Authoritarianism in America
“The Authoritarian Personality” in 2017, when gaslighting is political.
Posted February 11, 2017
“Any attempt to appraise the chances of a fascist triumph in America,” wrote Theodor W. Adorno and his colleagues at the start of their classic 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality, “must reckon with the potential existing in the character of the people.”
About that potential and its vulnerability to manipulation and worse, Adorno and his colleagues were far from optimistic. Their study, involving thousands of Americans from diverse backgrounds with varied incomes, helped produce an “F-scale” to measure receptivity to fascistic and other antidemocratic forces. Among its still-valid criteria were “conventionalism” (summed up by the statement, “Lax morals and wayward habits are ruining our country”); “authoritarian submission” (“Our country desperately needs a mighty leader”); and “authoritarian aggression” (“We need a leader who will destroy the things perceived as ruining our country”).
Writing at the time from California, a German émigré who—once the U.S. entered World War II in 1941—would for years be dubbed an “enemy alien” in his adopted homeland, Adorno and his colleagues looked specifically at Americans’ reaction to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution and genocide in Nazi Germany to determine whether mainstream Americans might be receptive to far-Right propaganda. As today, with proposed but unlawful travel bans against nationals fleeing war-torn countries and ICE raids enabling rapid deportation, immigration was at the time a weathervane—an indicator of its citizens’ attitudes and propensities.
“When it comes to the ways in which people appraise the social world,” Adorno wrote with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley:
irrational trends stand out glaringly. One may conceive of a professional man who opposes the immigration of Jewish refugees on the grounds that this will increase the competition with which he has to deal and so decrease his income…. But for this man to go on, as do most people who oppose Jews on occupational grounds, and accept a wide variety of opinions, many of which are contradictory, about Jews in general, and to attribute various ills of the world to them, is plainly illogical.
Nevertheless, they noted with dismay, such attitudes not only persisted in the 1940s, but hardened acutely. “A man who is hostile toward one minority group is very likely to be hostile against a wide variety of others,” they extrapolated from the evidence. Even more, “the amount of outspoken anti-Semitism in pre-Hitler Germany was,” they explained (as did other prominent U.S. commentators at the time) “less than that in this country at the present time”—less, that is, than in 1950s America.
The Authoritarian Personality examined the attitudes of Americans who “would readily accept fascism if it should become a strong or respectable social movement”—of the kind represented, say, by a sitting president. What distinguished it as a study was its willingness to assess how “individuals differ in their susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda, in their readiness to exhibit antidemocratic tendencies.” To grapple with the profound extremism and social irrationality that had enabled Hitler’s ascent in Germany and Stalin's in the Soviet Union, they advised that studies of prejudice focus “where psychology has already found the sources of dreams, fantasies, and misinterpretations of the world—that is, in the deep-lying needs of the personality.” Amid rigorous attention those “needs,” where they found profound intolerance for doubt and uncertainty, they helped extrapolate the worldview of a substantial number of Americans, to assess their associated beliefs, accepted truths, and overarching ideology.
One consequence of returning to The Authoritarian Personality in 2017 is that, despite the work's shortcomings (including its overreliance on Freudianism), it reminds us that authoritarianism in America has a long and dark history that includes not just the witch-hunts fueling McCarthyism, with its paranoid focus on treason and "subversives" in the federal government, but—very much related—how far-Right groups such as the Committee for Constitutional Government, Facts Forum, and National Committee for the Preservation of Americanism, taking succor from that extremism, exerted profound influence on the nation’s reactive forces before they were exposed as part of “the Nazi Underworld of America.” That is where my research has taken me recently.
Another value in recalling this history is that it helps explain the rise of populism, xenophobia, and extremism today, without reducing such movements to the traits and pathologies of their advocates or figurehead. As the effort to diagnose Trump recently reached a crescendo, including over whether his grandiosity and erratic, self-contradictory behavior satisfies the criteria for DSM-based personality disorders, there are, Allen Frances and others reminded, dangers to pathologizing bad politics by fixating on the quirks of their representatives. What Adorno and his colleagues instead exposed was the social and psychological context in which a strongman could rise—the thoughts and beliefs that ultimately found expression and support in such a figurehead.
Finally, what The Authoritarian Personality underscores in 2017 is why political “gaslighting”—a variety of truth-blurring techniques designed to confuse voters and control citizens—came to be favored by strongmen and authoritarians alike: It augments their power when trust is widely perceived as faulty and missing, especially when there is polarization. The term gaslight comes from the era Adorno and his colleagues studied. As Frida Ghitis noted in the powerful op-ed “Donald Trump is ‘gaslighting’ all of us,”
The term comes from the 1930s play Gas Light and the 1940s Hollywood movie version (Gaslight) in which a manipulative husband tries to unmoor his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, by tampering with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and then pretends it's only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker…. He [looks to] exert power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn't.
Ghitis included a litany of examples from just the past two months to warrant calling the president “America's gaslighter in chief.” Examples from more recent days include: 1) the notion that negative polling for the president is automatically fake news; 2) that criticism of the president intrinsically renders a news outlet such as the New York Times or CNN “fake”; 3) that media outlets are selectively underreporting terror attacks for political gain; 4) that the president is, more generally, “at war with the media”; 5) that crime rates are rising when in fact they’re falling and have been for decades; 6) that only “so-called judges” issue unfavorable judicial rulings, which themselves must be biased; and so on. We are, within these parameters, on the exact same terrain as 1984, Orwell’s scathing critique of authoritarianism, where facts, opinions, conspiracies, and fabrications are all interchangeable. In Orwell’s dystopia, the state issues decrees insisting “Freedom is Slavery,” "Ignorance is Strength," "War is Peace," and “2 + 2 = 5.”
The Authoritarian Personality, in short, is both us and U.S. It is a study tracing the roots and rise of authoritarianism not just to Hitler’s Germany but to America’s heartland—to the beliefs, prejudices, and collective yearning of its citizens. It is the reason updated studies of authoritarianism continue to adopt, as indicators, statements such as "The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas." Yet it is in ordinary Americans, finally, that Adorno's study finds its antidote—in robust and widespread willingness to reject authoritarianism, to replace it with the arduous, sometimes precarious, always labor-intensive effort at maintaining and restoring a democracy.
Adorno, T. W., E. Frenkel-Brunswik, D. J. Levinson, and R. N. Sanford (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Brothers.