I am going to look at Ross Douthat's idea of authoritarianism, which bears little resemblance to reality, so let's define the word first. From Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians:
Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said....
In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense as well. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger.
So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.
Authoritarianism is also indoctrinated in children.
Americans are raised to be authoritarian. It is bred into us. There are many reasons why but first that fact must be established.
We are taught to be Godly, which means we are taught that we exist to serve and please an authority far, far above us.
We are taught to be patriotic, to believe that some countries are better than others and ours is the best, and our God loves and favors our country above all others.
We are taught to be good little consumers, that buying and selling are the highest goals of mankind, that the rich are winners and the poor are losers and there is no other way of life but this rat race.
We are taught to separate and rank and grab the highest slot we can reach while kissing up to the higher levels and kicking down to the lower.
But we are not more Godly, more patriotic, more entrepreneurial, more better. We just think we are exceptional. It's not true. We are authoritarian, unless we decide that we won't be anymore-which many of us do. Most people gladly choose obedience to authority once they take a look at the drawbacks.
No gods: no heaven, no rewards, no punishments, no justice. No unconditional love, no emotional support in difficult times. No God-given sense of purpose, identity, self-esteem, direction, structure.
No patriotism: the crushing weight of realization that we kill for convenience and profit, that our dead die for nothing, that sacrifice is a slick con, that everything we think we stand for means nothing to people who see us as malignant, malevolent, shrikes of death who top off their crimes with their fake, simpering, hypocritical piety.
No class identification; No middle-class complacency or upper class self-satisfaction; choosing to side with the poor marks you as a loser in our society. Violence to gain perfect freedom for wealthy white Americans against fantasies of pure evil is celebrated while violence to gain equality is derided. Inequality kills; for a decade a few economics have been warning everyone else that people die when governing is ignored and a government starved, and the structures and infrastructures that protect our society fail.
It is so sad. People say it's just human nature but that's not true. It is human nature twisted and poisoned by mistreatment and it is completely unnecessary. We are so much more than this but we will never find out what we might have been capable of.
As you might have noticed, this is all horribly depressing. The truth hurts, a lot. Which is why we thank Imaginary Much Better Daddy Substitute every day that He gives us so many authoritarian assholes to laugh at. For instance, Ross Douthat.
Grossly authoritarian theocrat Douthat wants to convince us that "authoritarian" doesn't mean what you think it means. From a recent post of his in The New York Times:
MAYBE Donald Trump is doing us a favor.
The United States has long been spared a truly authoritarian element in our politics.
Since Southern apartheid was crushed and far-left terrorism died away, we’ve had very little organized political violence, and few homegrown movements that manifest the authoritarian temptation.
Yes, our political institutions are creaking, and our presidency is increasingly imperial.
Because of all the lies.
But there are still basic norms that both parties and every major politician claim to honor and respect.
What Trump is doing, then, is showing us something different, something that less fortunate countries know all too well: how authoritarianism works, how it seduces, and ultimately how it wins.
And there is the Big Lie, that authoritarianism is something that is done to innocent farm hands and dairy maids, seduced from their labors by evil.
But — God willing — he’s doing it in a way that’s sufficiently chaotic, ridiculous and ultimately unpopular that he will pass from the scene without actually taking power, leaving us to absorb the lessons of his rise.
Trump is currently the frontrunner in the Republican primary race so pious wishful thinking based on Douthat's personal preferences makes a poor argument.
That rise has four building blocks. First, his strongest supporters have entirely legitimate grievances. The core of that support is a white working class that the Democratic Party has half-abandoned and the Republican Party has poorly served — a cohort facing social breakdown and economic stagnation, and stuck with a liberal party offering condescension and open borders and a conservative party offering foreign quagmires and capital gains tax cuts.
The Republican party's elite looted and then blew up the economy and elite Democrats helped them because "Republican" and "Democratic" are merely silly little adjectives compared to the all-importance of the word "elite." The very rich became much richer and the poor and middle class became much poorer. This was not a problem for a long time; everyone expects to have a terrace apartment in America, don't they?
But when you cut off the lower classes from prosperity they lose any connection to the American myth of superiority. They lose faith in authority. They become anti-authoritarian. This is a very big problem for the upper classes. Losing faith in authority is losing obedience to authority, the bedrock upon which authoritarian societies sit.
The new poor can't afford establishment schools or get establishment jobs. They aren't going to inherit property, stocks, bonds, or fat bank accounts. They don't go to establishment churches, which tell you that you would be successful if you were a better person. They don't vote for the establishment candidate, who also told them that their troubles are their own fault. They can't afford in live in suburbs or have nice cars. They have very little to lose.
Trump’s support is broader than just these voters, but they’re the reason he’s a phenomenon, a force.
No. The elite of our country stole billions while undermining the elite to win elections. This created a power vacuum into which Trump stepped. Since Douthat is the lackey of those elites he lies to make himself look better.
Second, you have the opportunists — the politicians and media figures who have seen some advantage from elevating Trump. The first wave of these boosters, including Ted Cruz and various talk radio hosts, clearly imagined that Trump would flare and die, and by being in his corner early they could win his voters later, or gain his fans as listeners. But the next wave, upon us now, thinks that Trump is here to stay, and their hope is to join his inner circle (if they’re politicians), shape his policy proposals (if they’re idea peddlers), or be the voice of the Trump era (if they’re Sean Hannity).
Oh, Mr. Limbaugh? Over here, Mr. Limbaugh! Did you know that you are being auditioned for Republican Trump Scapegoat? And that when one is casting one's gaze around to find scapegoats you are very difficult to overlook?
Douthat might be more convincing were it not for the fact that he is one of the politicians and media figures who hope to have seen some advantage from elevating Rubio.
There is no real ideological consistency to this group: Trump’s expanding circle of apologists includes Sarah Palin and Steve Forbes, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie; he has anti-immigration populists and Wall Street supply-siders, True Conservatives and self-conscious moderates, evangelical preachers and avowed white nationalists. The only common threads are cynicism, ambition and a sense of Trump as a ticket to influence they couldn’t get any other way.
Actually, another common thread is authoritarianism.
Then third, you have the institutionalists — less cynical, not at all enamored of Trump, but unwilling to do all that much to stop him. These are people who mostly just want Republican politics to go back to normal, who fear risk and breakage and schism too much to go all in against him.
The get-along-to-go-along authoritarians, who always look around to see what everyone else is doing to cover up their massive insecurity, afraid to be wrong or different from anyone else. They are more moderately authoritarian and will go whichever way the wind blows.
The institutionalists include the party apparatchiks who imagine they can manage and constrain Trump if he gets the nomination. They include the donors who’ve been reluctant to fund the kind of scorched-earth assault that the Democrats surely have waiting. They include the rivals who denounce Trump as a con artist but promise to vote for him in the fall. They include Republicans who keep telling themselves stories about how Trump will appoint conservative justices or Trump is expanding the party to pretend that Trump versus Hillary would be a normal sort of vote. And they even include the occasional liberal convinced that Trump-the-dealmaker is someone the Democrats can eventually do business with.
Douthat is indignant that nobody will get rid of Trump for him. He wants to continue the con without revealing the con. So does everyone else running a con.
Then, finally, you have the inevitabilists — not Trump supporters, but Trump enablers, who encourage the institutionalists in their paralysis by acting and talking as if the support of 35 percent of the primary electorate means Trump Cannot Be Stopped. Some inevitabilists are intoxicated with celebrity and star power. Cable news is riddled with such voices, who daily manifest Orwell’s dictum, “Power worship blurs political judgment,” so that, “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”
We can't have Sean Hannity edge out Ross, can we? The Republican "elite" have burned their wingnut welfare bridges with Trump. If Trump won, could pundit jobs dry up?
Others, especially in the intelligentsia, have a kind of highbrow nihilism about our politics, a sense that American democracy’s decadence — or the Republican Party’s decadence, in particular — is so advanced that a cleansing Trumpian fire might be just the thing we need.
There is no right wing intelligentsia. There is the wingnut welfare system and the elite who control it.
I have a little bit of the last vice, which is why I spent a long time being anti-anti-Trump: not rooting for him to win, but appreciating his truth-telling on certain issues, his capacity to upset the stagnant status quo.
You'd need a corkscrew to unpack that sentence. Douthat is attempting oh-so-delicately to position himself to dash to whichever side offers him the most personal advancement, like Tom Hanks trying to get an elevator in Splash, only without the charm or the desire to have sex with a beautiful woman. Douthat loves the status quo, even if it isn't Jesus-y enough to suit him. It got him to prep school, Harvard, and The New York Times.
Which is the way it so often works with authoritarians.
This is the reason for this entire exercise in doh. Douthat is the authoritarian follower and wanna-be leader. Trump is the authoritarian leader. Douthat is completely authoritarian. His work is authoritarian; he attempts to create a more authoritarian world. Douthat is in fact more authoritarian than Trump, whose self-indulgence keeps him too busy to worry about others' personal lives. Douthat doesn't like these facts so he ignores them and pretends that "authoritarian" means "bad man" and therefore he can twist the word into any use he finds convenient.
They promise a purgation that many people at some level already desire, and only too late do you realize that the purge will extend too far, and burn away too much.
Douthat just wanted to purify the world of sin and the wicked. He's a Godly, special man. It's Trump's fault that while truth-telling he went too far. He says that Black culture is to blame for their exploitation. Douthat tells everyone that Muslim culture will persecute and eliminate Christians and Western culture. He incites the violent, who incite violence. His hands are clean. Trump is inciting violence directly. He goes to far and burns away too much camouflage.
Fortunately Trump’s fire should still be contained, by the wider electorate if not by his hapless party.
Fortunately he’s still more a comic-opera demagogue than a clear and present danger. Fortunately this is just history giving us a lesson in what could happen, how the republic could slide into a strongman’s hands.
The right created this mess and now it's trying to ooze away from assuming any responsibility for it, blaming Obama and everyone else for the mess Ross Douthat, for one, helped create.
Bob Altemeyer, long before the Trump phenomenon:
First, if you are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government about a dozen years ago, I think you'll find a lot in this book that says your fears are well founded. As many have pointed out, the Republic is once again passing through perilous times. The concept of a constitutional democracy has been under attack--and by the American government no less! The mid-term elections of 2006 give hope that the best values and traditions of the country will ultimately prevail. But it could prove a huge mistake to think that the enemies of freedom and equality have lost the war just because they were recently rebuffed at the polls. I’ll be very much surprised if their leaders don’t frame the setback as a test of the followers’ faith, causing them to redouble their efforts. They came so close to getting what they want, they’re not likely to pack up and go away without an all-out drive. But even if their leaders cannot find an acceptable presidential candidate for 2008, even if authoritarians play a much diminished role in the next election, even if they temporarily fade from view, they will still be there, aching for a dictatorship that will force their views on everyone. And they will surely be energized again, as they were in 1994, if a new administration infuriates them while carrying out its mandate. The country is not out of danger.