July 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Here’s what I hope liberals like Michelle Goldberg understand about the American authoritarian mind
Loneliness is the beginning, not the end.
Michelle Goldberg is a superlative Times columnist. To my way of thinking, she’s a quintessential liberal. I mean that in ways positive and negative. Positive in that she’s a warrior for liberty, morality and self-government. Negative in that Goldberg does not, and probably cannot, understand the authoritarian mind, nor its perennial threat to us. Liberals are right to have sympathy for the devil. But there’s such a thing as too much.
In her newest column, Goldberg talked about her experience reading Michael Bender’s book about the 2020 presidential election, Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost. Bender, who’s a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, recounts not only “White House disarray and Trump’s terrifying impulses,” Goldberg writes, but “the people who followed Trump from rally to rally like authoritarian Deadheads.”
Bender’s description of these Trump superfans, who called themselves the “front-row Joes,” is sympathetic but not sentimental. Above all, he captures their pre-Trump loneliness. … There are many causes for the overlapping dysfunctions that make contemporary American life feel so dystopian, but loneliness is a big one.
Goldberg suggests strongly that loneliness might be the cause of the current drift in the United States toward authoritarianism. She quotes The Week’s Damon Linker, who cites Hannah Arendt: “Lonely people are drawn to totalitarian ideologies.” “‘The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships,’ Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism, describing those who gave themselves over to all-encompassing mass movements.”
Democracy always runs against the grain of the natural order of things, or “God’s law.” The authoritarian is therefore always already alienated—from her nation but mostly from herself.
I love Arendt, but she’s wrong here. She has things in reverse. I don’t know if the chief characteristic of the mass man is brutality and backwardness, but I do know that loneliness is the result of brutality and backwardness. In other words, authoritarianism causes alienation, not the other way around. Democracy does not, and cannot, constitute “normal social relationships” to the authoritarian way of thinking, because democracy, to the authoritarian way of thinking, is a moral perversion of the natural order of things, which is to say, “normal social relationships”: God over Man, men over women, black over white, etc. Democracy always runs against the grain of “God’s law.” The authoritarian is always already alienated—from her nation but mostly from herself.
Goldberg cites the American Enterprise Institute’s Daniel Cox, who found a link between loneliness and support for the disgraced former president. The “share of Americans who are more socially disconnected from society is on the rise,” Cox said. “And these voters disproportionately support Trump.” His survey found that “17 percent of Americans said they had not a single person in their ‘core social network.’” He added that these “socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his re-election than those with more robust personal networks.”
Like I said, Michelle Goldberg is a quintessential liberal. She’s reading Cox’s findings as loneliness causing authoritarianism. It’s the reverse, though. How can I be so sure? If loneliness causes authoritarianism, what are potential solutions? Among them would be more social networks, more community, more human bonding, and so on, right?
Guess what? White evangelical Protestants are very social, very communal and very bonded by religion and conviction. God over Man, men over women, black over white, etc.—God’s law is the basis for their “normal social relationships.” White evangelical Protestants are, moreover, united by their collective authoritarian belief that they have been chosen by God to rule America in God’s name for the purpose of hastening the End Times, so that anything is justified as long as it serves Him. Put more plainly, nothing matters but authority and power. There are plenty of lonely people in this world, but making them less lonely isn’t going to make many of them less fascist.
How can the authoritarian be alienated from her nation but especially herself while at the same time appear to find connection in communities like white evangelical Protestants? That’s a very good question! It gets to the heart of the real problem. The authoritarian mind is taught to never ever ever come to its own conclusions about the world. Truth is whatever Dear Leader says, not what your eyes and ears tell you. This “education” begins before birth and lasts a lifetime. As a consequence, there’s no such thing as independent thinking. There’s no such thing as freedom of choice. In the collective, there’s no such thing as you. As a result, you will always be lonely. Big rallies might seem communal, but they’re illusory. You’re filling a hole that can’t be filled.
Goldberg again cited Hannah Arendt who “described people shaken loose from any definite place in the world as being at once deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being: ‘Self-centeredness, therefore, went hand in hand with a decisive weakening of the instinct for self-preservation.’” Goldberg said the pandemic did that. It shook people loose from “any definite place in the world.” No, it didn’t. The covid, the lockdowns, the isolation—these did affect authoritarian minds like they did all other minds. The difference, however, is that the authoritarian mind was already shaken loose from its definite place. And their always already present anxiety rose to ever more feverish pitches the more democracy prepared to overthrow their fuhrer. We should not ease this mind with sympathy. We should break it with more democracy.
Again, it’s the reverse. Being “shaken loose from any definite place in the world” does not necessarily make you “deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being.” Not if you’re already there. If so, already being “deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being” is what shakes you loose “from any definite place in the world.” Indeed, you aren’t selfish so much as selfless in the most literal sense, as in there’s no daylight between you and the collective. You have no sense of self-preservation because you never developed a self to preserve. This makes it very easy for authoritarian people to throw their lives away for the leader. And that’s what Michael Bender’s reporting shows.
“Toward the end of Bender’s book, Saundra reappears,” writes Goldberg, referring to a Trump supporter mentioned earlier. “She’d just been at the Capitol for the Jan. 6 insurrection and seemed ready for more. ‘Tell us where we need to be, and we just drop everything and we go,’ she says. ‘Nobody cares about if they have to work. Nobody cares about anything.’1 If you give people’s life meaning, they’ll give you everything.” I don’t know why we should read this in any way that’s not literal. Saundra says she doesn’t care about anything, because she doesn’t. Sympathy won’t change that.
The thing about quintessential liberals like Michelle Goldberg is they don’t imagine, probably because they can’t imagine, human relationships completely devoid of the principle of political equality between and among individuals. They can’t imagine being uncertain of who they are in the absence of authority. When you don’t or can’t imagine such a life, the authoritarian mind can seem so confounding that you search for some concrete reason for its suicidal behavior. To the liberal, loneliness seems to be rational cause for authoritarianism. The truth, however, is far uglier, scarier and more dangerous to democracy than most people, not just liberals, seem to know. Nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.