Hello Everyone,

These commentaries were dubbed “Obamagrams” in 2007 because they were intended to be about the candidate and then his presidency.

I have only written three times about the current presidential selection process, once last October, then again in March of this year, and on Tuesday.

The first of these (#100) identified Donald Trump as someone who clearly suffers from “narcissistic personality disorder” and predicted that he would fade when his poll numbers did.  I was obviously way off the mark in that prediction as so many more knowledgeable observers have been. But, I am now more convinced that the diagnosis fits even though that prognosis didn’t.

I have continued to struggle to understand how such an unappealing figure has the backing of a not inconsiderable portion of the electorate.  In many ways, his candidacy is not susceptible to political analysis – it requires psychoanalysis.  It also doesn’t fit into our traditional “left” and “right” construct for understanding politics.

Some of my readers have asked when I would offer an opinion about this bewildering and bizarre situation.  I have hesitated because I couldn’t find anything useful to say.

My Thesis
The picture is now becoming clearer to me.  At the risk of being wrong again, I am ready to share it:

Fear has caused some voters this cycle to seek an authoritarian figure.  Donald Trump’s style meets this need, even though he may be nothing more than a narcissist seeking the ultimate form of attention.  Nonetheless, fear, authoritarianism, and narcissism are a dangerous mix.

I have come to agree with other analysts that Trump is merely an opportunist, a symptom or beneficiary of underlying societal concerns.  He is not a credible presidential candidate with an underlying philosophy or realistic proposals for addressing those concerns.  Nor does he have a biography, 70 years in the making, that offers any evidence that he actually cares about his newly-found followers. There is absolutely nothing on his resume that indicates any interest in governing or even service of any kind.

Trump is little more than a narcissist in authoritarian clothing.

At the same time, we should all be concerned about the latent demand for an authoritarian leader which his candidacy has revealed.  Trump needs to be resoundingly defeated by Secretary Clinton, not just to avoid the calamity of a Trump presidency, but to discourage any future copy-cat authoritarians emerging from either the right or the left.  They could destroy our democracy.

Authoritarianism Activated by Fear
A friend of mine alerted me to a piece which sparked my thinking.  It was published on the website Vox – a purportedly liberal outlet of which I was not previously aware and for whose credibility I cannot vouch.  The lengthy piece, entitled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” is worth a read.  (You can Google it if you wish.  If I supply a link, some of your email systems may reject it.) 

While I have no opinion about the validity of the academic research it cites, its basic argument makes sense to me:  There are voters with inherent authoritarian proclivities and others to whom authoritarian solutions appeal when conditions cause fear which, in turn, “activates” or triggers those tendencies.

The argument in Vox holds that:

Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump – and will persist as a force in American politics…Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world.  Challenges to that order – diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order – are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order…

Fear of change is one of the emotions that drives authoritarians.  In my view, fear is a better explanation than anger –the now conventional explanation — although they are closely related.  And, the major changes our society is currently undergoing engenders fear in some people. Here’s Vox again:

This is, after all, a time of social change in America.  The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before.  Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore.  And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears.  They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats.  And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

In #83, I wrote about Niccolò Machiavelli’s explanation about why change is difficult and scary (The Prince, 1513):

…one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear…and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have actually had personal experience of them. Therefore, it happens that whenever those who are enemies [of the change] have the chance to attack, they do so enthusiastically, whereas those others defend [the change] hesitantly…

In other words, human beings have long feared the unknowns inherent in change.

There seem to be threats everywhere: physical threats, including terrorism since 9/11 and ISIL more recently; economic threats, greatly exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, accelerating already disruptive changes in the structure of our economy and the types of jobs it produces; and social threats, with the nation becoming majority minority and changing marriage and gender identity norms.  And, there is a growing perception that a “dysfunctional” federal government is incapable of providing adequate protection from these threats.

The accumulation of these real and perceived threats – stoked by the unrelenting fear tactics and negativity of some politicians, commentators, and media over many years – seems to have activated authoritarian responses among some voters.

When fears are sufficiently aroused, some people look for “short, simple, and certain” solutions.  They reject “long, complex, and nuanced” ones.  Authoritarianism vs. democracy.

Punitive approaches, accompanied by the threat of force, also appeal to those looking for authoritarian answers.

Trump’s natural style and rhetoric perfectly fit the bill.  Build a wall. Throw the Mexicans out.  No Muslims welcome here. Punch him in the face.

However, while it may seem that he is attempting to seize dictatorial power, there is no evidence that he is running in pursuit of any philosophical objective.  Rather, I suspect that his shallow pursuit of self-aggrandisement is a goal in and of itself – to feed his narcissistic addiction – and his bombastic, no-holds-barred personality neatly conforms to the needs of voters looking for what appears to be an authoritarian.  He may just be an accidental candidate, strange as that may seem.

I am also convinced that he only wants the title, not the job.  But, as he continues his racist assault on the judge on his Trump University case, I’m not even sure that he actually wants the title.  He may just want the notoriety that accrues simply from seeking the title. Again, all of this requires psychoanalysis, not political analysis.

There is also nothing that would lead us to believe that Trump is pursuing totalitarian power in the name of some great ideological goal like Stalin, Hitler, or Mao did.  His philosophy may be no more profound than a slogan that fits on a baseball cap.  And, as someone recently quipped, even that could be interpreted as no more than a plea to “Make America White Again.” It could also just as easily read “Leave it to Beaver.”

I might add that Bernie Sanders’ message seems to have some elements of authoritarianism, too, odd as that may sound.  His message is also “short, simple, and certain,” although it is much gentler, with no punitive elements, and it has noble intent and philosophical underpinnings. Nonetheless, it is somewhat concerning, too.

As we know, in stark contrast to Trump and Sanders, President Obama’s answers to all big problems are “long, complex, and nuanced.”  That is, learned, realistic, and even sober. For instance, here’s what he said in a PBS NewsHour forum recently, regarding the dilemma about jobs [greatly truncated]:

Q: What can we look forward to in the future as far as jobs, employment, whatever?  Because all of our jobs have left or in the process of leaving, sir.

A: … part of the problems have to do with jobs going overseas…

…frankly, part of it has had to do with automation…And so what that means is, even though we’re making the same amount of stuff in our manufacturing sector, we’re employing fewer people.

Now, the good news is that there are entire new industries that are starting to pop up, and you’re actually seeing some manufacturers coming back to the United States…

But for those folks who’ve lost their job right now because a plant went down to Mexico [or was automated], that isn’t going to make you feel better…some of those jobs of the past are just not going to come back…

But I got to tell you that the days when you just being willing [sic] to work hard and you can…walk into a plant and suddenly there’s going to be a job for you, that’s just not going to be there for our kids, [they are] going to need to know computers…need to know some science and some math…

But you cannot look backwards.  And that doesn’t make folks feel good sometimes…But they’re going to have to retrain for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.

The “Big Me”
David Brooks provided the final piece of the social change puzzle – the concept of the “Big Me.” It explains why Trump’s clinical narcissism is more acceptable today in some circles.

In his current book, ironically entitled The Road to Character, David writes that in recent years:

…we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.

Think Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Think Donald Trump.

Trump’s insatiable need to be “the center of the universe” comes at a time when the electronic media has an even more insatiable appetite for “content” (the more outrageous the better) intersects with some voters’ desire for a simple-minded, authoritarian-style candidate.  Trump cannot be understood by looking through conservative or liberal lenses.  All you need is a selfie stick.

Authoritarians as a Persistent Force
Regardless of Trump, we should all be concerned that he may have unleashed the dark forces of authoritarianism (like racism) that could be a threat to our democracy for some time to come.

More from Vox:

…political scientists say the theory [of authoritarianism] explains much more than just Donald Trump, placing him within larger trends in American politics: polarization, the rightward shift of the Republican Party… [beginning] in the 1960s [the last era of great social change when] the Republican Party…reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values…and the [more recent] rise within that party of a dissident faction [the Tea Party] challenging GOP orthodoxies and upending American politics.

More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggests that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, may now have [created] a de facto three-party system: The Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians… [This] phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election…will persist long after it has ended…

American Exceptionalism
Our family doctor framed the challenge we are now all facing most incisively last week.  Our country’s willingness to reject an anti-democratic candidate will confirm its claim of “exceptionalism.”  Alternatively, a further turn toward authoritarianism, whether philosophical or accidental, could prove to be the threat we should most fear.

I am confident that we will be up to the challenge in November by electing Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming margin, thus tamping down the authoritarian impulses always latent in our electorate.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com

Chuck

 

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