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What You Can Expect From an Authoritarian, Part 2

Recognizing the thirty traits and behaviors of the authoritarian personality

eric maisel
Source: eric maisel

In my last post, I described ten traits or behaviors of the authoritarian personality. In this post, I’ll describe ten more. In a subsequent post, I’ll finish up our description of the “terrible thirty” traits and behaviors of authoritarians by describing a final ten. Then I’ll continue the series by looking at some conceptual matters, for instance differences between authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers, and go on to examine what helps heal the authoritarian wound.

To refresh your memory, here are the ten traits and behaviors we looked at previously: 1) hatred; 2) punishment and cruelty; 3) violence, aggression and assaultive behavior; 4) threats and scare tactics; 5) quixotic, unclear rules; 6) paranoia and enemies’ lists; 7) truth held as enemy; 8) shaming efforts, derision, and ridicule; 9) rigidity and obsession with control; and 10) intrusiveness. Here are the next ten. But before you take a look at them, I want to invite you to take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire and contribute to my primary research in this important area. Please take a peek at it and see if answering it might serve you—it would certainly help me out!

Here, then, are the next ten traits and behaviors of authoritarians:

11. Unacknowledged Anxiety.

Some significant percentage of an authoritarian’s rigidity and need to control others is caused by his or her unacknowledged anxiety. Robert Altemeyer’s research into “right-wing authoritarianism” suggests just how many religious authoritarians have an unconscious and unacknowledged fear that their god does not exist; and consequent anxiety connected to that powerful fear. As respondent Leslie put it, “To the world, my authoritarian brother looked like the least anxious person on the planet. But I knew better. To take one example, he couldn’t travel on a special trip to Europe with his wrestling team because he was in a panic about flying. But he couldn’t admit his fear and had to make up some preposterous story to get out of that trip. I don’t think anyone ever knew that it was all about anxiety. By the way, he hasn’t gotten to Europe yet.”

12. Religious Fervor and Religious Cover.

There is a logical connection between authoritarian religions and authoritarian personalities. For this reason, even atheists, if they are also authoritarian, are likely to get into bed with religion. To take one example, the atheistic, anti-clerical Mussolini married in church, had his children baptized, and in his first parliamentary speech in 1921 announced that “the only universal values that radiate from Rome are those of the Vatican.” Because religions are by their nature authoritarian, because they set themselves up as the good guys in the never-ending battle between good and evil, and because they castigate the “other” and designate the “other” as deserving of punishment, they align beautifully with the authoritarian agenda. You can expect either religious fervor and a heartfelt adoration of a spiteful, punishing god or else cynical religious posturing from the authoritarian in your life.

13. Superstitions and Mythic Determination.

Much of the hatred that authoritarians feel connects to their belief that this life has failed them and betrayed them. They deserved more; they expected more; they were entitled to more. The pain of this thwarted narcissistic entitlement is reduced by belief in a mythical future time when they will get their just rewards and their enemies will get their final punishment. As respondent Henry explained, “My father loved that song ‘Tomorrow Belong to Me’ from Cabaret, where that angelic Hitler youth sings to enthralled German beer drinkers. He also seemed magnetically pulled to every sort of occult thing, from astrology to the Tarot to you-name-it. He took that all seriously and saw signs and portends everywhere, especially about calamities and disasters for other people—which thrilled him.”

14. Anti-Intellectualism and Anti-Rationalism

The sorts of explanations that clear thinking, the scientific method, and the application of reason provide do not suit the authoritarian agenda. Science will not help you think that you are special when you are not; clear thinking will not help you scapegoat others; the application of reason puts the lie to your lies. For these and many other related reasons, authoritarians in power take direct aim at the academics, scientists, writers and other thinkers in their society, often terrorizing, killing or forcing to flee those professionals their society really needs, like its doctors. Authoritarians are immediately and virulently antagonistic to any rational argument and to anyone who thinks rationally, making communication with an authoritarian bewildering for someone who supposes that reasonable arguments ought to persuade and matter.

15. Hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a hallmark quality of authoritarians, who love rules for others but not for themselves. As respondent Ayanna explained, “My father was Islamic and a hypocrite. He expected us children and his wife to follow all the rules but broke many of them himself. He would pretend to follow some. Both he and my mother used physical violence against us kids. My father beat us regularly with a belt. He also got madder during a beating if we tried to protect ourselves with our hands or if we cried. My mother would always watch the beatings, gleefully, I would say. But what stands out for me is the hypocrisy.”

16. Diminishment

Authoritarians have a powerful need to discount your dreams, belittle your accomplishments, and make you feel small, inferior, and less than. These are all faces of their hate-and-punish agenda. As respondent Deborah described it, “My father was authoritarian through and through with our mother, my twin sister and me. When I told him that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, his response was ‘And then what will you do, think while you carry mail?’ Somehow these comments made my career decisions for me. Years later he sent me some of his old papers. One of them was a letter written to the Peace Corps saying, ‘Deborah is not a leader.’ Why did he say that when in my high school yearbook, I had twenty-six leadership activities under my name? And why did he need me to see what he’d written to the Peace Corps?”

17. Demands and Coercion.

Authoritarians make demands as a matter of course and will do everything in their power, including using coercive means, to force you to meet those demands. Their efforts at coercion can include emotional blackmail, threats of violence, threats of abandonment, and threats of reprisal, especially from an angry god. As respondent Anna remembered, “My mother, who considered me an evil and disobedient girl, continually tried to scare me with her religious notions. Even when it came to something like washing the floor, god got into it—he was going to punish me in the most horrible ways if I didn’t get the floor washed perfectly. My sister, who was just like my mother, would jump in with her false piety and echo everything my mother said. They were like two witches—or two jackals.”

18. Need for Domination.

Authoritarians feel a powerful need to dominate others. This is true whether they are more an authoritarian follower and passive in certain areas of their life or more an authoritarian leader and hungry for complete domination. As respond Emily put it, “My sister had to be the center of attention all the time. She loved to make fun of others, put the weak or the disabled down, make herself feel more important, and dominate every situation. From childhood, I knew this was wrong. Her behavior never stopped---throughout our lives she continued belittling others, pumping herself up and, like the vulture she was, soaring down and making mincemeat out of her ‘prey.’ She ran for many offices and won, too, including becoming the mayor of her town (several times.) She lived for power and control—all with a touch of sadism.”

19. Prejudice and Bigotry.

If it is your orientation to hate and your agenda to punish, you require objects for both. Why note hate whole groups and wish them all to be punished? One fascinating result from the research on the authoritarian personality is the easy willingness of authoritarians to hate and punish even their own group. On the face of it, this sounds absurd. But since an authoritarian lacks empathy, compassion, fellow-feeling, loyalty, and any other quality that might make him care about some group, his own group included, that isn’t actually surprising. This hatred of and desire to punish whole groups—women, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the infirm, the elderly, and anyone else “not me”—plays itself out as prejudice and bigotry, two natural and inevitable consequences of the authoritarian agenda.

20. Lack of Conscience and Absence of Guilt.

Many interesting experiments in social psychology, experiments that have been replicated across cultures, socioeconomic classes and genders with the same results, demonstrate the extent to which a majority of people lack a conscience and feel little guilt. It therefore isn’t surprising that authoritarians, given their hate-and-punish agenda, appear devoid of conscience and, having acted despicably, feel no subsequent guilt. When Hannah Arendt (in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem) coined her now-famous phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Adolph Eichmann and, by extension, other fascist leaders and followers, she meant to convey this particular aspect of their personality: that the evil they perpetrate is internally undramatic and produces no roiling inner conflicts, since they have no conscience or guilty feelings with which to contend.

If what I’m describing reminds you of someone in your life, past or present, you have undoubtedly been wounded by an authoritarian. Please stay with me, as in later posts we’ll look at what can help you heal from that wound. And if you think it might serve you, please take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than fifty books, among them 60 Innovative Cognitive Strategies for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative (2018), Humane Helping (2017), Overcoming Your Difficult Family (2017), The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Life Purpose Boot Camp, The Van Gogh Blues, Mastering Creative Anxiety, and Why Smart People Hurt. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel at and contact him at