Pick Your Authoritarian: Trump or Cruz

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wisconsin, on March 30. The author argues that Trump fits snugly into the authoritarian personality type: bullying, vengeful, pitiless, manipulative, dishonest, willing to cheat to win, prejudiced, mean-spirited, nationalistic and narcissistic. Mark Kauzlarich/reuters

This article first appeared on the Justia site.

For the past several months, as Donald Trump has continued winning more state Republican presidential primaries than anyone else, I have been asked again and again: "How did you know Trump would make it so far?" "Can he really be the GOP nominee?"

These questions have been prompted by my Verdict column about Trump's presidential prospects, which I wrote some eight months ago—back on July 24, 2015—laying out what he might do and why. People who read the column were struck by its prescience.

To be clear, however, I am no political prognosticator, but I do understand authoritarian personalities and the way they operate. In 2006, I wrote a book about these people after they had taken control of the Republican Party, titled Conservatives Without Conscience.

(I have thought about writing an update chapter for the book, putting Trump on the cover and reissuing it. But the situation with authoritarians controlling the conservative political movement and Republican politics is going to last a lot longer than Donald Trump, so there is no reason for a special issue of the book.)

But I am going to update my prior column by doing a recap while adding some additional information, because, to understand the Trump phenomenon, it is essential to appreciate political authoritarianism, as well as its limits and boundaries.


Americans were introduced to "the authoritarian type" personalities in a 1951 book that was controversial from its publication: The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford. While the book had its flaws, time has also shown much of the analysis was accurate, if not prophetic, in explaining this type of personality.

Retired academic Bob Altemeyer, from the University of Manitoba in Canada, devoted his professional career to updating and expanding on the work of Adorno's team. And Altemeyer was kind enough to tutor and guide me when I did a deep-dive into this subject a decade ago.

To understand authoritarianism, as revealed by a half century of experiments and work by social science, obviously requires much more than a few-hundred-word summary. But broadly speaking, authoritarians can be divided into "leaders" and "followers."

Labeling and describing these people is not intended to be pejorative but descriptive. And these descriptions are in most cases openly given by those who wear the labels proudly, and have reported this over decades of testing by social scientists.

Political Authoritarian Followers

Authoritarian followers, who are far more prevalent than leaders, can be characterized by their submissiveness to established authorities, a trait that is typically combined with a general aggressiveness toward other people. They are both men and women who tend to be highly conventional in their daily lives, yet they are easily submissive to authority and willing to work aggressively on behalf of such authority.

Social scientists designate these followers "right-wing authoritarians" based on their distinctive characteristic and traits. These are Donald Trump's strongest supporters and most consistent voters.

In Conservatives Without Conscience, I catalogued the characteristics and traits of the authoritarian followers. While a follower need not have all the traits, many do: They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education; they are trusting of untrustworthy authorities; they are far more prejudiced (e.g., homophobic or racist) than the general population; and they are mean-spirited, narrow-minded and intolerant.

They are bullies, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarians and often severely punitive; they also privately are very frightened people. They demand loyalty and return it, and they have very little self-awareness.

Today, authoritarian followers are typically politically conservative Republicans, openly identifying with special breeds of conservatives, such as Tea Party Republicans. While there are a few Democrats who fall in these ranks, they are extremely rare.

Authoritarian Leaders

Within any group of authoritarian followers, you will find a few in the ranks who are not only among the loyalist of loyal but who also want to be leaders. They are simply biding their time. In fact, testing shows one of the reasons they are such good followers is that they believe when they are one day leading, their followers should be as loyal as they have been.

These authoritarian leader types, who are typically men, will always have four clear characteristics or traits that distinguish them: They are dominating; they oppose equality; they desire personal power; and they are totally amoral. Donald Trump is a classic authoritarian leader.

As I spelled out in Conservatives Without Conscience, authoritarian leaders are often naturally intimidating and bullying, somewhat hedonistic, relentlessly vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest and very willing to cheat to win; they are highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of "suckers" and specialize in creating false images to sell themselves; they are highly narcissistic, and they may or may not be religious but are most always politically and economically conservative.

As noted in the prior column, without question Trump is the most prototypical authoritarian leader to ever seek the American presidency so prominently, although we have had several authoritarian presidents and vice presidents, most recently including Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, followed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Trump's pursuit of the presidency raises the question of how far a truly authoritarian leader can go in America.

How Far Can Trump Go?

As I explained earlier, Donald Trump has spent decades developing and harmonizing his authoritarian nature with his intellectual and interpersonal skills, and his efforts have been reinforced by his successes. While others may not take him as seriously as he takes himself, rest assured he knows exactly what he is doing. He has spent his lifetime doing what he is now doing.

Since writing the earlier version of this column, I have talked with a number of people who have done business with him, and all describe it as an extremely unpleasant experience. Or as one told me, the art of the deal to Donald is getting his way.

Given Trump's years as a public personality, plus hosting authoritarian reality television shows—The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—he understands the media better than any of his Republican rivals, and how to play himself publicly. Unlike most candidates, who can be embarrassed into following the rules by exposing foul play, Trump will set the rules as he wants them, bullying and manipulating everyone necessary to get his way.

Trump is thoroughly enjoying being the loose cannon of the GOP 2016 nominating process; he is making it up as he goes along. In short, do not look to Trump to restrain himself, nor to the media criticizing him as a restraint. Trump understands the American public has less respect for the news media than for politicians—although he sees himself as neither, rather as a successful businessman who loves his country and wants to fix it for himself and his friends, which will benefit everyone.

The only restraint on Donald Trump will be voters, but Republican voters love authoritarian leaders. It is difficult to determine exactly how many Republicans are authoritarian followers—thus naturals for the Trump bandwagon—but in my ongoing discussions with social scientists I have come to believe that up to as many as half of all registered Republicans are authoritarian followers.

Many Wall Street big shots live in Trump's upscale Manhattan buildings, and they view him as one of their own. Wall Street would not likely try to block him. The GOP establishment, such as it is, understands that Trump is using their party for his own purposes, but they are so disorganized and inept, their effort to block him will fail.

Trump is currently starting to hire a few people who actually understand the GOP presidential nominating process, because I am told he has shared with friends that he has far exceeded his own expectations. While all of the GOP presidential candidates evidence varying degrees of authoritarianism, none can top Trump.

Bottom line: Donald Trump is going to win the GOP nomination unless he blunders by failing to out-cheat, outbluff and outfox the only authoritarian leader who shares all the same characteristics and traits of Trump and is giving him the best fight, Ted Cruz—the most openly loathed peer in the U.S. Senate.

Of this we can be absolutely certain: The GOP presidential nominee in 2016 will be an irreconcilable, cast-iron, dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian personality. I would bet on Trump, who—because this is his one shot—will do anything to win the nomination.

John Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to President Richard Nixon.