STRESS TEST FOR DEMOCRACY: Part 2 of 3: Authoritarian Personalities

©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Donald Trump may have authoritarian tendencies (that’s not a mental health diagnosis, which I will refrain from attempting) and therefore he may be an ideal person, as President, to test the strength of our democracy. The outcome of his presidency may be a more active electorate and a stronger democracy. On the other hand, is it possible that his personality could trump democracy and lead us into an authoritarian government, as has happened in other countries over the last few centuries.

My point in this blog is not to criticize him as a person, but rather to analyze the dynamics of how his personality type can lead to trouble, without him (and most people) even realizing it. I believe that he does not even recognize his own patterns of behavior and that he is simply being who he has been since childhood: someone who acts aggressively and inappropriately, but does not reflect on his own behavior and therefore does not make necessary changes. He is doomed to sabotage himself and others, but cannot see it.

Authoritarian personalities appear to have all four of the key characteristics of the “high-conflict” personalities that I have been studying over the past twenty years: lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and a preoccupation with blaming others. In addition, they appear to have traits of narcissistic personalities (with a drive to been seen as very superior, to be loved and admired by most people) and antisocial personalities (with a drive to dominate, control and sometimes destroy others). This combination of personality traits can have a powerful effect on a large group of people in the following five ways, at least as I read history:

  1. A “Cult of Personality”: Authoritarian personalities see themselves as the law, rather than subject to the law. Their narcissism makes them feel above the law. Over time they wish to remove the rules and laws that seem to confine them. In addition, they want to be worshiped as a superior person, so that the people around them will see them personally as the source of all benefits and punishments, rather than the rules and laws established over years or centuries. They demand loyalty as the primary (and often only) qualification for working in “their” government. The recent cabinet meeting was not surprising if you are aware of this personality trait. People are expected to “love” them, rather than simply doing a good job.

  1. A Ruler, Not a Leader: Authoritarian personalities want to dominate others, rather than lead them. Rather than being seen as a brilliant party leader, policy innovator, legislative powerhouse and inspiration to the people of the nation, they want to rule their nations and simply tell everyone what to do—and punish them if they don’t comply. They don’t speak in terms of “we” (as most politician do), but instead repeatedly speak of “I.” A statement like “Only I can fix it,” would suggest aspirations to be a ruler rather than a leader. This would also explain the drive to adopt extreme policies that the vast majority of people do not want. This is because authoritarian rulers have to be on the extreme right or the extreme left. They cannot be moderate.

  1. Negative Advocates: With both of the above in mind, authoritarian rulers don’t surround themselves with advisers; they surround themselves with negative advocates. These are people who advocate for whatever the ruler wants and spend much of their time defending the ruler’s extreme (and frequently criticized) behavior. They may initially have the happy illusion that they are special advisers, but over time it becomes clear that they are not and are instead subject to the whims and unmanaged emotions of the ruler. They are also subject to being thrown under a bus at any time. Interestingly, since authoritarian rulers regularly fire their negative advocates and have no real friends, they rely heavily on family members in their governments. But sometimes they also throw them under a bus—or more accurately have them poisoned or otherwise executed, as history’s favorite royal dramas have shown us.

  1. Targets of Blame: One of the classic characteristics of antisocial rulers is their ability to con the masses. Most people know that antisocial pickpockets succeed by distracting you (“look over there”) while they pick your pocket. What most people don’t realize is how this works on a large scale. Authoritarian rulers select a particular group to target as oppressing them—the cause of all the nation’s problems. It’s based solely on who they think they can get away with blaming.

It may be another country, or a minority group within the country (history is filled with genocidal efforts by authoritarian rulers), or a politician who is perceived as a threat by the ruler. They focus on a specific person or whole group, rather than focusing on a problem to solve. So blaming the impact of automation and job loss on an unrelated minority group can be very effective. (Did you know that in Germany before World War II that the Jews were only 1% of the national population? Most Germans didn’t even know a Jew or give much thought to them until they were trained to hate them in the 1930’s. Did you know that Muslims are also only 1% of the U.S. population?)  

  1. Conditioning: One of the least-recognized characteristics of authoritarian rulers is how they condition the population to their thinking. In many ways, this is parallel to the constant disparaging remarks of an abusive spouse or a workplace bully. Many authoritarian rulers are big-mouths. In modern times they are constantly on their state-sponsored radio or TV station giving long speeches and/or denouncing their Target of Blame of the Day. They have a need to be constantly talking, even though much of what they say may sound patently absurd. While most people find it charming or annoying, they don’t realize the unconscious process they are being subjected to. They are being conditioned to absorb many of the authoritarian ruler’s assumptions, because of the subtle persuasion of seeing their face and hearing their voice almost every day.

I recall once reading that throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Nazi leader in Germany spoke about ten times as many words as other politicians and that he “conditioned” the people to his way of thinking. This way he also conditioned the population to the inevitability of his popularity and power—so that people grew more and more tolerant, and his opponents grew more and more intimidated and demoralized. He was one of the first (if not the first) to use the radio and movies of his rallies to do this conditioning, which can be far more repetitive and emotional than reading the written word in a newspaper on one’s own.

Many people have criticized today’s media for not researching and asking tough questions of Donald Trump during the 18-month campaign, which may have enabled his election. But I believe that the greater factor have been the media dutifully repeating his tweets, interviews and rallies over and over again, which may have unwittingly conditioned a sufficient percentage of voters that he was credible and wonderful. Ironically, at the same time he conditioned his followers to mistrust and even hate journalists, by putting them in a separate area at his rallies and then teaching his followers to yell at them. He has turned reporters into “targets of blame” for the past 24 months, and this has been very effective in discounting their truth-telling about him. His followers repeat his “fake news” claims on a regular basis now.

Our Future

Will this same unconscious process of conditioning cause a significant percent of the population to support or at least tolerate his efforts to dismantle democracy? (Right now about 36% of Americans support his actions, including his attacks and restrictions on the media.) And will it cause his opponents to become demoralized and try to avoid politics? Or will people realize what is happening to us and increase their efforts to maintain our democracy? I believe we will find out sooner rather than later.

(My next blog will be Part 3: The Importance of the Narrative.)

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books  and methods  for handling high conflict personalities  and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.