Although Mitt Romney used the word “conservative” 19 times in a short speech at the February 10, 2012, Conservative Political Action Conference, the audience he used this word to appeal to was not conservative by any traditional definition. It was right wing. Despite the common American practice of using “conservative” and “right wing” interchangeably, right wing is not a synonym for conservative and not even a true variant of conservatism – although the right wing will opportunistically borrow conservative themes as required.
Right-wingers have occasioned much recent comment. Their behavior in the Republican debates has caused even jaded observers to react like an Oxford don stumbling upon a tribe of headhunting cannibals. In those debates where the moderators did not enforce decorum, these right-wingers, the Republican base, behaved with a single lack of dignity. For a group that displays its supposed pro-life credentials like a neon sign, the biggest applause lines resulted from their hearing about executions or the prospect of someone dying without health insurance.
Who are these people and what motivates them? To answer, one must leave the field of conventional political theory and enter the realm of psychopathology. Three books may serve as field guides to the farther shores of American politics and the netherworld of the true believer.
Most estimates calculate the percentage of Republican voters who are religious fundamentalists at around 40 percent; in some key political contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, the percentage is closer to 60. Because of their social cohesion, ease of political mobilization and high election turnout, fundamentalists have political weight even beyond their raw numbers. An understanding of their leaders, infrastructure and political goals is warranted. Max Blumenthal has done the work in his book “Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party.” Blumenthal investigates politicized fundamentalism and provides capsule bios of such movement luminaries as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, John Hagee and Ted Haggard. The reader will conclude that these authority figures and the flocks they command are driven by a binary, Manichean vision of life and a hunger for conflict. Their minds appear to have no more give and take than that of a terrier staring down a rat hole.
Blumenthal examines the childhoods of these religious-right celebrities and reveals a significant quotient of physical and mental abuse suffered at the hands of parents. His analysis of the obvious sadomasochistic element in Mel Gibson's films – so lionized by the right wing – is enough to give one the creeps. But the book is by no means a uniformly depressing slog: the chapter titled “Satan in a Porsche,” about fundamentalist attempts to ban pornography, approaches slapstick.
According to the author, the inner life of fundamentalist true believers is the farthest thing from that of a stuffily proper Goody Two Shoes. They seem tormented by demons that those in the reality-based community scarcely experience. That may explain their extraordinary latitude in absolving their political and ecclesiastical heroes of their sins: while most of us might regard George W. Bush as a dry drunk resentful of his father, Newt Gingrich as a sociopathic serial adulterer and Ted Haggard as a pathetic specimen in terminal denial, their followers on the right apparently believe that the greater the sin, the more impressive the salvation – so long as the magic words are uttered and the penitent sinner is washed in the Blood of the Lamb. This explains why people like Gingrich can attend “values voter” forums and both he and the audience manage to keep straight faces. Far from being a purpose-driven life, the existence of many true believers is a crisis-driven life that seeks release, as Blumenthal asserts, in an “escape from freedom.”
An observer of the right-wing phenomenon must explain the paradox of followers who would escape from freedom even as they incessantly invoke the word freedom as if it were a mantra. But freedom so defined does not mean ordinary civil liberties like the prohibition of illegal government search and seizure, the right of due process, or the right not to be tortured. The hard right has never protested the de facto abrogation of much of the Bill of Rights during the last decade. In the right-wing id, freedom is the emotional release that a hostile and psychologically repressed person feels when he is finally able to lash out at the objects of his resentment. Freedom is his prerogative to rid himself of people who are different, or who unsettle him. Freedom is merging into a like-minded herd. Right-wing alchemy transforms freedom into authoritarianism.
Robert Altemeyer, a Canadian psychologist, has done extensive testing to isolate and describe the traits of the authoritarian personality. His results are distilled in his book “The Authoritarians.” He describes religious fundamentalists, the core of the right-wing Republican base, as follows:
They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times and are often hypocrites.
There are tens of millions of Americans who, although personally lacking the self-confidence, ambition and leadership qualities of authoritarian dominators like Gingrich or Sarah Palin, nevertheless empower the latter to achieve their goals while finding psychological fulfillment in subordination to a cause. Altemeyer describes these persons as authoritarian followers. They are socially rigid, highly conventional and strongly intolerant personalities, who, absent any self-directed goals, seek achievement and satisfaction by losing themselves in a movement greater than themselves. One finds them overrepresented in reactionary political movements, fundamentalist sects and leader cults like scientology. They are the people who responded on cue when Bush's press secretary said after the 9/11 attacks that people had better “watch what they say;” or who approved of illegal surveillance because “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear;” or who, after months of news stories saying that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, nevertheless believed the weapons were found. Altemeyer said:
Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result…. And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told. They are not going to let up and they are not going away.
Twenty to 25 percent is no majority, but enough to swing an election, especially since the authoritarian follower is more easily organized than the rest of the population. As for Altemeyer's warning that such personality types “are not going away,” the rise of the Tea Party after 2008 showed that he was a better prognosticator than Max Blumenthal, who thought the radical takeover of the GOP during the Bush presidency had “shattered the party.”
Altemeyer cites clinical data to show us how certain people score high on psychological tests measuring authoritarian traits and that these high scores strongly correlate with right-wing political preferences. What Altemeyer is lacking is a satisfactory explanation as to why a significant percentage of human beings should develop these traits. We obtain some clues in Wilhelm Reich's “The Mass Psychology of Fascism,” written in 1933 and unfortunately only obtainable in a stilted 1945 translation full of odd psychological jargon. One does not have to agree with Reich's questionable later career path and personal eccentricities(1) to notice that his 1933 work is a perceptive analysis of the character of the authoritarian political movements that were rising in Europe. Anyone reading it then and taking it seriously could have predicted the new totalitarian regimes' comprehensive repressiveness, extreme intolerance and, within a few years, nihilistic destructiveness.
Reich appears to see fascism as the political manifestation of an authoritarian psychology. Who are the authoritarians?
Fascist mentality is the mentality of the subjugated “little man” who craves authority and rebels against it at the same time. It is not by accident that all fascist dictators stem from the milieu of the little reactionary man. The captains of industry and the feudal militarist make use of this social fact for their own purposes. A mechanistic authoritarian civilization only reaps, in the form of fascism, from the little, suppressed man what for hundreds of years it has sown in the masses of little, suppressed individuals in the form of mysticism, top-sergeant mentality and automatism.
Here again we see the paradoxical nature of the authoritarian personality: rebelling against authority while hungering for it – exactly as the contemporary right wing fancies it is rebelling against big government while calling for intrusive social legislation and militarism. In the midst of dire economic circumstances, why do they expend inordinate energy brooding over contraception, abortion, abstinence education, gay marriage and so forth and attempt to transform their obsessions into law? Reich said:
The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and sexual anxiety…. The result of this process is fear of freedom and a conservative, reactionary mentality. Sexual repression aids political reaction not only through this process which makes the mass individual passive and unpolitical but also by creating in his structure an interest in actively supporting the authoritarian order. The suppression of natural sexual gratification leads to various kinds of substitute gratifications. Natural aggression, for example, becomes brutal sadism which then is an essential mass-psychological factor in imperialistic wars.
According to Reich, a patriarchal, sexually repressive family life, reinforced by strict and punitive religious dogma, is the “factory” of a reactionary political order. Hence, the right wing's ongoing attempts to erase the separation of church and state, its crusade against Planned Parenthood, its strange obsession with gays. Consider the following political platform, which sounds almost as if it were taken from a speech by Rick Santorum:
The preservation of the family with many children is a matter of biological concept and national feeling. The family with many children must be preserved … because it is a highly valuable, indispensable part of the … nation. Valuable and indispensable not only because it alone guarantees the maintenance of the population in the future but because it is the strongest basis of national morality and national culture … The preservation of this family form is a necessity of national and cultural politics … This concept is strictly at variance with the demands for an abolition of paragraph 218; it considers unborn life as sacrosanct. For the legalization of abortion is at variance with the function of the family, which is to produce children and would lead to the definite destruction of the family with many children.
So wrote the Völkischer Beobachter of October 14, 1931. As Altemeyer warns, they are not going away: certain psychological constructs and the political expressions they give rise to, persist over time and across cultures.
1. E.g., Isaac Newton's eccentricities and unpleasant personality did not invalidate his mathematics. We are interested in the message not the messenger.
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