July 22, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
When authoritarians say they’d rather die than give in to an enemy trying to save their lives, we should believe them
Listen to Trump supporters? We have been.
An Editorial Board subscriber asked a question this morning the answer to which I thought would make a good piece today. In response to Wednesday’s column, about what liberals often don’t understand about authoritarianism, Eleanor asked why I said “nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here.”
I’m not sure I understand what you mean. This sounds kind of like the Calvinist idea of people being fundamentally sinful and only being salvaged by God’s grace. Except in this case authoritarianism is the original sin and democracy is the grace. Seems like the way you formulate the issue in this piece kind of mimics the stark fatalism of the WEPs. I’m probably making a facile analogy, here, but this is what it seemed like to me. Could you expand on what you meant in this piece?
I can see how my argument might be mistaken for something similar to what’s offered by authoritarian white evangelical Protestants (WEPs). I can see how it might be seen as the same argument! That is, if I did not make room, as the WEPs do not make room, for universal equality. But I do, and that was part of the point of Wednesday’s column.
We should also stop pretending that just because he’s an American, he believes in universal equality. There is no such thing to the authoritarian. There is only “us” against “them.”
Liberals often do not, or cannot, imagine human affairs completely devoid of universal equality. So they look for reasons why some Americans are authoritarian. Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, a quintessential liberal, suggested strongly on Monday that the reason is because they are lonely. No, I said. It’s the reverse. They’re not authoritarian, because they’re lonely. They are lonely, because they’re authoritarian.
I took my assertion another step, though. I said the truth about authoritarianism in the United States is far uglier, scarier and more dangerous to liberty, democracy and the common good than most liberals, but not just liberals, seem to know. “Nothing causes authoritarianism,” I said. “It has always been here. It will always be here.” Looking for a cause is looking at the problem backwards, because even if it were possible to make people feel less lonely, that’s not going to make them any less fascist. The problem has no policy solution, because to the authoritarian, the problem is democracy. “We” can’t coexist with “them.” “Their” presence is our “absence,” and that’s unthinkable. This is war. One of us is going to win. One of us is going to lose. And someone’s going to die.
Sounds terrible, right? How can I say this about other people, other Americans? I get why people like Gary Abernathy, a Post writer, took offense. The disgraced former president’s supporters, Abernathy said this morning, “have every right to be insulted by being accused of believing a ‘big lie,’ and by the implication that they are violent, or traitors, or mindless sheep—racist sheep, of course. They’re fed up not just with the overt insults, but also with more subtle digs … Trump supporters aren’t going away, and those who continue to paint them as the lowest forms of life reveal themselves to be more interested in perpetrating stereotypes and nurturing divisions than in achieving what’s needed for our nation to survive—reaching across our political chasm, respecting our differences and finding common ground where we can.”
How can liberals reach across our political chasm, respect our differences and find common ground where we can? By talking to Trump supporters, Abernathy said, and by listening to them. Indeed, that kind of thing is music to the liberal’s ears.
Here’s the tip jar!
Thing is, though—we have been listening. David Begnaud, the correspondent for “CBS This Morning,” talked to a Donald Trump supporter. Scott Rowe was recovering from the covid in a Louisiana hospital. Begnaud listened respectfully. He discovered an authoritarian prepared to die for his beliefs. That might sound noble if not for the fact that Scott Rowe was prepared to die to prevent the government from saving his life.
Begnaud: Before you got sick, if you would have had a chance to get the vaccine and prevent this, would you have taken the vaccine?
Begnaud: So you would have gone through this?
Rowe: I would have gone through this. Don’t shove it down my throat. That’s what local, state and federal administration is trying to do. Shove it down your throat.
Begnaud: What are they shoving? The science?
Rowe: No, they’re shoving their agenda. The agenda is to get you vaccinated.
Gary Abernathy is right, morally speaking. We should listen. But he’s wrong, morally speaking, too. We have been listening. When authoritarians say they’d rather die than do what the enemy wants, even if the enemy wants to save the authoritarian’s life, we should believe him, instead of making silly excuses. We should also stop pretending that just because he’s an American, he believes in universal equality. There is no such thing in the authoritarian’s world. There is only “us” against “them.” “They” can’t exist at the same time “we” do. Someone’s gotta go. Even if it’s though death by the covid.
I suppose I am Calvinist in the sense that I believe some people are simply like this. They have zero feeling for empathy, morality or universal equality. But this belief is grounded in something older than John Calvin. Democracy is young. Authoritarianism is ancient. That democracies contain authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian politics isn’t surprising, because democracies like ours contain multitudes. “Nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here.” Knowing this shouldn’t make us less vigilant, as if all is lost. It isn’t lost. It should make us more vigilant knowing democracy needs tending. It’s not going to survive on its own.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
This post is so right on. I’m 64 and spent my first 22 years among the Baptists. I’m still getting over it. White Evangelical Protestants do not believe in equality–they never have. As John points out, it’s God over man, men over women, Whites over Blacks, and WEP believe they have a God-given right to rule over all who differ from them. WEP see themselves as the chosen ones; the rest of us can literally go to hell. If you know them and listen to them, this is what they will tell you. So it’s a belief system that’s incompatible with democracy and equality. Which is why they love Trump. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
No heaven, no hell, no worries…
This comment actually demonstrates that John is wrong. WEPs aren’t born WEPs … it’s the WEP culture that makes people authoritarians.
Research has shown that 30% of any given population is authoritarian and the best way to keep them calm is to make sure everyone’s basic needs are met. See Teri Kanefield’s blog–she written about this extensively https://terikanefield.com/?s=authoritarianism, as has Karen Stenner https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/11/capitol-insurrection-trump-authoritarianism-psychology-innate-fear-envy-change-diversity-populism/
Thanks for the links. I found this phrase “malignant nationalists” to be a new one, but perfectly descriptive.
I love how it’s badically the responsibility of “liberals” (aka non-conservatives) to reach out, listen to, understand and empathize with Trump supporters (and conservatives in general). But it’s not the responsibility of Trump supporters/conservatives to return the favor. There were tons of sympathetic mainstream/corporate media interviews and feature articles on Trump supporters over the past 6 years or so. Even lefty outlets got in on the “understanding and empathy” project. By contrast, how many corporate media feature articles have we seen about “understanding” Biden voters? Not many (if any) that I know of. How much “reaching out to Democrats” and “empathizing with progressives” deep-dive articles have conservative media outlets done? And not just in the last few years, but like, ever? The answer is close to zero. Instead, its just a bunch of insults, ridicule, fear-mongering, and general demonization of the “Left”. There’s no reciprocation from the Right on “understanding and empathy” and there never will be. And what’s more, you almost never see articles from the corporate media scolding conservatives for not making a better effort “reaching out” to liberals. The closest the MSM comes is to gently suggest/advise the Republican party moderate its views somewhat to remain electorally viable in the future. (But of course the nasty partisan rhetoric and constant-attack strategy can remain the same.) In any event its a complete double standard and a perfect example of Conservative Privilege in this country.
“We” can’t coexist with “them.”
Stark. Unequivocal. True.
The only reason that we’re not all marching around in formation raising our right arm straight out and crying “Hail Trump” in unison is that Trump was such a idiotic, incompetent, disorganized, undisciplined moron. Some other Trump, equally malevolent but only slightly less stupid and disorganized, with only a tincture of discipline and a little more mastery of how the levers of government worked, would have overthrown the existing government by now. It’s not because the far right has the numbers to win elections but that the rest of the electorate still thinks that a consensus persists in support of democratic government, the rule of law, and government by the rules. That consensus – that broad middle – is dead. The authoritarians know that. The rest of us apparently do not. We’d better wake up soon or we’ll all be standing in line for brown shirts.
A lot to parse here, but bottom line, the mentality of the authoritarian Trumper types is more complex than portrayed by John. These folk show oodles of compassion, empathy and – to their own eyes – morality….TOWARD MEMBERS OF THEIR INGROUP. It’s kind of like the cliche of Southern hospitality: they couldn’t be more generous, personable and sweeter….toward strangers….as long as they’re the right kind of strangers! And white supremacy is a hell of a disease. When you, your family and your friends are born into a state of privilege by virtue of your skin color – and this can be true even if you’re desperately poor, as long as you’re white – people/institutions/society taking back that privilege – and acting to compensate/assist those who have been deprived of that privipege – is interpreted as an assault, and cannnot be tolerated. And the ones being compensated/assisted are by definition seen as the sworn enemies of your ingroup. In a culture featuring almost a religion of extreme individuality with no sense of history’s connection to the present, the dog-eat-dog paradigm dictates there are just winners and losers, and losers deserve what they get. Any attempt to intervene on behalf of the “losers” and possibly take something from the “winners” is seen as a zero sum game and immoral.
Excellent comment. Thank you.
In my defense, the equality among equals factor that you rightly point out is why I used the phrase “universal equality.” Equality for us, not equality for them. Thanks again.
I’ve a strong suspicion that authoritarians spontaneously arise in society the same way LGBTQ+ people spontaneously arise in societies. There just are too many anecdotes of 60s hippie couples who begat raging authoritarians.
Question: What did previous civilisations do with their authoritarians? How did some civilisations manage to keep the numbers in the population either down or occupied with external matters?
Right wing propaganda paid for by oligarchs makes these people. There’s plenty of evidence of this … see, e.g., the documentary The Brainwashing Of My Dad.
In the immortal words of a great Nazi hunter, oblige the man
Authoritarians are mentally lazy. It takes work to be a person who endeavors to insure the liberties on others to the same extent as himself. It takes time to understand issues and develop a considered opinion based on multiple facts. It is no coincidence that the authoritarian leader instructs the followers to ignore all other inputs of information and trust only himself. “Only I can fix it” is a joke to us but it is a relief for the follower – with that there is no longer a need to read, study, analyze and consider, the only thing required is to listen and follow in lockstep.
Just a thought on the Calvinist reference. Calvin presumed everyone was utterly depraved from birth. But some were predestined for salvation but the majority were not. According to Calvin, no one but G-d knew who was the elect and who was the damned. But certain signs suggested election. Hard work, success in business, clean living and a conviction of one’s chosenness all suggested that one was a member of the elect appointed by G-d to restrain the evil of the damned. My read of your article was not that authoritarian tendencies were the default personality makeup of the population but that a certain segment of the population would exhibit those tendencies. As one of the other commenters observed, there’s a good bit of empirical studies to demonstrate that. What I didn’t hear was a sweeping determinism that would be consistent with the anthropology of John Calvin.