I thought about the events that led up to the Rwandan genocide after I heard Donald Trump, in a Veterans Day speech, refer to those he counts as his enemies as “vermin.”
“We pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country—that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Trump said toward the end of his speech in Claremont, New Hampshire. “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American dream.” The former president continued, “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.”
When Trump finished his speech, the audience erupted in applause.
Trump’s comments came only a few weeks after he had been asked about immigration and the southern border in an interview with the host of a right-wing website. “Did you ever think you would see this level of American carnage?” Trump was asked.
“No. Nobody has seen anything like this,” Trump responded. “I think you could say worldwide. I think you could go to a banana republic and pick the worst one and you’re not going to see what we’re witnessing now.” The front-runner for the Republican nomination warned that immigrants pose an immediate threat. “We know they come from prisons. We know they come from mental institutions and insane asylums. We know they’re terrorists. Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now. It is a very sad thing for our country. It’s poisoning the blood of our country.”
In a September 20 speech in Dubuque, Iowa, Trump said, “What they’re doing to our country, they’re destroying it. It’s the blood of our country. What they’re doing is destroying our country.”
Trump’s rhetoric is a permission slip for his supporters to dehumanize others just as he does. He portrays others as existential threats, determined to destroy everything MAGA world loves about America. Trump is doing two things at once: pushing the narrative that his enemies must be defeated while dissolving the natural inhibitions most human beings have against hating and harming others. It signals to his supporters that any means to vanquish the other side is legitimate; the normal constraints that govern human interactions no longer apply.
Dehumanizers view their targets as having “a human appearance but a subhuman essence,” according to David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor who has written on the history and complicated psychological roots of dehumanization. “It is the dehumanizer’s nagging awareness of the other’s humanity that gives dehumanization its distinctive psychological flavor,” he writes. “Ironically, it is our inability to regard other people as nothing but animals that leads to unimaginable cruelty and destructiveness.” Dehumanized people can be turned into something worse than animals; they can be turned into monsters. They aren’t just dangerous; they are metaphysically threatening. They are not just subhuman; they are irredeemably destructive.
That is the wickedly shrewd rhetorical and psychological game that Trump is playing, and he plays it very well. Alone among American politicians, he has an intuitive sense of how to inflame detestations and resentments within his supporters while also deepening their loyalty to him, even their reverence for him. [Continue reading…]
One of the important lessons Americans learned from Donald Trump’s election in 2016—and one still difficult for some of us to process almost four years later—is just how many of our fellow citizens are predisposed to authoritarianism.
In high school civics we were taught that “American authoritarianism” was an oxymoron. Authoritarianism was a relic of the past. America was a country founded on freedom, steeped in equality and justice, and uniquely immune to it.
We now know that this story is a national fairy tale. As I wrote in Politico nearly a year before Trump’s victory in 2016, the single factor that predicted whether a Republican primary voter supported Trump over his rivals was an inclination to authoritarianism. I published that article based on a national survey taken nearly a year before the presidential election, and it was followed by stories and reports elsewhere on how Trump was stirring up a deep, if often dormant, authoritarian strain in our politics.
In November 2016, voters had a chance to repudiate that strain. Instead, Trump was elected president. And four years later, as his first term comes to a close, the power of authoritarianism, and the damage it has done to our republic, has been well documented.
American authoritarianism will flourish if Trump wins the presidency again—and it won’t magically vanish if he loses. Either way, it is critical to understand this strain in our politics, both how prevalent American authoritarianism really is, and what kinds of policies and changes American authoritarians will support when stirred up.
Through four national panel surveys launched the week before the 2016 election and continuing into this year, I sought to answer these questions. (While I focused on authoritarianism, my colleagues in this work, Brian Schaffner from Tufts University and Tatishe Nteta from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explored the effects of hostile sexism and racism in America, producing their own eye-opening and important findings).
What I found is thatapproximately 18 percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism, according to their answers to four simple survey questions used by social scientists to estimate this disposition. A further 23 percent or so are just one step below them on the authoritarian scale. This roughly 40 percent of Americans tend to favor authority, obedience and uniformity over freedom, independence and diversity.
This group isn’t a monolith, and these findings don’t mean that 4 in 10 Americans prefer dictatorship to democracy. Authoritarianism is best understood not as a policy preference, the way we talk about lower taxes or strong defense, but rather as a worldview that can be “activated” in the right historical moment by anyone with a big enough megaphone who is willing to play on voters’ fears and insecurities.
When activated by fear, authoritarian-leaning Americans are predisposed to trade civil liberties for strongman solutions to secure law and order; and they are ready to strip civil liberties from those defined as the “other”—a far cry from the image of America as a country built on a shared commitment to liberty and democratic governance.
So what do authoritarians in the US believe? In surveys I found that American authoritarians, compared with non-authoritarians, are more likely to agree that our country should be governed by a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. They are more likely to support limiting the freedom of the press and agree that the media is the enemy of the people rather than a valuable independent institution. They are also more likely to think the president should have the power to limit the voice and vote of opposition parties, while believing that those who disagree with them are a threat to our country—a concerning trend as we head to the polls this year.
American authoritarians fear diversity. They are more likely to agree that increasing racial, religious and ethnic diversity is a clear and present threat to national security. They are more fearful of people of other races, and agree with the statement that “sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.” [Continue reading…]