The Politics of Fear

The present state of socio-economic affairs, crises upon crisis, has given rise to increasing amount of commentary from progressives concerning issues over social control getting out of hand, and indeed concerns about outright fascism. Analyses and storylines such as the Shock Doctrine, corporate kleptocracy, government and elite collusion, and the unpunished rape of society and planet by a few in pursuit of controlling the majority, all point towards something worrying if not terrifying ahead.

It is no coincidence that concerns about fascism have emerged during a time of crises. War, likely global depression, and the turmoil in their wake present an opportunity and need for refuge to people who have fear of uncertainty in their genes and their personality make-up (authoritarianism either as followers or leaders), if not outright social dominance (social dominance orientation personality dimension). Fear makes most people acquiescent, and many become obedient, in a growing vortex of authoritarian leaders and followers who become mutually emboldened – bullies who smell the opportunity to control their world or close their group and protect each other. Both Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority research illustrate what some (many) of us can do when fear and control become institutionalised. Theodor Adorno called this the ‘authoritarian embrace’. Outright authoritarians (right wing authoritarianism; RWA) are few, perhaps around ten percent of the population, and those whose authoritarian genes can be switched on during times of crisis and fear represent around twenty percent more. That is no more than a third of the population primed to bring fascism into being, but this minority make themselves heard, and felt, visciously, intuitively and infectiously.

How can I assert the above percentages so confidently? Well, I have watched the psychology of authoritarianism for almost two decades now, but don’t take my word for it. The authoritarian personality, or its present title Right Wing Authoritarian, has been studied since Theodor Adorno began to look for the roots of fascism after WW2. The mantle is now carried by Dr Bob Altemeyer (U. Manitoba). He is concerned enough that he published a book detailing the history of his and others’ research on the topic free online, The Authoritarians, along with a forward by Sen. John Dean whose concerns about fascism have led him to champion Altemeyer’s work. Altemeyer also recently published an addendum assessing the authoritarian personality in terms of its influence in the Tea Party movement, including reference to social dominance oriented personality which has strong links with authoritarianism.

The following is a very brief outline of Altemeyer’s findings about the enemy of humanity residing within our societies. It is a pared down quote of Bob Altemeyer’s words from his addendum to The Authoritarians – “Comment on the Tea Party Movement.” The twelve traits (and the SDO personality) form an apposite description of the RWA and SDO in terms of Tea Partiers that most can easily relate to ‘…you can hardly miss the authoritarian follower tendencies in the behavior of the Tea Partiers’ (Altemeyer). It also serves as rule of thumb that can be applied to the social world and institutions around us more generally. I write this article as a European, and I see the same traits within our own movements and institutions here. This is not solely an American problem, indeed it was in the twentieth century a genocidal European problem, and has blown up at various times globally throughout history, and even though we in Europe have no dictators and brown/black shirts at the moment we are still subtly attuned to watch for their emergence.

Twelve key traits: ((All quotes from “Comment on the Tea Party Movement,” Altemeyer.))

1. ‘Authoritarian submission. Authoritarian followers submit to the people they consider authorities much more than non-authoritarians do. In this context, Tea Partiers seem to believe without question whatever their chosen authorities say […] The followers don’t find out for themselves what the Democratic leader truly said, what is really in a bill, what a treaty actually specifies, or whether taxes have really gone up. They are happy to let Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin do their thinking for them. It has gotten so bad that their leaders casually say preposterous things that are easily refuted, because they know their audience will never believe the truth, or even hear about it.’

2. ‘Fear. Fear constantly pulses through authoritarian followers, and Tea Partiers are mightily frightened. They believe President Obama is a dictator. […] The people who orchestrate the Tea Party movement know well what button to push first and hardest among social conservatives, and they work it overtime. And they know spreading fear “works” with others as well. Sometimes it seems they are all trying to out-boogie-man each other.’

3. ‘Self-righteousness. Self-righteousness runs very strongly in authoritarian followers, and combines with fear to unleash aggression in them. The Tea Partiers commonly describe themselves as “the good Americans,” “the true Americans,” “the people,” and “the American Patriots.” They could hardly wrap themselves in the flag more thoroughly or more often than they do. Theirs is the holy cause. They believe they are the only ones who can save the country.’

4. ‘Hostility. Authoritarian aggression is one of the defining characteristics of authoritarian followers. Do Tea Partiers seem particularly aggressive? […] They angrily called people who disagreed with them at the town halls “Liars,” “Communists,” and “Traitors.” They booed and booed until opposing speakers simply gave up. They lashed out at elected representatives who tried to engage in dialogue. If you look at some of the videos of last August’s protests, you can see veins bulging in the necks of some of the Tea Partiers as they vented their fury.’

5. ‘A lack of critical thinking. Authoritarian followers have more trouble thinking logically than most people do. In particular, they tend to agree with sayings and slogans, even contradictory ones, because they have heard them a lot. Thus Tea Partiers reflexively, patriotically thump that the United States is the best country on earth, but as well that it is now an Obama dictatorship. They also have extra trouble applying logic to false reasoning when they like the conclusion. A ready example can be found in Tea Partiers? assertion that Obama is a socialist. They have heard this over and over again from Rush Limbaugh, etcetera, and “so it must be true.” But Obama has never advocated state ownership of an industry. He certainly did not advocate state ownership of health insurance, and eventually even backed away from the “public option” (that most Americans wanted) which would have let the government as well as private companies offer health insurance.’

6. ‘Our “biggest problem.” Authoritarian followers will readily believe that lots of things are our “biggest problem.” It can be drugs, the decline of religion, the breakdown of the family, you name it. Thus it was not hard to get Tea Partiers worked up about, of all things, a plan to improve health care to the levels found in other industrialized countries. Yet Tea Partiers believe the passage of the health care bill marks the end of liberty. But they could just as easily have been led to believe that climate change legislation, nuclear disarmament, gay marriage, or taking “In God we trust” off the money would sound the death knell for America. In earlier eras it could have been sex education, Sunday shopping, the 40-hour week, or a Catholic president that would lead to our doom.’

7. ‘Compartmentalized thinking. Authoritarian followers can have so many contradictory beliefs and “biggest problems” because their thinking is highly compartmentalized. Ideas exist independently of the other ideas in their head. Their thinking is so unintegrated because they have spent their lives copying what their authorities say, without examining whether the ideas fit together sensibly. And Tea Partiers say over and over that the Democrats are installing a dictatorship, but they demonstrate every time they demonstrate that Americans still have all the freedom of speech they ever had. And one notes the health care reforms bear a striking resemblance to Social Security and Medicare—which many of the protestors happily enjoy and would never give up.’

8. ‘Double Standards. Highly compartmentalized thinking makes it easy for authoritarian followers to employ double standards in their judgments. One finds many examples of this among the Tea Partiers. […] Tea Partiers also protested about the federal deficit growing by unprecedented leaps and bounds under Obama. But it grew by unprecedented leaps and bounds during George W. Bush?s presidency, and demonstrations against that were few and far between. […] It’s pretty clear that many, many Tea Partiers aren’t really against the things they say they’re against. For them, it?s OK when Republicans do these things. But that is pure hypocrisy, which one finds in abundance among authoritarian followers. And in their leaders, such as the various governors who condemned the stimulus package, said they would refuse such funds, but then accepted them and had their picture taken at project announcements that followed.’

9. ‘Feeling empowered when in groups. Authoritarian followers seem to want to disappear as individuals. They?re not comfortable taking stands on their own, or acting alone. Instead they seem fulfilled simply by being part of a large, powerful movement on the march. Thus the insult-hurling Tea Partiers probably would have been quiet, even deferential, had they met with their member of the House one-on-one last August. But experiments have shown that authoritarian followers are highly conforming. When they are in a group of like-minded persons they are much more likely to do things, especially aggressive things, that they would not do alone. They make a good mob, winding each other up by hearing each other yell.’

10. ‘Dogmatism. We also know that authoritarian followers lead the league in being dogmatic. When their leaders set their opinions for them, those opinions are set in stone. Experiments show that nothing (aside from their authorities) can convince them they are wrong. If overwhelmed by logic and evidence, they simply “castle” into dogmatism. This is probably because they don?t really know why they believe what they believe. They didn?t figure it out for themselves; they Xeroxed what their authorities said.’

11. ‘Ethnocentrism. Authoritarian followers are notably ethnocentric, constantly judging others and events through “Us versus Them” lenses. They largely choose their friends according to their beliefs. They stick to news outlets that tell them what they want to hear. They live in a polarized world, divided into their in-group, and out-groups consisting of everybody else. They stress in-group loyalty, and try to keep their distance from the out-groups. […] This fierce in-group orientation, along with the followers? need for external confirmation of their beliefs, explains why Fox News has such a big audience compared with other outlets, why Sarah Palin?s, Glenn Beck?s, and Ann Coulter?s books leap to the top of the best sellers lists, and why “hate radio” is so popular. Authoritarian followers have to get their ideas “validated” by others more than most people do. So they constantly seek out sources of information that will tell them they?re right. It amounts to in-group in-breeding of the intellect. Research shows that less authoritarian people are more likely to consider different sides of an issue, and figure things out more for themselves.’

12. Prejudice. Studies have found that authoritarian followers are among the most prejudiced people in society. It is the nastiest aspect of their ethnocentrism, and one they insistently deny—to others and to themselves. And they really do not realize how prejudiced they are, compared with others, because they associate so much with other prejudiced people. So their prejudices seem normal and perfectly justified to them.

Racial prejudice appeared at many of the Tea Party demonstrations, in the form of signs, banners, and tee-shirts—just as it did during the 2008 campaign after Sarah Palin energized the social conservatives.

Social Dominance Orientation (also Altemeyer’s words)

‘Because the Tea Partiers display so many “classic” signs of authoritarian followers, I think it?s safe to conclude that a lot of the members have such personalities. But another sizeable group swells the ranks who would seem to have little tendency to follow anyone: libertarians. And while the two contingents may agree on many economic issues, they appear to have fundamentally different views of government and liberty.


Poor people are poor, they say, simply because they are lazy. We should not extend unemployment benefits to the people laid off now because it will just encourage them to watch TV instead of looking for work. The poor people who accepted the banks’ invitation to buy nice houses for their families at low interest rates were “reaching beyond their class” and deserved to lose them. The rich are rich simply because they worked harder than everybody else, and deserve their wealth. Obama is taking money from those who work hard to buy votes from people demanding hand-outs.

These attitudes come right out of the catechism of the other authoritarian personality that research has discovered, the social dominators. Their defining characteristic is opposition to equality. They believe instead in dominance, both personal (if they can pull it off) and in their group dominating other groups. They endorse using intimidation, threats, and power to enrich themselves at the expense of others. This is the natural order of things, they believe. “It is a mistake to interfere with the law of the jungle,? they argue. “Some people were meant to dominate others.” “It’s a dog eat dog world in which the superior people get to the top.”

Such people may want government to stick to running fire departments so they can rise/stay above others unimpeded. Research shows that social dominators are power-hungry, mean, amoral, and even more prejudiced than the authoritarian followers described earlier. They want unfairness throughout society. Barack Obama, and the ludicrous perception that he is going to lead African-Americans in “taking over America” would be their worst nightmare. So the hypothesis that the Tea Party movement has more than its fair share of social dominators may have merit.’

The authoritarian and social dominance personality types and fascism

The above descriptions of personality in the Tea Party by Dr Bob Altemeyer, the leader in his social science field, show us how personality can define a social movement. I would have confidence in the conjecture that the rise of the Nazis and many other fascist totalitarian empires probably started with a similar spectrum of personality traits coming together and forming a movement which through its emotive force became unstoppable. The sheer power of a movement comprised of a mass of aggressive people who do not think for themselves and simply follow their saviour, combined with a leadership that knows only too well how to push their buttons, this should give us all pause. It is the reason I try to inform people about the very real dangers of fascism taking hold in a time of uncertainty. Fear and the need for self protection and selfish opportunism is probably the core driver in the nexus of publicly organised RWA and SDO behaviour, and we are now in an age where this emotion can easily be set running in the population much more widely. We need to be aware of what the politics of fear is doing in our institutions in order to find ways of countering it.

Want to help spread the word? See Bob Altemeyer’s website, there is an email discussion list for those interested in RWA psychology, and a Facebook group Authoritarian Watch.

Dr Alastair Mcgowan is a psychologist and a sustainability/resiliency advocate. Read other articles by Alastair, or visit Alastair's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on November 30th, 2010 at 8:27am #

    Interesting analysis. Of course, not all RWA’s are on the right, or, at least, they don’t think they are! I find myself regularly criticising authors on this and other left-wing sites for exhibiting one or more of the 12 characteristics described by Dr Mcgowan! Sir Alec Douglas-Home once said that the extremes meet around the back. This research tends to confirm that what used to be called “communism” is in fact just one of the many forms of right-wing authoritarianism..

  2. wizardx said on November 30th, 2010 at 12:29pm #

    Yes, as Altemeyer clearly points out in The Authoritarians this mindset is not exclusive to the political Right. But the left wing authoritarians are much outnumbered by those from the right. This reminds of the statistics of austistic spectrum conditions where the majority tend to be male but not exclusively so, far fewer women exhibit the symptoms. On the email list (link in the text above) we discuss various aspects of the RWA and how it relates to the political dimension. My own view is that we need to dig a lot deeper into what we really mean by ‘left vs right’, and in there we may find keys which connect with personality dimensions such as the RWA, SDO, and dare I say it even psychopathy.

  3. Don Swift said on November 30th, 2010 at 6:15pm #

    Thank you for a very useful article.

    The Tea Bagger movement can be seen in the context of Anthony Wallace’s revitalization movement. It represents a form of political fundamentalism that can be very dangerous. Jurgen Habermas has been quick to assure us that the present hysteria in Germany over Muslims is not as bad as it seems. I wonder. Jean La Pen’s daughted has distinguished her movement from the Tea Baggers, saying she has no klansmen.

    In the United States, we have had three decades of right-wing populism fueling the GOP. Experts thought that populism cannot run very long, just a few years.

    I am not sure if political fundamentalism is different from right wing populism or an acute manifestation of the disease, which can lead to what Daniel Goldhagen called eliminationism in reference to Nazi Germany.

    From time to time, Republicans have borrowed themes and rhetoric from the right wing fundamentalists–Constitutionalist Partt, militias, White Identity, Alaska Independence Party, etc.

    Reagan began it using states rights tropes and harping on the anti-government theme.

    The first signs of political fundamentalism turned up at the 2008 Palin appearances, which sometimes resembled Klan rallies. Then there were people carrying arms to intimidate people at Democrat rallies. After that, we had all the disruptions at the town meetings on health care.

    2008-2009 were what Gusfield called a crisis of havoc in which all meanings seemed to dissolve and people also felt great economic insecurity. People who are adverse to ambiguity react by resorting to political fundamentalism, embracing what they think are the verities of being true Americans or true Germans. In this case, there was Social Darwinism–no more assistance for the unemployed, etc), intense nationalism, xenophobia, which included racism and anti-gay and anti-Hispanic sentiments. What appears to be fear and paranoia are such but they are also intense commitments to what people mistakenly think is long established immutable American ways. These people fear they are losing their country. The hysteria will not go away as long as there is an African American in the White House and as long as economic insecurity remains. That is why Palin thinks she can win in 2012.

    She is not a very smart person but she understand political fundamentalism. Her husband was a member of the Alaska Independence Party, whose founder accidentally blew himself up making a bomb. Moreover, she belonged to three dominionist churches, whose views run down these lines. She knows the phenomenon and sees it spreading.

    Sharron Angle was a long-time member of the Constitutionalist Party. She almost became a US Senator.

    I have no idea of clever people in the GOP purposely unleashed a monster. I do know that former majority leader Dick Armey and Mrs. Clarence Thomas are behind it and that it is financed by billionaires.

    This is a tiger that will not be easily returned to a cage and it will spread as foreclosures continue and jobs do not return.

    What I find most troubling is that a major political party would use fringe wingnuts and not back away from some of their positions. Some of them advocated taking up arms against the government. Only two Republican pundits condemned this. Many talk about secession and nullification. No one in the GOP objected. They also used the big lie technique frequently.

    The election victories now make all this part of the American political process. It is poison.

    Our media rarely corrects the big lies and behaves as though all of the other madness is normal.

  4. mary said on December 1st, 2010 at 2:37am #

    There is increasing evidence of fascist state control in Britain.

    Look at these photos and comments on the student protests in London yesterday. Refusing to be ‘kettled’ as they were last week, the students adopted a new strategy of outrunning the police although in the end they were overpowered.

    These protests are taking place all over the country but it seems that the Metropolitan Police in particular adopt these heavy tactics.

    When you attend a protest in London, as I have done during Cast Lead, on the day of the flotilla attack and on other occasions, you see the ranks of police, the riot force (Territorial Support Group) with their specialized uniforms and equipment, the barking dogs, the police mounted on horses and ;arge number of reserves brought in from surrounding forces who wait in vans that are lined up in side streets. All very intimidating. and grim.

    It emerged during the inquest on Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent Brazilian electrician who was shot dead by the police on an underground train, that the Met go to Israel for training. Enough said.