Explaining ‘Cult45’: What Can WWII-Era Research on Authoritarianism Tell Us about the Political Rise of Trump?


Since the election, much writing and discussion has been dedicated to making sense of the political rise of Trump and Trumpism. It’s not easy to make sense of his journey from a marginal, garish, Know Nothing, hate-spewing reality TV personality to, well, those things, except he’s no longer marginal and, as of January 20, 2017, he’s the President. It’s important because beneath the jokes about Trump and the perversely entertaining and now overtly grotesque spectacle of American presidential electoral politics there is a deeper significance.

Trump’s rhetoric and the vile ideology which has vastly reverberated across political, public, and media spaces, most observably and belligerently by supporters on social media, at his rallies, and in other venues, encompass profoundly vicious, mean spirited, power adoring, sadistic, violent, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ethnocentric, and xenophobic sentiment (Parker, et al., 2016). It’s stylistically clumsy, but, grimly, that string of adjectives is necessary to adequately describe the existing circumstances. While such ideology isn’t new in the US, the current situation seems to have inflamed a rancor and angst around straight, white, male racial and class identity which hasn’t been expressed on this broad a scale and so hatefully and openly at the surface of American society in generations.

This is not to crudely present all Trump voters as a monolithic entity, but rather to grasp the urgency and origins of the cruel display of overt prejudice which has become more normalized, open, and broadly expressed. It applies to those dedicated, authoritarian elements of his base, brimming with resentment and hostility and channeling that discontent toward socially marginalized groups both directly and by supporting measures which weaken social protections.

With respect to analogous political phenomena, comparisons have been made to the growing support for Marie Le Pen and Front National in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, and Poland’s now in-power Law and Justice Party (Faiola, 2016; Smale, 2016; Nossiter, 2017). Some have looked back to the Berlusconi years in Italy for a possible glimpse of what things might look like in the US in the next 4-8 years (Foot, 2016; Severgnini, 2016). To understand the psycho-social character which predisposes individuals to such ideology and the corresponding political and economic conditions, a handful of articles have looked toward the infamous work on authoritarianism by the Institute for Social Research and associated scholars. The institute was founded in Frankfurt, Germany and is commonly known as “The Frankfurt School.” Among such articles, of particular note are Richard Wolin’s (2016) piece in The Chronical of Higher Education and Alex Ross’ (2016) New Yorker piece. There was also Matthew MacWilliams’ January 2016 Politico article, which explored the phenomenon in the US statistically and showed that poll data among voters revealed that authoritarianism, far more than any other variable, predicted support for Trump.

The present paper contributes to this current of material as this scholarship by the Frankfurt School is vital for understanding the origins of political authoritarianism and psycho-social predilections to it. However, the hope is to do so with an analysis that is deeper than what can be done on a blog or in a magazine. It will thoroughly examine the concept and framework, as it was developed in relation to the social situation during the World War II-period, and apply it to dynamics of today’s conditions as well as Trump’s message, his political ascent, and the powerful psychological, emotional, and political commitment of his loyal followers.

A Contemporary False Prophet: Support for Trump as an Expression of Powerlessness

The social theorist, Max Horkheimer (et al., 1950) noted that it is the particular historically based social situation which determines the sort of demagogue, in terms of personality and techniques, which might come to capture the hearts and minds of segments of the populace. Under Horkheimer’s direction, and while operating in exile in the United States from 1933, the Frankfurt School carried out several studies on authoritarianism and prejudice. The overarching goal of these studies was to better understand how racial and ethnic hatred had persisted and intensified beyond the turn of the twentieth century such that there could be broad tolerance and support for incredible yet systemic mass persecution, violence, suffering, and murder, despite the period being an age of “law, order, and reason” (Horkheimer, et al., 1950: v).

The studies sought to explore the psychological dynamics which predisposed members of the population to respond favorably to the techniques of authoritarian agitators or demagogues, i.e. those who foment hostility toward outgroups, activate nationalistic feelings, glorify violence and aggression, and inspire the rejection of reason, education, and intellectualism (Horkheimer, [1948] 1987). (Sound familiar?) The studies also addressed the techniques or “psychological weapons” employed as well as the social, political, and economic factors which tend to create the necessary conditions (Horkheimer, [1948] 1987: 1). Horkheimer explained, “Demagogy makes its appearance whenever a democratic society is threatened with internal destruction. In a general sense, its function has always been the same: to lead the masses toward goals that run counter to their basic interests” (Horkheimer, [1948] 1987: 1).

Of course, the rise of twentieth century European fascism and the horrific atrocities associated with it, along with the fact that key members of the Institute were Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany, were formative aspects for these studies. Rather than merely understand the origins of such ideology, actions, and mass collusion by the public, their work explicitly sought to find ways to deal with “the cultural atmosphere in which hatred breeds” (Horkheimer, et al. 1950: ix). In other words, the work set out “not merely to describe prejudice but to explain it in order to help in its eradication” (Horkheimer, et al. 1950: ix). A group of studies co-edited by Horkheimer and sponsored by the American Jewish Committee featured the widely influential The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno, et al. (1950) and Prophets of Deceit by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman ([1948] 1987). Along with other work, especially Erich Fromm’s ([1941] 1965) Escape from Freedom and Horkheimer’s ([1936] 1972) “Authority and the Family,” among others, these investigations provided incisive analyses on these trends.

For Horkheimer, Lowenthal, Adorno, and Fromm, authoritarianism originates essentially with feelings of powerlessness, which, in certain circumstances, promote a particular individual and social character susceptible to authoritarian discourse and the potential for escalation to something worse. In the interwar period, that something worse emerged in Europe as fascism. Authoritarianism is characterized by the tendency toward both submission and domination as well as hostility toward the “other.” In the requisite conditions, this disempowerment is processed by repressing hostility toward authority with a magnified and compulsive need to conform to norms and to submit to authority figures while then projecting that hostility onto members of outgroups. Serving almost as a textbook example for today, one merely needs to bear in mind Trump’s calls for “law and order” and the aggression directed toward racially, ethnically, or politically different “others” at Trump’s rallies.

“Alternative Facts” and “Fake News”: Truth as Conspiracy

In understanding how dimensions of authoritarianism constitute Trumpism as both ideology and experience, we need to look at the characteristic features of Trump’s rhetoric and the basis of its popular appeal. Authoritarianism is a multidimensional phenomenon. First, it must be understood in terms of the content of the message, embodied in the object to which individuals have submitted themselves. This can be in the form of God, a parent, the state, or of a leader to which one can ascribe almost supernatural abilities. Trump’s loyal supporters are deeply invested in his proclaimed ability to “Make America Great Again,” expressed through outlandish policy promises. The most notorious of these he had intermittently withdrawn and redoubled commitment – the cost-free wall across the US-Mexico border, the swift deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, the banning of Muslims from entering the country, completely repealing the ACA, etc. In an effort to appear “serious” about Trump’s campaign promises, the administration rolled out its initial series of executive orders affecting immigrant and refugee travel, among other things. They have been widely criticized (even by policy hawks) as wrongheaded and hastily and sloppily implemented. Regarding the quasi Muslim-ban, given the countries omitted from the “areas of concern” list, the measure is clearly not meant to address security. Rather, the bearing of the orders is for the administration to appear credible and tough. Members of his base are able to reap from the scenario the “truth” they require to harmonize their self-concept while others look on with utter astonishment and outrage.

Trump lies repeatedly, but it does not matter, as his devout followers hear what they need to hear. Ironically, their frustration and resentment has been directed toward the alleged lies of others – of “lying Ted” Cruz, “crooked Hillary,” “fake news,” etc. Whether he wrongly claims that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the election, (laughably) that he respects women, that President Obama was not born in the US, that data show that racial profiling by police effectively reduces crime, that he doesn’t know of David Duke and the KKK, etc., the validity or verifiability of his statements are insignificant. This is why fact-checking and logical argument are ineffective in countering the “alternative facts” expressed by Trump and parroted by his supporters. In response to being challenged by ABC News’ David Muir with the fact that no hard evidence has been presented to support the assertion that millions voted fraudulently, Trump countered with, “You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that” (ABC News 2017). Muir was stunned, but for Trump’s loyal base, no more proof is necessary. For authoritarians, falsehood can function as truth so long as the narrative vindicates an inner-psychological necessity.

While authoritarian agitators and demagogues simultaneously draw faith and loyalty from their supporters, Lowenthal reminds us, neither they nor their followers really take what is said seriously or literally. This is why there’s no expectation that Trump’s positions be valid or consistent. When he would proclaim outlandish things at his rallies, those in attendance cheering exuberantly can be seen smirking, laughing, and even shaking their heads at the surreality of the claims being made, e.g. that he’s the least racist person they’ve ever seen, that he is a “supermodel,” that a Mexican plane was going to attack a venue in which he was speaking, that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS, that there were thousands of cheering Muslims in NJ when the World Trade Center collapsed, that an accusation of sexual assault against him was untrue because his accuser wouldn’t be his “first choice,” etc., etc. (Politico Magazine 2016). Ominously yet accurately, in their analysis of the discourse of authoritarian agitators, Lowenthal and Guterman ([1948] 1987) found that by rejecting the traditional categories by which “it is possible to distinguish democracy from its opposite,” where the population is presented as “eternal dupes and …victims of a perennial conspiracy, …the distinction between truth and lies is accordingly inconsequential.” Thus, outlandish conspiracy theories appear (and feel) accurate to the hopeless and disillusioned.

Trump can be shown on audio or video contradicting, falsely denying, or backpedaling from his statements with his credibility intact. It’s why he can disparage sacred American categories – like insulting prisoners of war, defending flag burning in a Tweet, boastfully crowing that he was right in relation to tragic acts of terrorism committed on US soil while body counts are still being determined, publicly insulting a Gold Star family – and maintain absolute legitimacy among his ardent followers, even if they identify as patriots and conservatives. As he and his message resolve interior and exterior tensions for them, the narrative does not need to be credible or right, but rather Trump’s words and message have to “feel right” and he merely must promise protection from the bad people (Muslims, immigrants, black thugs, etc.). To his staunch proponents, he personifies the archetype of the savior, one who has promised to “Make America ‘America’ again,” to use Scot Baio’s words from the Republican National Convention. He’s someone they believe will abate their “horrors of lost status” and rollback the “consequences of a collapse of white privilege,” as Toni Morrison noted in a post-election New Yorker piece.

The Frankfurt School’s scholarship on authoritarianism also indicates that such messages can only take hold on a dominant scale if there are preconditions within the psychology of social subjects and if the social conditions are fertile for such ideas to be triggered and to proliferate. MacWilliams (2016) notes in his piece that authoritarianism can be latent and then become activated by fear of real or perceived threat. He describes more recent research which shows that even non-authoritarians act more like authoritarians when there’s a perception of threat (MacWilliams, 2016). The frequent violence and sporadic terrorism which has created an atmosphere of perpetual vigilance and alarm has permitted outgroups to be easily constructed and vilified as targets for projected fear, malaise, and hostility. The reduction in real wages over the last four decades, high poverty and inequality compared to similar nations, and the decline in union jobs and corresponding rising workforce precarity in terms of self-determination and job/ income security have enabled this process. These conditions compose what Fromm has described as the “socio-economic factors” which mold the “human basis” for stoking prejudice, chauvinism, and anti-democratic sentiment, especially among disenfranchised whites (Fromm [1941] 1969: 206). Correspondingly, it has been during a time when white resentment and hysteria in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and over immigration sanctuary cities and incredible fabrications like Muslim no-go zones is palpable.

This pathological dehumanization has created an atmosphere where refrains on social media that dismiss concerns about rampant and unaccountable killings of unarmed people of color by police are common. Often a self-righteous vindication is expressed with comments rationalizing that the victims deserved it because they were “criminals” or were resisting arrest. As threatening “others,” their structural oppression and the institutional violence they experience is understood as deserved, exaggerated, or simply nonexistent. Within this milieu, the concepts of “the victim” and of “victimhood” have even been perversely turned on their heads. While a persecution complex is almost a prerequisite for internalizing Trumpism as an ideology, Trump’s ardent supporters and other defenders of the dominant culture, desperate to cling on to their privilege, often use these terms as slur words. They’re really saying to members of marginalized groups, “Because your story implicates my complicity with repression, and your struggle for justice is a threat to my privilege, you, the bearer of your own experience, must be completely invalidated.” Statements by Trump that police are the “most mistreated people” in the country and that the Black Lives Matter Movement is “essentially calling, ‘Death to the police’” emboldens such perceptions (Flores, 2016; MSN, 2016). It does so by reinforcing a disposition constituted by the irrational fixation on declining privilege and control, white victimhood, transgressive deviants, and dangerous minorities. It’s this dynamic that constructs the unfounded worldview that it’s actually whites, and not blacks and other minorities, who experience structural discrimination and racism. Such notions are often triggered when competent experts offer analyses of social inequality or people of color merely describe their own experiences with systemic prejudice and bigotry.

Adorno found that the rapport between demagogues and their loyal following is sustained in several ways. One is “gratification” (Adorno, [1946] 2007: 224). The demagogue’s persona and message offer a sense of vicarious fulfillment. Another is that they engage in theatrical and showy performances, which makes them more relatable. Trump is a clownish huckster whose persona is perfectly suited for reality TV, and, apparently, convincing many in today’s America that he can be an effective political figure. Adorno observed that such leaders tend to present themselves as beyond accountability and refuse to be inhibited or censored. Trump says on a big platform what his supporters formerly could only say in isolation, i.e. he says what they “would like to, but either cannot or dare not” (Adorno, [1946] 2007: 224). This contributes to the charade of his honesty, the courage to “tell it like it is,” as his message violates “the taboos which middle-class society has put upon any expressive behavior on the part of the normal, matter-of-fact citizen” (Adorno, [1946] 2007: 224). Trump’s assault on public decency, solidarities across social groups, and on progressive efforts to preserve the well being of vulnerable populations is waged under the guise of a noble struggle against the liberal PC culture. This, together with his over-the-top showmanship, affirms his loyal supporters’ delusions of straight, white, male persecution and, as a form of vulgar spectacle, compels unblinking attention. This is due, again, to the relatability of such leaders, because, as illustrated in the WWII era, such figures “are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves.” Trump is just like us, normal common folk. …except, he isn’t.

“Treat Them Very, Very Rough”: Authority as Fetish and Aggression toward Outgroups

In The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno, et al. (1950) identified several variables which comprised a tendency toward the submission, domination, and projected hostility which lie at the heart of authoritarianism. You can go down the line and tick them off in regard to common Trumpist refrains and the attributes which make them persuasive to his supporters. Some which are particularly poignant in the current situation are discussed below.

Rigid and absolute conformity to conventional values, which results from external pressure from collective powers recognized by the individual, was identified in the study as “Conventionalism” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 230). Trump has been able to generate significant support with continual invocations of “law and order” (Lewis, 2016). He uses this rhetorical method effectively by presenting the society as a dangerous, immoral, and lawless place. Trump’s narrative of America returning to greatness is connected to enforcing conformity to white, Christian, middle class values as he interprets them. This has absolutely resonated with his base, as they feel that their troubles are due to America losing its way. This is illustrated by several things, for instance his call for a return to discriminatory stop and frisk measures by police, despite the illegality and ineffectiveness of such measures in reducing crime. It’s also illustrated by his tendency to demonize protestors whose alleged lack of respect for the law (and for law enforcement) is contrasted to the “silent majority” of good Americans who fall in line (Lewis, 2016).

He also panders to and incites religious moralism (which from him is more than a little ironic) by promising to appoint SCOTUS judges who would roll back marriage equality and Roe v. Wade and asserting that we’ll all be saying “Merry Christmas” again. For Trump and his loyal supporters, “political correctness” has come to represent the unfair prohibition against the casual racism and prejudice formerly enjoyed, guilt-free, by whites and the sexism formerly enjoyed inculpably by men. Rather than problematize such attitudes, per se, the so-called elite, liberal, PC culture is to blame for censoring speech and exaggerating the bad faith and maliciousness behind such sentiment. When questioned by Megyn Kelly at the first GOP primary debate about past comments on women, having referred to them as “dogs” and “disgusting animals”; after asserting that immigrants from Mexico were drug dealers and rapists; and following his remarks that US district judge Gonzalo Curiel was unfit to preside over the Trump University fraud case because of his Mexican ancestry (even though he was born in Indiana); Trump deflected that the real problem was “political correctness.”

Next, the compulsion to submit to authority in the form of parents, supernatural powers, leaders, etc. was reflected in authoritarian submission (Adorno, et al., 1950: 230-31). As elaborated above, this variable/ tendency resulted from the unresolved antagonism of feeling powerless to such figures. They are therefore given a status of near-infallibility. Trump, knowing he was tapping into such currents of powerlessness and insecurity, and that he had been able to solidify what seems like nearly unconditional devotion, boasted that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and …wouldn’t lose voters” (Diamond, 2016a). Chillingly, he’s probably right. Imagining that parallel on the foreign or domestic policy level is unsettling, to say the least.

Additionally, in interviews with study subjects, Adorno, et al. (1950: 232) found that in social conditions which normalize strict and repressive restraint, where giving up basic pleasures is rationalized via the super-ego, people were prone to seek objects on which they can “take it out” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 232). Also, they found that discontent was expressed by stewing that there are others “getting away with something” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 232). He called this tendency authoritarian aggression, which can be thought of as the sadistic aspect of authoritarianism, while authoritarian submission can be thought of as the masochistic aspect of it (Adorno, et al., 1950: 232). In addition to bragging about sexual violence he claimed to have committed against women, boasting that his status entitles him to grope women’s genitals without consent, Trump has also actively incited political violence by his supporters. At a rally in Michigan, he shouted as attendees were roughing up demonstrators, “Get him out!” (Howell, 2016). As things escalated, and with a smile, he offered to defend in court any supporters who hurt protesters. Gleefully, he asked, “Are Trump rallies the most fun? We’re having a good time” (Howell, 2016). At a North Carolina rally, as protesters were being escorted out of the venue, he lamented to the southern crowd, “In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough” (Butler, 2016).

The considerable rise in hate crimes which corresponded with Trump’s nomination also reflects this tendency. After the election, reported hate crimes had surpassed the 1,000 mark (Bacon 2017). Given that authoritarian aggression is caused by repression, Adorno, et al. (1950) observed that sexual and aggressive inclinations are likely to be forceful and violent in authoritarians. He attributed the neurotic fixation by authoritarians to “zootsuiters,” “foreigners,” and “other nations” as well as to “gays,” “sex offenders,” and “people with bad manners” to this dynamic. One need not think too hard to find analogous objects of projection beyond immigrants and racial minorities today, for example, the bizarre public obsession with gender queer folks and which restroom they use, internet predators, “lazy” millennials, parents who don’t discipline or promote the “right” values in their kids, teenagers with sagging pants, etc.

A revelatory finding of the study was that the prevalence and psycho-social function of superstition and stereotypy for authoritarians did not merely apply to those with “low intelligence,” but also to “intelligent” and “informed” people (Adorno, et al., 1950: 236). This is not to infer a direct correlation with institutional learning and “intelligence,” or even to take the category of “intelligence” for granted at all, but Adorno and his cohorts’ analysis brings to mind post-election discussions of the education gap among voters. Even though Trump once exclaimed that he loved “the poorly educated,” and while there was a gap between voters in terms of education level, a significant number of college educated voters turned out for Trump – 52% with some college, 45% of college graduates, and even 37% of postgrads (Castillo and Schramm, 2016). Adorno, et al. (1950) identified superstition as the irrational belief in mythic or fantastic external determinants of life, or “fate,” while stereotypy was described as the tendency toward rigid thinking. Applied to the ingoup-outgroup dynamic, this factor presents itself as belief in over-simplified and outlandish narratives and a tendency toward ethnocentrism and racism. While often couched in discussion about the lack of proper morality or personal responsibility within society, in fact, superstition and stereotypy indicate the shifting of responsibility from within the authoritarian toward others or outside forces. Adorno, et al. (1950) noted that, rather than an automatic indicator of low intelligence or being uninformed, it represents an expression of ego-weakness. While a sound intellect can potentially grasp a critical understanding of the world, the weak ego cannot, as certain inconvenient facts are potentially anxiety provoking to the authoritarian, regardless of intelligence. Former presidential candidate and now member of Trump’s administration, Ben Carson is a celebrated neurosurgeon, yet he believes the theory of evolution was inspired by the devil and once noted that the Egyptian pyramids were build by the Old Testament figure, Joseph to store grain (Miller, 2016). Trump, who is well educated and views himself as being “like, a smart person,” only acknowledged that Barack Obama was born in the US in September 2016 despite clear evidence that he was (Tani, 2016). Around that time, an NBC news poll showed that 41% of Republicans continued to believe that Obama was not born in the US (Clinton and Roush, 2016). Nearly half of Trump supporters deny that the planet’s climate is warming because of human activity despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is (Kennedy, 2016). Additionally, according to American National Election Studies (ANES) data, and with a complete absence of proof, 70% of white Republican Trump supporters believe that President Obama is Muslim, compared to 41% of white non-Trump supporting Republicans (which is still alarmingly high) (McElwee, 2016).

Among white Republicans, and controlling for education, this data show that a fixation on white identity and on discrimination against whites increased the probability of support for Trump (McElwee, 2016). White identity and the irrational preoccupation with white victimhood are significant features of Trumpism, as nearly one-third % of white Trump voters believe that whites experience more discrimination than blacks and 61% express that the government favors blacks over whites (McElwee, 2016). This same group is much more likely to endorse stereotypes of all groups compared to non-Trump supporting Republicans. About 65% believed that blacks were more violent than whites and nearly 55% reported that blacks were lazier (McElwee, 2016). Among this group, 76% said Muslims were more violent than whites and just over 40% believed that they are lazier, and just over 40% responded that Hispanics were more violent than whites and nearly 30% said that they were lazier (McElwee, 2016). These rates were appreciably higher compared to Democrats more generally, but were also greater when compared to non-Trump supporting Republicans.

Adorno, et al. (1950: 237) classified the authoritarian’s exaggerated display of strength, which is generated in part by a fragile ego, into the variable, power and toughness. This component of the authoritarian character encompasses constant posturing, threats, and bragging, and tends to view all relationships in terms of domination-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower, etc. Exhibited almost purely in Trump, his thin skin and tendency to obsess on criticism and seemingly always take it personally manifest the personality trait of the “tough-guy” par excellence. Trump’s justification of cheating or defrauding former associates and clients, his interactions with women, his tendency to constantly insult opponents (ironically, one time making fun of Jeb Bush’s comparably quiet demeanor by sarcastically calling him a “tough guy”), his promotion of violence at his rallies for those deemed deserving of his supporters’ authoritarian aggression, all illustrate this domination-submission dynamic, illustrating what Fromm ([1941] 1969: 162) described as a “sado-masochistic character.”

Finally, destructiveness and cynicism was characterized by aggression which is rationalized, normalized, and “ego-accepted” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 239). Like the previous two tendencies, it operates in relation to an underdeveloped, or weak, ego. Such aggression is considered beyond the parameters of moral judgment because it is presented in terms which relativize it (so less justification is needed for “all-out aggression”) (Adorno, et al., 1950: 239). Respondents in The Authoritarian Personality reported that if the situation was such that “hostility is so generalized, so free of direction against any particular object, that the individual need not feel accountable for it” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 239). Other prominent justifications in the study included the contention that “everybody is doing it” and that such aggression (like exploitation and making war “upon one’s neighbors”) is just “human nature” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 239). In the context of war and foreign policy, the drone program was largely escalated during the Obama presidency. Both a latent and explicit indifference to the killing those identified as enemies or civilians deemed expendable enough to be collateral damage was already predominant before Trumpism was a thing. US citizens have been inadvertently and deliberately killed by drone strikes as well. There is already an ethical line drawn between those whose lives are deemed to be precious and those which do not matter, both domestically and abroad. The casual, remote, video game-style snuffing out of the lives of enemy combatants and those of the innocent men, women, and children who happen to be around, has largely and implicitly been accepted. Further, while Trump has been anything but consistent with regard to his foreign policy strategy, he nonetheless has comforted his supporters by promising to escalate the current approach (without being too specific) and move beyond the current “politically correct war” on terror and to extend that war beyond the terrorists and “take out their families” (LoBianco, 2016). In addition, he has beat his chest several times vowing to bring back torture – to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” – in order to “beat the savages” (Diamond, 2016b). He has wavered on this, but the rhetorical method of promising to respond to ISIS’ barbarism in-kind has had the predictable consequence of mitigating the alarm produced by the spectacle of their horrific atrocities. While the likelihood of any of his proponents experiencing the wrath of an immigrant terrorist is roughly 400 times less likely than any one of them being struck by lightning twice, as Adorno notes, the rhetoric “attacks bogies rather than real opponents” (Adorno, [1946] 2007: 222; Matthews, 2017). It “builds up an imagery” of the enemy and “tears it to pieces, without caring much how this imagery is related to reality” (Adorno, [1946] 2007: 222). The spontaneous violence at Trump’s rallies can also be understood in this context. These are spaces where violent and destructive rhetoric and behavior are encouraged, normalized, instigated, and cheered on. When protesters are escorted out, attendees often see it as an opportunity to get in freebies as they yell insults, slurs, and at times, violently attack.

At its core, and in psychoanalytic terms, the authoritarian personality is generated through the failure of the individual to appropriately internalize the super-ego which creates ego-weakness. This is expressed through neuroses, through the development of a sado-masochistic character in response to a repressive, psycho-social power dynamic. A weak ego (i.e. excessive defensiveness or “thin-skin”) manifests in response to the over-the-top compulsion to conform, i.e. the inclination to externalize the super-ego. Evident in the authoritarian “tough-guy,” “no nonsense” disposition and language of Trump and his faithful advocates is a deep-seated terror of perceived excesses in their own autonomy and the freedom of others. Therefore, power evokes immediate respect, admiration, and deferential submission in authoritarians, and powerlessness provokes their hate, contempt, and desire to dominate, and in some circumstances annihilate and destroy. Conditions which limit autonomy bring great comfort, as experience becomes understood as the product of “fate,” “God’s will,” or what is “meant to be.” This may be understood in relation to the supernatural or a social system/ political regime/ leader which administers or determines thought and action. If taking the form of social institutions and norms themselves, authority ascribed to them was identified by Horkheimer ([1936] 1972: 76) as a sort of “deification of authority.”

Horkheimer ([1936] 1972: 78) understood that the promise of the Enlightenment to liberate the “common man” from tradition and servitude was a myth. The promise of self-realization through work and productivity was (and still remains) limited only to some. “Liberation” really meant that workers had the privilege to be offered up to the exploitation inherent in industrial labor markets (Horkheimer, [1936] 1972: 78). He explained that while in the Middle Ages reality was connected to God’s will and was endowed with meaning, in the epoch of liberal capitalism, “real situations are brute facts which do not embody any meaning but are simply to be accepted” (Horkheimer, [1936] 1972: 78). In such conditions, the bourgeois system and the fetishized authority constituted in it are accepted ideologically as given. This may seem antithetical to Trump’s promise of “change” or to “draining the swamp,” but as we’ve seen with his cabinet picks, the Trump Train is firmly stuck in the mire of the establishment. The same process/ dynamic which facilitates the submission of those susceptible to the rhetoric of demagogues is exacerbated by and applicable to social conditions which promote isolation, despair, and feelings of powerlessness.

More recently, neoliberalism has further naturalized these conditions in which domination and exploitation are normalized, and in the current climate, the authoritarian dimension has brought cruel disparagement and even physical violence against opponents or members of marginalized groups further into the realm of the ordinary. In light of all of this, it’s easy to understand how Trump has been able elevate himself politically and within the larger social consciousness. He embodies the capitalist ethos and the garish sensationalism prominent in today’s popular entertainment. After all, he’s a reality TV star. He also represents the narrative of the “little guy” succeeding through hard work. Consistent with other ideological phenomena, people know the narrative and the man are a fraud, but they believe. They need to. Trump attended a private boarding school and an Ivy League college, is a billionaire, and yet speaks like the “common man,” making him relatable, funny, and, well, seemingly “normal.”

Conclusion: Fascism?

Trump’s normalizability is what makes his particular brand of authoritarian populism and nationalism so appealing and so dangerous. Currently, there’s been much discussion about whether prominent and key supporters of Trump from what has been called “the alt-right” are Nazis or fascists and whether property damage and physical attack are legitimate and effective tactics in opposing these more extreme elements on the right. What of Trump and Trumpism? What about the potential for the emergence of explicit authoritarianism in the form of fascism on a broad scale in the US? The Authoritarian Personality explored the prospect of “a fascist triumph in America,” noting that the “potential” of either “susceptibility” or “resistance” lies in the “character of the people” (Adorno, et al., 1950: 10). Fromm ([1941] 1969: xiii-xiv), in his 1965 forward to his book written in 1941, warned that humanity in modern times not only remains “anxious” and “tempted to surrender” its “freedom to dictators of all kinds,” but these tendencies have only increased, in no small part due to the threat of nuclear annihilation. In reference to the prevailing nuclear superpowers, the US and Russia, he lamented that, “The buttons are there, the men charged with pushing them …are there, anxiety and helplessness are still there” (Fromm, [1941] 1969: xiv). With Trump’s assurances that he’d expand the US’s nuclear arsenal and empower other nations to do the same, the buttons are surely not going anywhere. Lowenthal and Guterman ([1948] 1987: 149-150) noted that in America, authoritarian agitators have tended to appeal to a small group of committed followers: “disgruntled old people, cranks, toughies, unemployables,” and others. However, they speculated that “in an economic crisis,” where “the middle class loses its security, and the youth its confidence in the future,” the gulf between the “cranks” and others fade, and the potential for large-scale influence of an authoritarian agitator could potentially emerge (Lowenthal and Guterman, [1948] 1987: 150).

The term, “fascism” gets tossed around a lot by people across political camps. However, more serious analysis has recently both opposed and supported that Trump and Trumpism represents a fascist movement. Italian anti-fascist resistor, Gianni Riotta (2016) explains that the current situation in the US is not akin to fascism. He explains that Trump has not called for the violent overthrow of the system. Fascists, he remembers from the Mussolini regime, had the mission of killing democracy and installing a dictatorship. Fascism is hostile to individual freedom and capitalism, and Trump seems to reflect these values. He assures that Americans will not be goose-stepping down Broadway, and Amazon will not be nationalized as a “state asset” (Riotta, 2016). However, others have argued that Trump and the current situation represent “echoes” of fascism or a kind of proto-fascism or neo-fascism (Bernstein, 2016; Chotiner, 2017). After all, he appeals to and has empowered assorted blatant fascists, white nationalists, ultra-rightists, and neo-Nazis. Preeminent historian of the Third Reich, Richard Evans explains that while bands of thugs aren’t killing each other in the streets, they’re “killing each other in tweets” (Chotiner, 2017). In Weimar Germany, there was a similar poisoning of public discourse. He noted that, while not on Twitter or Facebook, formal political discussion in 1930s Germany had also descended to the level of lies, distortions, and insults (Chotiner, 2017). Similarly, there was a stigmatization of minorities, blatant attacks on the rule of law and legal system, and the marginalization of the popular press (Chotiner, 2017). Carl Bernstein (2016) speculates that Trump flirts with a new kind of fascism, one which incorporates celebrity and neo-fascism. Like Riotta, he says there won’t be jackboots, an economic takeover, or Nazi Salutes. However, he identifies a burgeoning fascism in the nativism, ego-mania, and hostility toward democratic political processes (Bernstein, 2016).

Wolin (2016) correctly remarks that the social causes which sparked Trumpism must be addressed. This means sincerely examining and addressing the circumstances in which people have come to feel so powerless. It must be said that these conditions – endless war, austerity, wage and job insecurity, inadequate healthcare, the police state, Wall Street cronyism etc. – are the consequence of the actions of both Republicans and Democrats in the past, including Hillary Clinton. However, now that the authoritarianism encompassed by Trumpism has been triggered at such a scale, it won’t so easily go away. While the nation’s dispossessed may feel that their plight has been ignored, their discontent is giving way to a resentment and hate directed toward vulnerable groups. Many of Trump’s committed supporters espouse an open bigotry which they no longer feel compelled to hide.

With the ascent of Trumpism, these patterns have been normalized to an extent where bona-fide organized racist and fascist groups came out and openly promoted Trump’s candidacy, seeing in him an avenue to emerge from the isolation of the political margins. His selection of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, who headed up Breitbart News, which Bannon has called “the platform for the alt-right,” was a signal to white nationalists, anti-Semites, fascists, etc. that he might just be their guy (Posner and Neiwert, 2016; Roy, 2016). It didn’t help that during his presidential run, Trump would retweet memes from these groups and tended not to rebuff such extremists unless pressured. Perhaps, Trump and Trumpism reflect a kind of ideological and social media- and reality TV-mediated fascism, where individuals internalize proto-fascistic precepts but believe they are fighting for “freedom” or “liberty” over and against a straw-man they may themselves recognize as a kind of liberal tyranny. In the same way many on the left offhandedly evoke and apply the term, Trump’s committed advocates may even believe they are fighting against a kind of fascism. They are ardently following Trump and seem to truly identify with his pervasive Tweeting, TV huckster persona, and phony billionaire bourgeois pageantry. Whether or not he and his movement represent an emerging, contemporary fascism is as of yet not clear. However it feels like a new kind of “something worse” maybe be seething below the surface ready to erupt.


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Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Judith Stein: Wall Street v. Main Street within the Trump Cabinet

By Dan Krier: Behemoth Revisited: National Socialism and the Trump Administration

By James Block: Beyond the Collapse: Clearing the Ground for What is to Come

By Harriet Fraad: Women, Class, Gender and the Trump Agenda

By Chip Berlet: Alt-Right: A Primer on the Online Brownshirts

By Jefferson Decker: The Ends of Reform: Liberalism, Trumpism, and American Politics

By Mark Worrell: The Twilight of Liberal American Imperialism: Trump, Debt, and War

By Stephen Eric Bronner: Back to Basics: Trump’s Counter-Revolution, Resistance, and Solidarity

By Chris O’Kane: “A Hostile World”: Critical Theory in the Time of Trump

By Werner Bonefeld: Authoritarian Liberalism, Class and Rackets

By John Abromeit: Right-Wing Populism and the Limits of Normative Critical Theory

By Samir Gandesha: “The Neoliberal Personality”

By Darren Barany: Explaining ‘Cult45’: What Can WWII-Era Research on Authoritarianism Tell Us about the Political Rise of Trump?

By Kim Scipes: Black Subjugation in America

By George Lundskow: White Like Them

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Andy Blunden, The Origins of Collective Decision Making. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

By Aidan J. Beatty: Stuart Jeffries. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016)

By Brian Caterino: Martin Jay, Reason After It’s Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

By Matthew H. Bowker: Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself. City Lights Books, 2016

By Nate Liederbach: Vincent Czyz, Adrift in a Vanishing City, Rain Mountain Press, New York City 2015