule-breaker. For an authoritarian, the rules are there to be broken, so that punishment can follow. This dynamic helps to explain why an authoritarian is so often irritated to the point of violence when a rule is followed, since he was hoping for a violation and an opportunity for punishment. Likewise, this helps explain why you can never get the praise you were hoping to receive for following the authoritarian’s rules: following them doesn’t please him, it upsets him!
6. Paranoia and Enemies’ Lists
Authoritarians, in part to explain to themselves their bottomless reservoir of hate, act as if they’re being continually threatened and endangered. They see enemies everywhere, including (and often especially) in former friends. As respondent Emily put it, “My older brother kept an actual enemies’ list in high school. It went with his tight, rigid personality, his anger, and the way he never fit in anywhere. He was so uncomfortable, awkward, and off-putting that naturally, all the other kids wanted nothing to do with him—they gave him a wide berth and so they got added to his enemies’ list. He spent most of his time plotting his revenge on them.”
7. Truth Held as Enemy
Authoritarians have little regard for the truth. If your agenda is to punish others because you are filled with hatred and anger, the truth of any particular matter is a mere inconvenience. As respondent Phillip put it, “My father, a pastor, baldly lied about everything, from the number of people who attended one of his church services, a number he always inflated, to the crime rate in the 'bad part of town,' a number he likewise always inflated. It took me years to understand that every lie came from the same place: the place of making himself look better and others look worse. Then he could pat himself on the back and feel smug and superior.”
8. Shaming Efforts, Derision, and Ridicule
The hatred-and-punishment authoritarian agenda produces a person who takes pleasure in cruelty and who regularly shames, derides, and ridicules his current targets. To control is not enough; to win is not enough; to dominate is not enough: none of that is experienced as enough. The authoritarian wants you harmed and diminished. Since nothing feels quite as bad as shame, it is shame especially that the authoritarian wants you to feel. As respondent Samantha put it, “My father always looked at me as if I had no clothes on. I always felt naked around him. I don’t know how he did it exactly; he didn’t molest me or even touch me. In fact, he never touched me. But what he did was almost worse and I always felt ashamed in his presence.”
9. Rigidity and Obsession with Control
The authoritarian’s need to control is regularly the first attribute to which respondents point. In a characteristic response, Barbara explained about a previous boyfriend, “When he spoke about his relationship expectations, they were presented as rules, givens, and truths that ought to be obvious to anyone. These included what I could and couldn't say to friends and family (for example, I was not allowed to express concerns about the relationship, because that equaled disloyalty). In order to monitor my compliance, he bugged our phone and put spyware on the household computer. When he ‘caught’ me (via the bugged phone) asking a friend for advice about one of his behaviors, he responded by throwing my belongings into giant trash bags and insisting that I choose, right there on the spot, a destination for myself and ‘all of my crap.’”
When you combine a need to control with a desire to shame and humiliate, you land on another authoritarian trait: intrusiveness. Authoritarians are regularly “into your personal business” (especially your sexual business and your bathroom business) in terrible and unacceptable ways. As respondent Jill explained, “For me, the abuse inflicted on me by my father was not physical but verbal. He was always saying ‘It’s none of your business’ and ‘You don’t own anything in this house’ and ‘Do as you’re told!’ And he was always banging on the bathroom door or barging in if I was in there too long. He’d come in yelling, his face all purple. It was a way of life with us.”
The authoritarian in your life may not have manifested every single one of these qualities. Authoritarians do not look exactly alike or act exactly alike. Many authoritarians are quite undramatic and relatively non-authoritarian much of the time. But they share enough of these features that they are recognizable as authoritarians. Do these first 10 of the “terrible 30” traits and behaviors I’ll be describing remind you of someone in your life? If they do, you can count on it that, like my respondents, you too will have a wound to heal.
To take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, please visit here.