Re-Reading Theodor Adorno’s “The Authoritarian Personality” in an Age of Authoritarianism

We live in an era where authoritarians are on the march – in Hungary, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey, the United States, and a disturbingly long list of other countries. Most commentary on today’s creeping authoritarianism acts as if the world has never experienced anything like it before and we have to reinvent the wheel. But the authoritarian wave of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s offers us an obvious parallel. Observations about authoritarian psychology from The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a study conducted after World War II by social psychologists including the noted Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, have notable resonances with the present and are worth a second look. Before we get started, it’s important not to make the common mistake of conflating electoral support for authoritarians with authoritarianism as a psychological phenomenon. Not everyone who voted for Trump necessarily has an authoritarian personality; anyone who’s a diehard Trumpist certainly is.

That being said, what commonalities did people with authoritarian personality profiles exhibit in Adorno’s study? They didn’t believe that they personally benefited from a progressive administration like FDR’s. They disliked progressive governments for being too weak – in the sense of being friendly towards socially disadvantaged groups and in foreign affairs – even as they simultaneously expressed fear of a strong, overbearing government: in the words of Adorno and his coauthors, “resentment of government interference is fused with the ‘no pity for the poor’ complex.” This should sound familiar: this paradoxical cluster of attitudes was just as apparent in fervent opposition to Obama as it was in the 1940s. Not only don’t they feel sympathy for the people disadvantaged by our economic system, but authoritarians blame the victims, subscribing entirely to the ethos of economic competition and the bootstraps mentality. Wealth equates to virtue, and thus the poor are pariahs. Authoritarians exhibit an “attitude of indifference to the lot of the poor together with admiration for rich and successful people.” They “humiliate mentally those who are down-trodden anyway.”

Common characteristics of lower middle-class and lower-class authoritarians include “upward social mobility, identification with the higher class to whom they wish to belong themselves, recognition of universal competition as a measuring rod for what a person is worth, and the wish to keep down the potential threat of the disinherited masses.” Rather than recognizing common cause with “the disinherited masses” or the scapegoats identified by fascist leaders, these lower-class authoritarians disassociate from fellow members of their economic class. They earn a psychic income from identifying with a rich leader. The loss of dignity they suffer from living under modern capitalism, rather than generating a revolt against an economic system that treats people as disposable, is channeled into a cult of personality:

Social alienation is hidden by a surface phenomenon in which the very opposite is being stressed: personalization of political attitudes and habits offers compensation for the dehumanization of the social sphere which is at the bottom of most of today’s grievances. As less and less actually depends on individual spontaneity in our political and social organization, the more people are likely to cling to the idea that the man is everything and to seek a substitute for their own social impotence in the supposed omnipotence of great personalities.

Other attitudes are true regardless of the socioeconomic class of the authoritarian in question. Regarding the typical authoritarian, Adorno and his coauthors Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford write, “He ‘feels that perhaps we had better go to war with Russia now and get it over with.’ Here the high scorer’s typical cynicism, a fusion of contempt for man, exaggerated down-to-earthness, and underlying destructiveness, is allowed uncensored expression.” Such an attitude is apparent today in Steve Bannon’s cavalier attitude towards war with China, John Bolton’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran, and Trump’s saber-rattling. Anti-intellectualism and a hatred of facts are also defining characteristics of authoritarians. Adorno et al. could have been writing yesterday when they noted that

[a]ll modern fascist movements, including the practices of contemporary American demagogues, have aimed at the ignorant; they have consciously manipulated the facts in a way that could lead to success only with those who were not acquainted with the facts. Ignorance with respect to the complexities of contemporary society makes for a state of general uncertainty and anxiety, which is the ideal breeding ground for the modern type of reactionary mass movement. Such movements are always ‘populist’ and maliciously anti-intellectual.

In the face of such movements, what did Adorno et al. think could be done? They identify a number of intuitively appealing approaches – approaches which commentators have discussed exhaustively over the last few years – and argue that these tactics are unlikely to work because of how closed a true authoritarian’s heart and mind are to new information and moral persuasion:

Rational arguments cannot be expected to have deep or lasting effects upon a phenomenon that is irrational in its essential nature; appeals to sympathy may do as much harm as good when directed to people one of whose deepest fears is that they might be identified with weakness or suffering; closer association with members of minority groups can hardly be expected to influence people who are largely characterized by the inability to have experience…and if we should succeed in diverting hostility from one minority group we should be prevented from taking satisfaction by the knowledge that the hostility will now very probably be directed against some other group.

If the hatred and resentment that feed fascism are transferable from one scapegoat to another, then the only way to eliminate them is to eradicate their fundamental social and structural causes: anomie and alienation caused by grotesque economic inequalities, corporate corruption of democracy, and rampant insecurity. This is the conclusion Adorno and his co-authors arrive at:

It seems obvious…that the modification of the potentially fascist structure cannot be achieved by psychological means alone. The task is comparable to that of eliminating neurosis, or delinquency, or nationalism from the world. These are products of the total organization of society and are to be changed only as that society is changed.

In this process of social reorganization, anti-fascists shouldn’t abstain from potent emotional appeals. It’s a mistake to think that we can fight Trump and his ilk without stirring people up. Our appeals just need to take today’s widespread anger and convert it into love and the desire for a better world. On this point, Adorno and his compatriots were clear: “We need not suppose that appeal to emotion belongs to those who strive in the direction of fascism, while democratic propaganda must limit itself to reason and restraint. If fear and destructiveness are the major emotional sources of fascism, eros belongs mainly to democracy.”

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