Trump and the Dangerous Rise of American Authoritarianism: An Appeal to Religious Leaders

There is no shortage of outrageous comments made by Donald Trump. His recent comments about punishing women who have abortions is only the latest in an endless stream of deeply disturbing extremist rhetoric that is frankly alarming coming from a Presidential candidate.
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There is no shortage of outrageous comments made by Donald Trump. His recent comments about punishing women who have abortions is only the latest in an endless stream of deeply disturbing extremist rhetoric that is frankly alarming coming from a Presidential candidate.

Add to this the fact that Trump's events have increasingly been marked by mob violence -- violence which Trump has actively supported and encouraged, even promising to pay their legal fees -- and it's understandable why so many are asking,

"What is wrong with this country? What has happened to us?"

While we may be appalled at the hateful comments and calls for violence, there is clearly a large group of people that this appeals to. For them, these are not embarrassing slips, rather they appeal to the core values and aspirations of Trump's base.

So while much media attention has focused on the phenomenon of Trump himself, an equally important question to ask is who his supporters are. How is it that someone as outrageous and dangerously amoral as Trump can garner so much popular support?

This has been a question that has captivated political scientists since the rise of the Third Reich. What causes a people to shift - rapidly and in large numbers - towards extremist political views characterized by fear of minorities and the desire for a strongman leader?

A recently released study of Trump supporters, conducted by PhD student Matthew MacWilliams, found that one common denominator far surpassed the usual suspects of education, income, gender, age, ideology, and religion.

The factor most likely to predict support for Trump was a belief in authoritarianism.

To determine this, MacWilliams employed a set of questions, developed by Stanley Feldman in the 1990s, to determine a person's inclination towards authoritarianism, questions on the seemingly innocuous subject of child-rearing:

  1. Which one is more important for a child to have:

independence or respect for elders?

  • Which one is more important for a child to have:
  • self-reliance or obedience?

  • Which one is more important for a child to have:
  • to be considerate or to be well-behaved?

  • Which one is more important for a child to have:
  • curiosity or good manners?

    Authoritarianism, Feldman notes, is not so much an ideology as it is a personality profile. While its causes are debated, says MacWilliams, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians gravitate towards strongman leaders, and feel threatened by and respond aggressively to outsiders.

    In fact, it is this tendency towards punitive action -- a desire to use government power to eliminate threats -- that sets authoritarians and Trump's supporters apart from the establishment GOP.

    While specific policies, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, may line up with the rest of the GOP, what sets him apart is how extreme he is willing to be. As Amanda Taub writes in Vox,

    "That's why it's a benefit rather than a liability for Trump when he says Mexicans are rapists or speaks gleefully of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets: He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won't let 'political correctness' hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.

    This, Feldman explained to me, is 'classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.' "

    Again, the issue is not simply the danger of Donald Trump as a leader, but the authoritarian base which he has "activated" (a term used by Karen Stenner in her 2005 work The Authoritarian Dynamic). The larger issue is the growing constituency of authoritarianism that exists independently of Trump. As Taub writes, "If Trump loses the election, that will not remove the threats and social changes that trigger the "action side" of authoritarianism. The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.

    Authoritarianism goes beyond political or religious affiliation. Not all Republicans are authoritarians, nor are all authoritarians Republican. However, as Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler argue in their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, the GOP's billing of itself as the "traditional values and law and order party" had the effect of directly appealing to authoritarian values. However, rather than representing the establishment orthodoxy of the Republican Party, the rise of authoritarians within the GOP represents a major split between establishment Republicans and authoritarian Republicans, which threatens to tear to party in two.

    A similar divide can be seen within Evangelical Christianity, which has likewise seen a rise in authoritarianism gaining influence in its ranks. This has also led to a split within Evangelicalism between authoritarians and those increasingly identifying with the "Evangelical left" and progressive Evangelicalism, which is focused on retaining core values such as compassion, grace, and relationship over what they perceive as an angry and reactionary "defending of the fort."

    The critical point here is that it is not a particular religious or political set of values or ideology that is the heart of the problem here, so much as it is a growing movement towards authoritarianism within these groups. It is vital for those who identify with these groups to recognize this, and further to recognize the very real danger that this poses, given authoritarianism's penchant for enforcing its will through the means of coercion and force, at the expense of religious and civil liberties.

    It is not enough for progressive Evangelicals and political liberals or even moderates to speak out. Conservative politicians and religious leaders alike need to recognize the very real danger of authoritarianism, and find the moral courage to speak out against it. We can see the warning signs of the danger of authoritarian movements throughout history. That history teaches us a lesson, if we have the wisdom to listen. We should not be so naive as to think that we are somehow immune, that it "couldn't happen here."

    Many conservative politicians have begun to speak out, although it has been far too few and too timid. Conservative religious leaders -- and in particular conservative Evangelical Christians -- need to likewise find their moral backbone and unreservedly call out the dangers of authoritarianism in its own ranks. They need to call it out for what it is. As much as it may attempt to present itself as righteousness, as moral, it represents the very worst of human nature. It is, quite simply, sin. Conservative religious leaders need to wake up to that.

    This is a theme that we see Jesus himself address repeatedly, throughout the Gospels, in his repeated confrontations with the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, it's imperative to stress that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not about pitting one religion against another. Rather it represents an inner-Jewish dispute between two diametrically opposed understandings of what faithfulness to the same Scriptures looks like.

    As a show in Disarming Scripture, this debate has a long tradition within Judaism and can be found throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Jesus takes up one side of this debate, characterized by faithful questioning, and focused on compassion towards those considered outsiders. On the other side there is a way of religion characterized by unquestioning obedience, leading to using religion to justify acts of authoritarian violence.

    When I wrote about the dangers of religiously justified violence, calling people to move away from the hurtful authoritarian tendencies within Evangelicalism back in 2014, I wish I had been writing of something only in the distant past, something that we are now beyond today. But unfortunately, the low-level moral development which characterizes authoritarianism will always be with us, because there will always be immature and morally under-developed people in the world. What we can and must do, however, is learn to call out that moral immaturity for what it is, and help people to grow away from fear and towards thinking socially and empathetically.

    Those of us who are Christ's followers must heed the repeated warnings of Jesus warns, over and over again, of how authoritarianism pretends to represent the good, when in fact it promotes the very opposite of what Jesus stood for. "Ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing" Jesus called them, "but you can recognize them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:15-16). Those fruits of fear, hate, and violence are plain to see. It's time for conservative religious leaders to recognize this, and heed the sober words of pastor Martin Niemöller, speaking now while they are still able to speak.

    When Trump attacked Mexicans, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Mexican;
    Then he attacked Muslims, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Muslim;
    Then he attacked the disabled, and I did not speak out - because I was not disabled;
    Then he attacked women, and I did not speak out - because I was not a woman;
    Then he came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

    Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Wake up America.

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