Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trump as Authoritarian Leader

I was reading through an article summarizing how experts on authoritarianism from various disciplines are assessing Donald Trump's first few days in office since being sworn in. Needless to say, the consensus is that they are concerned. The general consensus is that Trump is leading in the style of a populist authoritarian. There is particular concern about his spokespeople using terms like "alternative facts" (a phrase that is merely another way of saying falsehoods) when caught stating things that tangible evidence contradicts, as well as Trump's orders to various government services to refrain from communicating with the public - most notoriously after the National Park Service showed equivalent aerial photos of Obama's 2009 swearing in ceremony and Trump's this year which Trump apparently perceived of as embarrassing. At this point, scholars are refraining from using terms like fascist or totalitarian, as is proper. We are not yet at a point, as these scholars note, where Trump has called for outlawing specific news agencies, for example. Nor are we quite yet at a point where we know how much deference the GOP, which controls both chambers in Congress (the Senate with a slim majority) will give Trump over time. So vigilance, rather than panic, appears to be the appropriate action.

Last year, I highlighted research regarding the authoritarian tendencies among Trump's supporters and likely voters. In the GOP primary season, it was clear that those who voted for Trump were more authoritarian than those who voted for other GOP candidates. It is also clear that Trump's pro-torture rhetoric resonated with authoritarian voters, which seems to jibe with research I have conducted in the past with regard to authoritarianism and attitudes toward torture, and attitudes toward violence more broadly. The extent to which racial/ethnic resentment stood out is also noteworthy as those most likely to be targeted for torture (if reinstated as a practice - which for the moments Trump and relevant cabinet appointees are providing mixed signals) are ones who will be of Middle Eastern origin, and there is evidence that I and a student collected showing that attitudes toward torture are more favorable when the victims are Middle Eastern (that research is currently still in press). My own take for the time being is that a significant proportion of the plurality who voted for Trump in the general election last November are getting the leadership they want, given their own authoritarian inclinations. Once decisions are made in the White House and Congress that affect their own well-being, their own views toward Trump may well shift, but as of now at this early point in time that is merely conjecture. What is not conjecture is that the US has not been ruled by a genuinely authoritarian leader before, and as social scientists we are truly in uncharted territory in that regard. There are certainly other authoritarian populist leaders elsewhere who might provide a template for study, but the US experience may vary rather considerably. Time will tell.

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