There is a real threat of history repeating itself, there are clear signs that ‘authoritarians’ are gaining power and influence in US, UK and elsewhere.
We know where this led in the 1930’s, vowed to never allow it to happen again, yet amazingly no alarm bells are being sounded, no action taken.
In this article I want to offer a brief outline of ‘authoritarianism’, the signs that it is increasingly driving political agendas on the Right, the risks for society and finally what actions can be taken to protect our democracy and society.
Decades of research into the psychology of far right extremism
In the aftermath of World War 2 and the Holocaust, many psychological and sociological studies were initiated to comprehend how a minority of leaders and followers on the extreme right could gain power, crush opposition and produce the horrors of Nazism.
In 1950 Adorno et al (1) outlined ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ that correlated with the intolerant behaviour of the Nazis. In 1981 Altemeyer et al (2) developed this into the personality syndrome of ‘Right-Wing authoritarianism’ (RWA), a concept which is still accepted to this day.
Robert Altemeyer recently estimated that around 30% of the population score highly on the RWA questionnaire.
Most will not be aware of their own RWA, and often it will only manifest significantly when triggered by a new fear or uncertainty regarding a threat, which can be real or perceived. RWA can therefore be exploited by manipulative leaders who can create or exaggerate a threat, heighten the associated fear, acknowledge that fear and then claim they will provide the solution, given the power.
Characteristics of Right-Wing Authoritarians
De Zavala (3) recently formulated a description of Altemeyer’s RWA as a three-faceted attitude syndrome combining,
– submission to strength-based authority (representing the in-group)
– aggressiveness toward social deviants and dissenters
– support for conventionalism, order and a non-diverse environment
For them the world is seen as a dangerous place for their own in-group, they dislike uncertainty or change, and value their security and social order. They support traditional in-group values and customs.
Jost et al (4) suggested that many people adopt RWA attitudes to meet their psychological needs, to help manage their fears, uncertainties, losses and related needs for structure and cognitive closure.
So in a complex and threatening world, RWA’s defer the analyses to established authorities. They put their trust in perceived strong authoritarian leaders on whom they rely to understand the problems they face and find solutions for them.
According to Altemeyer (1) individuals who score highly on RWA accept the use of lies by these strong leaders, even their immoral or illegal acts (as far as torture) used in the service of their in-group. They have little commitment to democracy or equal rights.
They endorse aggression towards any person or collective who violates their in-group rules and they follow their in-group‘s established traditions including social, religious and moral conventions, such as on marriage and sex. It is found in members of the most orthodox of religious groups.
They crush dissent.
RWA’s can direct aggression to any person or collective (out-group) compromising or threatening their order and the status quo.
Studies (5) have shown a strong correlation between RWA and prejudice against many out-groups (Jews, Black people, Arabs, Asians, LGBT and Disabled people). It has been found to be one of the strongest indicators of prejudice in society.
They tend to vote for right-wing political parties, especially those advocating a rejection of immigrants.
Not surprisingly a strong relationship has recently been shown between RWA and Trump voters, Leave voters and members of far right parties in the US and UK.
Recent signs of RWA in politics
RWA attitudes are triggered by a real or perceived threat.
The trick is for a self-proclaimed authoritive leader to tell people he acknowledges any threat, and understands the cause better than anyone else. He provides a simple solution to a simple cause, even if false. He promises if given the authority he will sort things out for them.
The job losses that American workers (part of the in-group) faced were more to do with automation and economics, but Trump primarily blamed immigrants and foreigners (through unfair globalisation). He claimed that non-Americans did not share the same values (he described the cheating Chinese and Mexican rapists).
His promise was to sort out those ‘others who threaten us’ and he will then “make America great” again.
Trump tries to crush any opposition. Hilary Clinton should be “locked up” and black supporters of Palestinian rights were “anti-Semites to be send back home”. He has been impeached for using his authority to ask Ukrainians to investigate unfounded allegations about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., one of Mr. Trump’s leading Democratic rivals.
It has been estimated that Trump has lied or misled over 12 000 times in 928 days (6). He has no respect the structures of US or international democratic institutions (7), Trump wants absolute power.
Trump has also been described as a ‘grotesque racist’ and a ‘compulsive misogynist’. (8, 9)
But Trump’s faithful RWA voters tolerate this appalling behaviour. When Trump is criticised by others he gives himself false legitimacy by saying any attack on him is an attack on ‘the people”. (Of course Trump’s real in-group is his rich friends.)
Boris Johnson has also been shown to be a serial liar, racist and misogynist.
He has lied to voters about the hardships created by an ideological Tory austerity being the fault of the EU and Immigrants. And that his hard brexit will solve all their problems.
He lied about ‘getting brexit done’ when trade negotiations will endure for years, even sorting out the Irish border arrangements will take at least 12 months.
In fact, when the hardships are likely to get worse, a recent UN report revealed, there are no Government plans to protect the most vulnerable being once more hit the hardest by the expected economic downturn after a hard Tory brexit, and these victims include our ethnic minorities and disabled.
When Johnson repeats ‘ take back control’ as a way to remove the hardships for millions, he means ‘control’ for himself, not those afflicted with his austerity.
He lied about selling off the NHS to Trump.
Johnson does not respect democracy. He illegally prorogued Parliament.
In his manifesto he wishes to revise our constitutions to provide the Government with more power.
Like Trump he claims a false legitimacy by pretending to defend the in-group. He said that during the brexit debates, Parliament resisted the will of the people he defends to hide his own incompetence.
In reality his in-group is also his rich mates wanting their tax havens, and investors wanting to strip away protective rights and regulations to increase profits.
Johnson avoids scrutiny at every opportunity and lied by giving the impression he would submit to Andrew Neil’s interrogations as did Jeremy Corbyn. He has fed fake news to the media as coming from a ‘reliable source at number 10’.
Like Trump he denigrates the opposition, help by a subservient media. Peter Oborne has severely criticised journalists for never challenging lies from Johnson or his friends. Oborne said even journalists from the BBC and Guardian simply propagate Johnson’s lies.
Johnson falsely accused Labour of widespread antisemitism. A recent report (10) outlined the blatant bias in the reporting of antisemitism smears against Labour and Corbyn. There was a relentless, presentation of lies as truth, with no fact-checks. There was a failure of the media to give voice to left-wing Jews, most who have never witnessed antisemitism in the Labour party. Johnson cares little for the truth and the media comply.
This attempt to destroy Labour has been assisted by pro-Israel groups. It is clear that Johnson’s friend Netanyahu shares many RWA characteristics, in particular evidenced by his illegal treatment of Palestinians, racist laws and his contempt for democratic international organisations.
The attempt to crush support for Palestinian human and equal right with false smears of antisemitism, led by some pro-Israel right-wing British Jewish organisations, will facilitate the election of an extreme right-wing Tory Government.
Although the smears involve few Jewish activists, many British Jews in wider society believe the lies, now seeing the demonised Left as a greater threat even than the Far Right. This despite the recent evidence for continued higher prevalence of antisemitism and hate incident perpetration on the Far Right. Many British Jews obviously do not realise that they have been manipulated into ignoring the decades of research into preventing another Holocaust.
So the risk for all society and our shared democracy increases with the RWA agenda, as Johnson and his pals peddle lies to get votes, and lies to destroy Labour.
The probable outcome risks
If a Tory Government is elected we will continue to move closer to a RWA regime and the extreme right.
The Tory party members, the majority standing out from other party members in terms of being anti-Immigrant, racist and Islamophobic, also have marked authoritarian tendencies; will participate in the RWA agenda. Johnson has eliminated many centrist Tory MPs, so risks little in the way of dissent.
They may have 30 % of the population ready to accept anything they propose, even if it is illegal or anti-democratic. But RWA’s like Johnson will want a firmer grip and will move to silence the 70% majority when they eventually wake up to what is happening.
A meaningful political opposition will be completely crushed.
The media will be even more a mouthpiece for Tory propaganda.
Society will regress, independent thinking, debates and free speech will be eroded.
Racism and antisemitism will flourish, especially if the economic and climate threats worsen, and all out-groups blamed.
Human rights, equality rights, women’s rights will be menaced.
The democracy that previous generations fought to maintain during WW2 will be lost.
What can be done?
It is hard to debate with many RWA’s as they have sought psychological reassurance and cognitive closure from the leaders of their in-group. They tend to close off discussion on any challenges to their borrowed views. It is akin to discussing religious dogmas with a fervent believer.
Altemeyer suggest improving cognitive skills and education, and in bringing this in-group out of its enclosed spaces. It seems important not to be derisive, given the sensitivities to perceived threats, but to provide reassurances.
We should tackle the real causes of hardships, invest in better paid jobs, fund our NHS, reform our Social care system, build more houses, unite the country with a common purpose, and improve social cohesions with minority groups.
RWA leaders do not work in a vacuum, they build on false news in the right-wing media. Johnson’s false blame of Immigrants and the EU for austerity was built up over years in Tory tabloids and rarely challenged by other journalists.
Similarly his false attacks about antisemitism were only possible following blatant lies and fact check failures across the media. This can’t be allowed to continue.
So the media needs to be regulated, and perhaps have imposed a more diverse ownership and balanced editorial line. Certainly more objective, informative and truthful reporting is essential. Lobby groups and charities need to be monitored and regulated if they become politically biased.
However, that all takes time. So the best thing that voters who value our democracy should do is certainly not vote Tory on December 12th. Far better to vote Labour.
Generations that preceded us have fought hard to obtain and preserve our freedoms and democracy. It would be a tragedy if lies persuaded too many to give our democracy away.
- The Authoritarian Personality Peter E Gordon (Thoedor Adorno) 29 August 2019
2. The Authoritarians Bob Altemeyer August 23 2018
- The Relationship between the Brexit Vote and Individual Predictors of Prejudice: Collective Narcissism, Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation Golec de Zavala et al 27 November 2017
4. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition, Jost J T et al
5. The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale, January 2017 Benjamin Saunders and Josephine Ngo
7. Trump is using the autocrat’s playbook. Democratic institutions must step up Michael H Fuchs, Guardian 17 October 2017
8. Trump’s grotesque racism matters, Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post October 22 2019
9. Donald Trump, Compulsive Misogynist Stephan Richter Globalist 18 August 2018
- 10. Bad News for Labour – an essential handbook Deborah Maccoby 7 October 2019