We live in an era where authoritarians are on the march in Hungary, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey, the United States, and a disturbingly long list of other countries. Russia’s brutal ongoing invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that many authoritarians won’t stop at their own borders. The authoritarian wave of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s offers us an obvious parallel. In August 2019, Verso released a new edition of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a study conducted after World War II by social psychologists including the noted Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. The observations about authoritarian psychology that it contains have notable resonances with the present and are worth a second look. Before we get started, it’s important not to make the common mistake of conflating electoral support for authoritarians with authoritarianism as a psychological phenomenon. Not everyone who voted for Trump necessarily has an authoritarian personality; anyone who’s a diehard Trumpist certainly is.
That being said, what commonalities did people with authoritarian personality profiles exhibit in Adorno’s study? They didn’t believe that they personally benefited from a progressive administration like FDR’s. They disliked progressive governments for being too weak – in the sense of being friendly towards socially disadvantaged groups and in foreign affairs – even as they simultaneously expressed fear of a strong, overbearing government: in the words of Adorno and his coauthors, “resentment of government interference is fused with the ‘no pity for the poor’ complex.”