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This article was published 18/1/2019 (542 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In 1996, Robert Altemeyer, a globally renowned, yet somewhat anonymous University of Manitoba associate professor of psychology, released The Authoritarian Specter, a 374-page distillation of his groundbreaking research on authoritarianism. The book, published by Harvard University Press, outlines the troublesome characteristics of ordinary people and politicians who ascribe to methods of thinking more likely to hew toward ethnocentrism, prejudice and, ultimately, violence.
Since the 1960s, Altemeyer, a St. Louis-born and Yale-educated researcher, had been working to advance the study of authoritarian leaders and their followers, a field that gained newfound attention in the aftermath of Hitler and Mussolini, and amid the unrest in the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe.
He developed a "personality test disguised as an attitude survey" asking respondents to numerically rank their feelings — strongly disagree (-4) to strongly agree (+4) — toward a list of 22 statements such as: "Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fibre and traditional beliefs"; "What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil and take us back to our true path"; "Some of the best people in this country are those challenging our government, criticizing religion and ignoring ‘the normal way things are supposed to be done.’"
The result of this test is what Altemeyer calls "a right-wing authority (RWA) score," and it measures respondents’ tendencies toward submission to authority, aggression and conventionalism, meaning the belief that everyone should have to follow norms and customs as decreed by an authority. The higher the score, the greater the tendency.
Throughout the book, Altemeyer (not to be confused with his son, Wolseley MLA Rob Altemeyer) outlines various tendencies associated with those who have high scores.
"High RWAs tend to be hostile when they feel their attacks are sanctioned by authority figures; be highly punitive toward criminals but show double standards when the criminals are authorities." –Robert Altemeyer
High RWAs, he writes, tend to be hostile when they feel their attacks are sanctioned by authority figures; be highly punitive toward criminals but show double standards when the criminals are authorities or when the victims belong to a group the authoritarian would like to suffer; be mean-spirited; be more likely to assault women or oppose abortion; and be more racially or ethnically biased.
"Authoritarians haven’t spent much time examining evidence, thinking critically, reaching independent conclusions and seeing whether their conclusions mesh with the other things they believe," he writes.
When stereotypes or big lies circulate, Altemeyer says those ranking high on the scale will be more likely to believe them, despite their obvious falsity, "before they consider the context" of the lie itself.
Those respondents are easily frightened, which makes them especially vulnerable to the kind of overstated, emotional and dangerous assertions upon which demagogues rely ("Our country is rotting away," certain ideas "are poisoning us.")
"I do not mean... to move you three paces closer to the panic button," Altemeyer writes. "But as long as authoritarians don’t think much about what they hear... they are prone to stampede."
And once a stampede starts, you have three options: get out of the way, join the horde or get trampled.
If it sounds familiar, says the now-retired Altemeyer, it should. Look south of the border, he says, and you’ll see the most dangerous authoritarian leader in American history — President Donald J. Trump — along with one of the most rabid follower bases he’s ever seen.
"He is a demagogue and wants to turn democracy into tyranny," says Altemeyer. "He won’t say it’s what he intended, but he is disinhibiting aggression and letting people who are mad, scared or have grudges to settle go out and attack other people, whereas before, (under a different president) they wouldn’t have done it."
Since Trump’s inauguration in January 2016, "he has taken away the stop sign," he adds.
That was the beginning of the stampede.
In the foreward to The Authoritarian Specter, Altemeyer wrote that the book — his third on the topic — was intended to be his last on authoritarianism. But in 2005, he began receiving emails from a high-profile American fan: John Dean, the former chief counsel to the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal.
Dean, a lifelong Republican, knew a fair deal about authoritarianism from his work with the 37th president, and was working on a book of his own, entitled Conservatives Without Conscience, about how the Republican party had shifted its ideology. "He felt that he was losing his party," Altemeyer says.
So Dean began his research on political science and sociology, hoping to find some clues as to how the Republicans had moved from Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. That’s when he came across Altemeyer’s writing, and the parallels between his research and present-day politics were undeniable.
"No one has done more groundbreaking work in testing the nature of (authoritarians and their followers) than this professor," Dean wrote in 2017. "Bob Altemeyer saw Donald Trump coming. More accurately, he saw the kinds of men and women who would vote for a Donald Trump-type candidate for high office."
After his book was released, Dean contacted Altemeyer and suggested he write a slimmed down book explaining authoritarians to the masses. Altemeyer listened, and the result was The Authoritarians, which he posted online free of charge a decade ago. He tried to sell it, but the publishers weren’t nibbling. "Nah, nobody is interested in that," he recalls hearing.
"No one has done more groundbreaking work in testing the nature of (authoritarians and their followers) than this professor." –John Dean
The book is written in Altemeyer’s trademark style, doubling down on the effectiveness of his previous work by stripping away any academic veneer. "Ultimately, in a democracy, a wannabe tyrant is just a comical figure on a soapbox unless a huge wave of supporters lifts him to high office," he writes.
Altemeyer’s tone shifts toward worry in the book’s conclusion, where he laments the U.S. isn’t well-protected against a fascist dictatorship. "The authoritarian threat has grown unabated," and elements such as a free press and the court system had been greatly eroded, he adds. To wit, the Trump administration has consistently berated journalists, referring to them as a collective "enemy of the people" on several occasions, even after five journalists were gunned down in a Maryland newsroom.
"Americans have, for the most part, been standing on the sidewalk quietly staring at this authoritarian parade as it marches on," he writes. "But time is running out, fast, and nearly everything is at stake."
To read Altemeyer now is to see what’s going on around you, and that’s no accident. His right-wing authoritarian scale and his various studies on how higher scores correlate with ideas such as religiosity and conservatism have been endlessly replicated, and it seems as though nearly everything the 78-year-old wrote a dozen years ago is coming true.
"His RWA scale remains to this day the single most important measure of social attitudes," says Lew Goldberg, a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon.
But Altemeyer — who’d prefer to remain anonymous — is hesitant to take any credit.
"Some friends say, ‘This is all your fault, Bob. You’ve told them how to do it. You’ve told them that the base is there,’" he says. "But it’s not my idea. This fear that there was potential for authoritarian acceptance in the American public and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian public, have been around since Nazi Germany."
"The research began in the 1940s, and a lot of researchers have tried to study it so we could be better prepared," he adds. "This is the mess we’re in."
In August, Altemeyer wrote a blog post expanding on his thoughts to address Trump who, when Altemeyer’s last book on authoritarianism was released, was seated not in the Oval Office but on the set of Celebrity Apprentice.
"His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind." –Robert Altemeyer
"(Followers) will trust someone who says things they believe, even if there is a lot of evidence that the person does not really believe what he says," he writes. "They’re just so glad to hear their views coming back to them, they ignore solid reasons why the person might be insincere or outright lying." This truth-bending has been well-documented, notably by Toronto Star correspondent Daniel Dale, who has tabulated every false claim the president has made.
"His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind," Altemeyer adds.
"The trouble is, for him and the future of his presidency, Truth happens, constantly. It may be seen differently by various folks, but things did happen as they happened, not something else. You can only ignore the truth so long, and then reality will inevitably catch up with you. It will destroy you if you have been massively denying it."
However prescient his work was, Altemeyer never considered that it would become as relevant as it is right now.
"It’s clear by the time you get to the end of The Authoritarians that I was worried, but I did not foresee what has happened," he says.
The Authoritarian Specter was largely well-received when it was released in 1996. There were, however, some critical reviews. "Altemeyer leaves his readers wondering why he is so alarmed about the levels of "authoritarianism" he finds among psychology students and provincial politicians," read a review in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.
In retrospect, it’s no wonder he was so concerned, says Raymond Hébert, a retired political science professor at the Université de Saint Boniface, an avid Altemeyer fan who’s referenced his work in books and other research.
"There have always been authoritarians among us," he says. "But it takes a spark, and in this case, the spark has been Trump."
Like Altemeyer, Hébert isn’t preaching a doomsday, but he’s grown concerned that a similar political atmosphere to that in the U.S. may emerge here if Canadians don’t take notice.
Altemeyer has run countless experiments showing just how easily a country, or the world can slip into authoritarian turmoil. In The Authoritarians, he outlines one simulation, called The Global Change Game, in which groups of students are given the task of representing regions in political discussions and negotiations. In 1994, Altemeyer ran two versions of the game, one with students who’d scored low on the RWA scale, and one with those who scored high.
In the low RWA game, representatives demilitarized, collaborated to combat environmental and humanitarian crises, and though issues such as starvation prevailed in impoverished countries, were able to provide food, health care, and jobs for almost all of the theoretical 8.7 billion people on Earth. The high RWA game quickly ended in nuclear holocaust.
Altemeyer insists that second result isn’t on the horizon, but he says it makes clear how important it is for non-authoritarian governments to prevail. The challenge is that in Trump, politicians have been given a case study into how to rally unwavering support, and that many potential voters who oppose his policies don’t factor into his decision-making.
"He’s only addressing his base," he says. "There’s never been a more tattered liar in the history of American politics, and yet the followers think he’s a straight-shooting honest man."
Many social scientists would be ecstatic if their work remained relevant decades after its publication, but there’s less satisfaction for Altemeyer, whose research has manifested itself so intricately within the fabric of American politics.
"It makes me feel bad. If I was smart, I would’ve done more to stop this," he says. "I did not understand that it was this imminent."
Of course, for Trump’s base, it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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