There are two types of authoritarians: those who jump out in front and say “follow me, only I can solve the problem”; the far greater number of authoritarian personalities are those who want to be told how to think, what to do, “this is daddy, I’ll take care of you.” Those are the people who are the followers and while some of those would like to be leaders themselves, most of them are just happy to follow, and they don’t want to ask questions, and they want to be told what to do and how to think. And that’s a very scary lot. —John Dean
On her Saturday program on MSNBC, Joy Reid asked former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean why those who support Trump seem so uninterested in facts that show a deeply troubled and compromised presidency. Dean’s response was that the authoritarian personality does not want to think.
In recent months a number of political analysts, most of them male, have been telling us that the Democratic Party has ignored the economic concerns of the white working class, especially white working class males. These men, they opine, turned to Trump because they lost jobs that once paid a middle class wage. The solution, these writers say, is for Democrats to foreground economic issues that affect the working class. While there is something to be said for this analysis, it does not explain why Trump voters have found racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant views appealing or at least tolerable. Don’t you see, I want to say to the writers, that Trump’s white male voters are reacting against challenges to long-standing assumptions of white male privilege by people of color, women, and immigrants?
It is obvious to many that Trump is—among other things—an authoritarian personality. But it is yet to be widely recognized that his followers are too. I have recently felt annoyed by essays, blogs, and Facebook posts asking why Trump’s evangelical voters ignore Jesus’s concern for the poor and the downtrodden; how they can support American values while allowing Trump to take away freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution; or how they can be against immigrants when their own ancestors were immigrants too. What is missed by those who ask these reasonable questions is that Trump’s followers have authoritarian personalities: they do not want to think.
Dean described “authoritarian followers” in a blog published in 2015:
Specifically, as I noted in Conservatives Without Conscience, the authoritarian followers are both men and women, who tend to be highly conventional, always and easily submissive to authority, while willing to work aggressively on behalf of such an authority. They tend to be very religious, with moderate to little education, trusting of untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (e.g., with respect to gay marriage [and I would add, the rights of non-whites, women, and immigrants]); they are typically mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical of their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive; they also demand loyalty and return it, have little self-awareness, and are typically politically and economically conservative Republicans.
Returning to the questions of why Trump Christians don’t care for the poor, why Trump Americans don’t care about freedom, and why Trump voters who are descended from immigrants don’t care about immigrants, the answers begins to emerge. Trump’s followers who have authoritarian personalities filter their understandings of Christianity, America, and their own histories through their authoritarian mindsets.
- For them, Christianity is about submission to an Almighty Father who is a judgmental and punishing lawgiver. They view themselves as abiding by and requiring others to abide by His laws.
- For them, being American is about submission, about pledging allegiance to a flag, obeying the laws and respecting the police, and being willing to give your life for your country.
- They do not view themselves as intolerant of others; they view others as insufficiently respectful of the laws they follow and the sacrifices they have made.
- They do not view themselves as immigrants with specific histories of fleeing oppression in the Old Country and discrimination in the United States, but as among those who have melted into the pot, becoming above all and only Americans (assumed to be white).
As Dean says, authoritarian followers are a “scary lot.” They are scary because they are not interested in thinking for themselves. They are not interested in rational discussion. They are not interested in facts or the opinions of others. Rather they are interested in finding a leader who reflects their own incoherent views and asks of them simply to follow him. In 2015 Dean concluded that Trump could not be elected because authoritarians are a minority in America. He was partly right: only 26% of Americans voted for Trump, and we can hope that not all of them are authoritarian followers. Dean forgot that the electoral college may favor the minority and that almost half of Americans do not vote at all.
In the title of this blog I asked: “what’s feminism and religion got to do with it?” The answer is that feminists are highly unlikely to be authoritarian followers. Why? Because there would be no feminism at all if we had not questioned conventional authorities telling us that women must submit to their fathers and husbands and that women’s place is in the home. For feminists in religion, this question is even more highly charged. We have not only questioned authorities: we have questioned scriptures and traditions said to have been ordained by God Himself.
In Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I concluded that our dialogue about theological questions across difference was made possible by our shared assumption that all texts and traditions are interpreted by human beings who, as individuals and as communities, must decide which aspects of their traditions they wish to make central and which they will not. Is Jesus Lord and King or Jesus’ concern for the poor the central message of Christianity? The American experiment is similarly subject to interpretation. Are we going to affirm white male landed supremacy as our founding fathers did? Or extend the principles of liberty and justice to all?
The principle of interpretation is not understood or is rejected by authoritarian personalities who want to be told what is true, what is right, what is wrong, and what to do. They do not recognize that there is more than one interpretation of the meaning of Christianity, and more than one interpretation of the meaning of the American dream.
This is why our work as teachers and as feminists in religion is important. We need to keep insisting that we are the ones who must think through and take responsibility for our views and opinions and that we should never offer blind faith or submission to any authority—not that of a father or husband, not that of the police or an elected official, not even that alleged to have come from God Himself!
Also published on Feminism and Religion
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