The Dangers of Contemporary “Authoritarianism”

Matthew MacWilliams, in a January 17 post on Politico, expatiated on the “one weird trait that predicts whether you are a Trump supporter.” That variable turns out to be “authoritarianism.”

The author relates the results of a late December 2015 poll he conducted in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts. Controlling for different variables, he contends that “authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism” were the most significant predictors of support for The Donald.

Now, let me state up front and clearly: I am not speaking for or against Donald Trump. My interest in this story lies elsewhere. It lies in the “authoritarian” shtick and the way that cudgel can be wielded.

MacWilliams concedes that “[s]ince the rise of Nazi Germany, [authoritarianism] has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science.” Yes, ever since Theodor Adorno and others of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, we have been studying “authoritarianism” and also freely wielding the “F” (Fascist) word at those branded authoritarian.

That is not, however, to say that the “studies” are undisputed or the branding is at least sometimes arguably dubious.

Indeed, I would argue that these “authoritarian” studies are as much (and, in my view, far more) weapons of political correctness wielded by the Left against its adversaries as they are any useful predictors of the next Führer.

One need only consider the visceral reaction that “Nazi” still elicits. Post-1945, only the very far fringe glories in Nazism. The practically unanimous political consensus of all real political actors repudiates Fascism.

That reaction is in fact far stronger in Europe: the least brush of the “F” word makes the one tarred so off the charts that it represents practical political extermination.

Which is why that tool is so useful to the Left, particularly the European “May ’68” generation which, like its “anti-Establishment” cousins in the United States, are still ready to mount the barricades in favor of liberty, equality, and whatever you want to do with sex. In Europe, however, the soixante-huitards are generally more politically ensconced and so can turn off a public debate more readily than can the remnants of American Woodstock (although the silly season, especially in the past year, suggests that they are feeling their oats in the United States, too).

Since I am unaware how all these “authoritarian” studies have managed, in the past three-quarters of a century, to identify the next Hitler Wannabe, I have to ask: to what extent have these “studies” in fact been tools to silence one’s opponents?

To suggest that Trump, a casino-mogul-turned-presidential-candidate, has the makings of an extremist-Austrian-housepainter-turned-Chancellor is, frankly, an insult by any “scholar” who thinks that the situations of 1933 Germany and 2016 America are in any measure comparable.

But, again, I am not getting into the campaign. Nor am I getting into how absolute are the values to which Donald Trump may or may not adhere. My question rather is: how do the so-called “authoritarian” studies deal with religions that hold to absolute moral values?

Tell me, instead, how these “authoritarian” studies differentiate the proto-Fascist from the person who believes in absolute values and that some absolute values bind absolutely? Explain to me how the “authoritarian” indices born of Adorno et al. do not necessarily require you to subscribe to a “dictatorship of relativism” to make them work.

Because if holding to absolute moral values and duties makes one (proto-)authoritarian, then every orthodox Christian, Jew, and Muslim is an “authoritarian.” If you believe that, at least have the guts to admit it. Admit too, at the same time, that you believe the foundations of Western society, before the rise of the “68-ers,” is root and branch “authoritarian.” I don’t deny that you can say these things—just admit that the civilization with which you claim to be in continuity has nothing in common with your views.

That is, indeed, what contemporary Polish philosophy Zbigniew Stawrowski rightly identifies, in his book of the same name, as “the clash of civilizations or civil war.” Stawrowski insists that the fundamental fissure running through our culture today is not “the West versus Islam.” The fissure lies within Western civilization itself, between the ancient-medieval heritage of Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem, on whose gases we continue to coast, and a new “culture” that calls itself “Western” and equivocally uses Western culture’s vocabulary (like “justice,” “rights,” “person,” etc.) but invests those terms with meanings diametrically opposed to what the bases of Western culture ever meant. Glibly claiming a relationship that is arguably tenuous, Stawrowski rightly calls those pushing such views “sleek barbarians.”

MacWilliams implicitly confirms this. Conceding that authoritarians are found across the political spectrum, he nevertheless attributes to political scientist Marc Hetherington the claim that “authoritarians have steadily moved from the Democratic to Republican Parties over time” and that this may be due to the former’s embracing “civil rights, gay rights … and other political positions valuing freedom and equality.”

That’s one reading. Another is that many Catholics, for example, left the Democratic Party (which once had an ethnic Catholic base) because that party’s policies were increasingly morally relativistic and out-of-touch with Catholic values. It is particularly AWOL on the preeminent civil rights issue of our times: the right to life of the innocent unborn child.

So, if that is what MacWilliams and others assert as proof of “authoritarianism,” so be it—but first admit that in order not to get an “F” on the “F[ascist] Test,” you had better first absolutely embrace lifestyle libertinism.

Of course, by stacking the deck in this way (a favorite shill game of Critical Theorists) one can feign objectivity while getting the results one wants: obviously, “authoritarians” oppose “positions valuing freedom and equality.” Except that, if that’s the case, then even twenty years ago the incumbent Democratic president was an “authoritarian,” because he signed a federal law stipulating that marriage involves sexual differentiation. Or are the “authoritarian” goal posts preeminently subject to another “F” word: flux?

If one defines one’s value positions as exclusively representing ‘freedom and equality,” then the dictatorship of relativism suddenly can pretend not to be authoritarian. Rather than admitting that contemporary “tolerance” involves gagging political and moral discourse, it can pretend, for example, that campus speech and re-education codes are not dystopically Orwellian but merely correctives to “restore freedom and equality.” The trick is always to be the one who defines the terms.

Regardless of what that may or may not mean vis-à-vis Donald Trump, one thing is certain: these “authoritarian” studies hardly represent objective scholarship and are rooted in presumptions against objective, absolute values. Religious believers share a common cause to ensure that they do not let the “dictatorship of relativism” shove them off the public square in the name of “freedom and equality” while being tarred with the “F” word.

MacWilliams warns of an authoritarian “insurgency” in America today. I share his concern, except that I think the “authoritarians” we need to be wary of are the ones ready to bludgeon and gag us in the name of “tolerance.”

John M. Grondelski


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.