Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

The Specter of Authoritarianism

by Andrew J. Pierce

ABSTRACT. In this essay, I provide an analysis of the much-discussed authoritarian aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign and early administration. Drawing from both philosophical analyses of authoritarianism and recent work in social science, I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.

The unorthodox campaign and unexpected election of Donald Trump has ignited intense speculation about the possibility of an authoritarian turn in American politics. In some ways, this is not surprising. The divisive political climate in the United States is fertile soil for the demonization of political opponents. George W. Bush was regularly characterized as an authoritarian by his left opposition, as was Barack Obama by his own detractors. Yet in Trump’s case, echoes of earlier forms of authoritarianism, from his xenophobic brand of nationalism and reliance on a near mythological revisionist history, to his vilification of the press and seemingly strategic use of falsehoods, appear too numerous to ignore. In this essay, I attempt to provide a sober evaluation of the authoritarian prospects of a Trump administration. As presidential agendas inevitably differ from campaign platforms, much of this analysis will be unavoidably speculative. However, the nature of Trump’s carefully studied campaign, the early actions of his administration, and the wealth of philosophical reflections on earlier forms of authoritarianism provide ample resources to inform such speculation. I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While these elements are sometimes thought of as competing causal explanations for the rise of authoritarian regimes, my analysis here has no such explanatory pretensions. I assume that the rise of Trump is attributable to a complex causal network of social forces, including those mentioned here and perhaps others besides.[1] Moreover, I will argue that these elements are not mutually exclusive; that, for example, the authoritarian predispositions emphasized by some political analysts are closely linked to xenophobia and racial intolerance, and that the strategic use of misinformation plays a role in “activating” authoritarian predispositions. In short, my view is that identifying the most statistically significant predictor of supporting authoritarian regimes, or their single most salient causal factor, is less important than attaining a wide-ranging view of their central attributes, thus developing the outlines of a standard by which to judge the Trump and other administrations. Accordingly, while I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.



If Trump is an authoritarian, then his is a populist authoritarianism, a form of rule in which “a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups” (Gasiorowski 2006, 111). Thus any study of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism cannot neglect the nature of his appeal to his core supporters, nor the fact that he was propelled to power by a groundswell of support that was largely unanticipated by the Republican establishment that ultimately – though with great initial reservation – nominated him as their party’s presidential candidate. Fortunately, scholarship on authoritarianism has historically emphasized the importance of understanding its psychological appeal, and thereby focused on not just authoritarian rulers and governments themselves, but on their core supporters. Adorno et al.’s study on The Authoritarian Personality (1950) provided the model for this sort of approach, and offers a more general definition of authoritarianism. Adorno et al. identified a number of personality traits that were correlated to ethnocentrism, anti-Semitism, and “anti-democratic” attitudes. Grounded in Freudian psychology, these researchers ultimately located support for authoritarian regimes and policies in childhood pathologies that resulted in rigid adherence to simplified worldviews, strict obedience to authority figures, and fear and distrust of those who do not share this same orientation to the world. And while this particular study has been criticized both for its reliance on empirically questionable Freudian presuppositions and for methodological errors (Stenner 2005; Hetherington and Weiler 2009; Christie and Jahoda 1954), the core idea of an authoritarian personality type remains influential, and continues to be developed and refined by social scientists.[2]

Matthew MacWilliams has recently utilized such a revised authoritarian personality measure to study Trump supporters, and claims as a result of his study that a predisposition to authoritarianism is the single most statistically significant predictor of support for Trump, more significant than race, income, level of education, or other commonly cited correlates (2016). MacWillams used a serious of questions about childrearing that have been shown to capture not only active authoritarian views, but the predisposition to having such views “activated” by threat (Stenner, 2005). High scores on this measure of authoritarian predisposition corresponded to a greater likelihood of supporting Trump over the other contenders for the Republication party nomination.

MacWilliams’ results have been challenged by Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver (2016), whose own research showed greater predispositions to authoritarianism among supporters of Ted Cruz than among Trump supporters. They claim that anti-elitist populism, manifested in distrust of experts and political elites is the more significant factor that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other Republican contenders. But even if Cruz was the preferred candidate of those predisposed to authoritarianism, their study still revealed high levels of authoritarianism in Trump supporters as well. It is thus quite likely that most Cruz supporters turned to Trump supporters when Cruz dropped out of the race, a claim supported by evidence that evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump in the general election (Smith and Martinez 2016). But more importantly, anti-elitism is not necessarily opposed to authoritarianism. One might expect authoritarians to submit to the authority of political and other elites, but this misses the fact that authoritarians do not view all forms of authority equally. As MacWilliams puts it:

authoritarians’ sense of order is not necessarily or sole­ly defined by worldly powers. To authoritarians, there are higher powers that delineate right from wrong and good from evil. There are transcendent ways of behaving and being that are enduring, everlasting, and the root of balance and order. These authorities are “morally and ontologically superior” to state or institutional authority and must be obeyed. (2016, 14)

If the actions of social and political elites are viewed as being inconsistent with these higher sources of authority, if they are viewed as unconventional outsiders aiming to upend traditional values, and so on, there is no inconsistency in authoritarians resisting them or their claims to authority. This is precisely the reason that “populist authoritarianism” is not a contradiction in terms, and part of the reason that I have identified that variety of authoritarianism as the relevant one for evaluating Trump’s rise.

Still, Oliver and Rahn’s study might be taken to suggest that support for conservative candidates in general is marked by authoritarian predispositions, such that these predispositions do not uniquely explain support for Trump. Indeed, the study of authoritarianism has historically been plagued by difficulties in disentangling it from conservative political ideologies. This is partly why some scholars of authoritarianism have refined authoritarian personality measures to focus specifically on “Right Wing Authoritarianism” (Altemeyer 1981). Yet one of the advantages of approaches that focus on child-rearing is that they are supposed to get behind ideological commitments and political beliefs. As MacWilliams claims, “authoritarianism is a predisposition that arises causally prior to the political attitudes and behavior that it affects” (2016, 25). In principle then, it should be able to identify latent authoritarian tendencies as well as explicit authoritarian beliefs, as expressed, for example, in some varieties of conservative ideology. Nothing in Oliver and Rahn’s study suggests that the measure fails to do that, but it does perhaps suggest that, in order to understand the distinctiveness of a Trump presidency, we must look at the actions and ideologies of Trump himself, and of his campaign and administration, in addition to the psychological predispositions of his supporters. With this in mind, I now turn to one such tendency of Trump’s governing strategy: the tendency toward racial scapegoating.



While MacWilliams presents authoritarianism as an alternative to explanations that focus specifically on race and the alleged racial resentment of many Trump supporters, it is clear that the two factors are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the key features of authoritarianism is its fear and suspicion of those who are different, as Adorno’s general definition suggests, and racial difference is one of the most visible and, in the United States, historically salient forms of such difference. It is not necessary here to decide on conceptual grounds whether the manipulation of racial attitudes is a necessary feature of authoritarianism. It is enough to note that, empirically, authoritarian regimes often employ this strategy. Including an analysis of this sort also helps especially to clarify how exactly populist authoritarian leaders manipulate “key lower class groups.” Trump’s campaign certainly employed this strategy, effectively playing upon the anxieties of the white working class regarding their perceived cultural marginalization in the face of the increasing racial diversity of the United States. Yet analyses of Trump’s rise that focus specifically on racial resentment often neglect the economic dimension of Trump’s support among the white working classes. The geographical locations where Trump found the most support are areas where traditional sources of employment have been rendered obsolete or moved overseas, where free trade agreements like NAFTA are viewed with suspicion, and where the social effects of economic marginalization manifested in things like drug addiction have wreaked havoc.[3] These two features – economic marginalization and racial resentment – are not unrelated. The economic marginalization of a subset of the white working class provides fertile ground for racial scapegoating. Here again, the analyses of those writing in the wake of earlier forms of authoritarianism is instructive.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno aimed to show that German anti-Semitism was intentionally cultivated as a means of redirecting discontent arising from economic exploitation. In their words, German anti-Semitism served a specific purpose: “to conceal domination in production” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). While European Jews had historically been excluded from ownership of major industries, they had, according to Horkheimer, Adorno, and other social theorists of the time including Hannah Arendt (1976), achieved some success integrating the “circulation sphere,” including what we would now call the financial sector, as well as small business ownership. This social position made the Jew an easy scapegoat for the most basic injustice of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value, i.e. profit, from the wage-laborer. This is allegedly because the workers “find out the true nature of the exchange only when they see what they can buy with [their wages]” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). Thus the injustice of capitalist wage labor is projected onto the merchant and the banker, and “the economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to him” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). This produces what Horkheimer and Adorno call a “socially necessary illusion” (necessary, presumably, for the maintenance of the economic status quo, not in any ultimate sense), that “the circulation sphere is responsible for exploitation” (2002, 143). This form of scapegoating is expressed finally in their claim that “in the image of the Jew which the racial nationalists hold up before the world they express their own essence” (2002, 137). The exploitation that they attribute to the Jew is really a projection of their own exploitative nature, and in unleashing violence against these substitute exploiters, the masses feel a false sense of emancipation, while remaining within the established “reality principle” of capitalist exploitation.

Interestingly, Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory also describes the way that this form of scapegoating relied on what contemporary race theorists call “racialization” – the transformation of a social group into a racial group (Omi and Winant 2014). Prior to the early twentieth century, and even in the earlier writings of critical theorists (Horkheimer 1989), the “Jewish question” was primarily considered to be a matter of cultural and religious difference. As Marx put it, “the most stubborn form of the opposition between the Jew and the Christian is the religious opposition” (1978, 28). In contrast to this view, Horkheimer and Adorno point out, German fascism understood Jewishness first and foremost in racial terms, thus distancing itself from the “liberal thesis” which held that “the Jews, free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 137). The Nazis thus attributed to Jews a shared biological essence, solidified in both law and social practice. The Nuremburg Laws, for example, like the so-called “one drop rule” in the United States, included precise specifications of who was to count as a Jew, in order to eliminate any element of voluntary self-identification (or, perhaps more to the point, dis-identification). In this way, the group targeted for scapegoating is identified and fixed in a more or less stable form.

The psychoanalytic foundations of Horkheimer and Adorno’s scapegoat theory are as apparent here as they are in Adorno’s theory of the “authoritarian personality.” But as with Adorno’s reflections on authoritarianism, the observation that authoritarian forms of rule tend to rely on this sort of scapegoating does not rise or fall with one’s acceptance of the psychoanalytic framework.[4] Nor must one accept the Marxist framework upon which their theory of capitalist exploitation draws. The key idea is simply that scapegoating occurs as a response to a real economic crisis, which results in political dissent of a sort that threatens the vested interests of those who hold economic power, which is then redirected toward vulnerable minority groups. Scapegoating of this sort has certainly played some role in Trump’s rise to power. White working class communities that have experienced the loss of low-skill manufacturing jobs, decreasing tax revenue, crumbling infrastructure, and general social anomie have proven incredibly responsive to explanations that link these phenomena to the (perceived) influx of immigrants from the south. Growing white anxiety about misleading reports that whites will soon become a minority in the United States due to increased immigration from non-European nations compounds these economic fears (Passel and Cohn 2008; Pierce 2015). This shows that it is not immigration per se that worries Trump supporters, but a racialized immigration that challenges white control over power and resources. While such racial anxiety is in some form as old as the United States itself, it was manipulated masterfully by the Trump campaign.

Again, the link between this sort of scapegoating and the authoritarian character of Trump’s appeal must be emphasized. Debates about which factor has greater explanatory salience can easily miss the ways in which they are closely intertwined. Authoritarian predispositions are “activated” by threat, and scapegoating represents targeted groups as both economic and existential threats. Mexicans not only threaten “our” jobs, but are also represented as murderers, rapists and all around “bad hombres,” responsible for (fictional) increases in crime and disorder. Their perceived threat to law and order is surpassed only by those from the Arab world, who are equated with terrorism and “radical Islam.” Such threats must be rooted out by any means necessary, and so racial profiling and increasingly invasive police practices are tolerated within our borders, and broadly restrictive immigration measures, physical barriers, and other imprecise responses are promoted as a means of fortifying them.

While it is true that these forms of scapegoating target minority identities that are not technically racial (at least not by the United States’ own official system of racial classification[5]), there is a gap between “official” and popular understandings of race when it comes to Arabic Muslims and “Hispanic” groups. For example, the myriad reports of impending white minority almost always focus on non-Hispanic whites as the relevant demographic for measuring when whites will fall beneath fifty percent of the overall population. And even if Trump supporters’ aversions to Arabs or Muslims appear to be primarily cultural or religious aversions, the rarity of distinguishing between culture, region, and religion in the discourses surrounding immigration from the Middle East demonstrate the increasing racialization of this group (Sheth 2009). These examples show that the folk understanding of race may not match up with official racial categories – that Hispanics and Arabs are commonly thought of as being racially distinct from non-Hispanic, non-Arab whites. As tools like the Census are integral to defining and categorizing populations as “racial,” it will be interesting to see how a Trump administration approaches the 2020 Census, and in particular whether some effort is made to distinguish Arabs and Middle-Eastern populations from “whites.”

Finally, new research suggests that it is not just economic marginalization, but economic inequality in general that contributes to authoritarian attitudes, which in turn make their possessors amenable to racial scapegoating. The “relative power” theory of Frederick Solt holds that economic inequality leads to inequality in power and thereby produces hierarchy. This hierarchy in turn “mak[es] experiences that reinforce vertical notions of authority more common and so authoritarianism more widespread” (Solt 2012, 703). In short, if the economic structure of a society requires or rewards submission to the authority of employers, benefactors, and those with more economic power, this sort of subservience is likely to be seen as normal, and thereby transferred to the sphere of political (or familial) authority, where it can be exploited to support xenophobic policies that purport to address complex social and economic issues.

Combining the insights of the scapegoat theory and the relative power theory then, one can say that societies with a high degree of economic inequality will produce heightened levels of authoritarian predispositions, and that these heightened authoritarian predispositions are more easily activated in times of economic or political crisis, or among economically marginalized populations. Given that capitalism is prone to both extreme inequality and frequent crisis, it is fair to say that it will reliably produce such authoritarian attitudes, especially in those that become economically marginalized. Scapegoating will thus appear as an easy solution to any legitimation crisis that might arise. Trump’s campaign and early administration has relied heavily on this ready solution, and one can expect that it will rely on it even more heavily in the case that crises within the administration and within the United States itself deepen.



A final, much discussed feature of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism is his seeming indifference to truth. Trump is by no means the first politician to employ a strategy of deceit and falsehood. But generally, politicians lie through omission, or in ways that can be easily retracted or reinterpreted. Trump’s cavalier and easily repudiated use of falsehoods regarding matters large and small has struck many observers as unique. Here many analysts have referred to Arendt’s comments on the matter in Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt claims that authoritarian regimes are marked by their “extreme contempt for facts as such” (1976, 350).[6] Moreover, she explains, “the chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error” (1976, 348–49). Yet the authoritarian orientation to the truth is misunderstood, she claims, if it is viewed as an attempt at factual accuracy. Rather, the “propaganda effect” of such pronunciations consists in their “habit of announcing their political intentions in the form of prophesy” (Arendt 1976, 349). Once authoritarian rulers attain power, “all debate about the truth or falsity of a … prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive” (1976, 350). Among the examples she discusses are both predictions (Hitler’s claim that if “Jewish Financiers” brought about a second world war, the result would be their annihilation) and factual claims (the USSR’s claim that Moscow possessed the world’s only subway system), which she characterizes also as kinds of “prophesy,” since such assertions are lies “only so long as the Bolsheviks have not the power to destroy all the others” (1976, 350).

Some of the falsehoods that the Trump administration traffics in could be understood in this way. The baseless claim that three-to-five million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the general election, for example, was taken by some as “telegraphing his administration’s intent to provide cover for longstanding efforts by Republicans to suppress minority voters by purging voting rolls, imposing onerous identification requirements and curtailing early voting” (New York Times Editorial Board 2017). Trump also claimed that the U.S. murder rate was at a 47 year high when it was actually at a 45 year low, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated similarly false claims about increasing crime rates, calling the increase a “dangerous, permanent trend” (Beckett 2017; FBI 2017). Recalling the importance of threat to activating authoritarian predispositions, these claims serve both to shore up obedience in general and to signal an intent to “get tough” on crime, continuing the legacy of criminalization that undergirds the repression of minority groups.[7]

But perhaps most troubling, and less discussed, are the claims that look more like “prophesy” than assertion. For example, when a federal judge issued a stay on his Executive Order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump tweeted “just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” (Trump 2017). While the claim that people were “pouring in” could be disputed on factual grounds, the more important aspect of this message is found in its prophetic character, and the precedent it sets for blaming the judiciary for any future attack that might occur. Given the high likelihood of some act of terrorism occurring at some point in Trump’s presidency, this message sets the groundwork for consolidating power in a truly authoritarian fashion. Despite recent increases (likely due to the generalized, post-victory optimism of Trump supporters) public approval ratings of Congress remain at historic lows. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the effectiveness of the legislative branch of government. If faith in the judiciary were similarly undermined, the stage would be set for reigning in its powers, and undermining the system of checks and balances designed to prevent autocracy.

Understanding this strategy provides a basis for responding to an important objection to characterizations of Trump’s administration as authoritarian. One might identify as key features of authoritarianism (as a political system, as opposed to a psychological predisposition) the consolidation of executive power, the elimination of effective checks on that power from legislatures, judiciaries, and the press, repression of opposition parties, and repression of political opposition more broadly. Trump’s early administration does not seem to have consolidated power or repressed dissent in this way. To the contrary, his actions appear to have produced levels of dissent, protest, and pushback, from citizens, from the media, from opposing political parties, and in some cases even from the Republican Party itself, not seen in the United States in some time. Perhaps this indicates that worries about Trump ushering in an era of authoritarian repression and control are exaggerated.

It does seem unlikely that a Trump administration will succeed in outlawing the Democratic Party, disbanding Congress, or replacing independent journalism with state-sponsored channels of propaganda. For this reason, it seems premature to declare the Trump administration definitively authoritarian. However, it is equally unwise to ignore Trump’s clear pretensions to authoritarianism: his disdain for judges and legislators alike, his attempts to delegitimize protest and resistance with conspiratorial fantasies of shadowy puppet masters, paid operatives, and terrorist infiltrators, and his attempts to exclude certain news media from White House press briefings, to bypass journalistic channels entirely, communicating with the public through Twitter, and to create his own news organization. If some of Trump’s intentions and preferred methods of rule are indeed authoritarian, this is reason enough to pay close attention to changes in the political environment that might create possibilities to introduce such methods.

For example, Trump has already flirted with the dangerous possibility of simply disregarding judicial review of his policies. When the first federal judges issued a temporary stay on Trump’s January 27th travel ban, the Department of Homeland Security originally announced its intention to continue to enforce the provisions of the order in spite of the early rulings. Thankfully, the administration changed course as public outrage grew and additional decisions reinforced and expanded the initial rulings. But it is easy to imagine that if public opinion turned against the judiciary (perhaps as a result of acts of terrorism as prophesied by Trump’s tweet), such a strategy of disregard might appear more feasible to Trump’s administration. A major terrorist attack on the United States would also provide a convenient premise for expanding executive power and restricting the constitutional rights of citizens, following precedents set in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In short then, while it is premature to conclude that the Trump administration is an authoritarian regime, I have identified three authoritarian elements of his campaign and early administration that should be carefully monitored, and shown how these elements are inter-related. Authoritarian regimes appeal to the authoritarian inclinations of their supporters, and such inclinations do appear to be present at significant levels among Trump’s supporters. These inclinations make Trump supporters amenable to policies and explanations that scapegoat vulnerable racial minorities (as well as contribute to the “racialization” of groups that were previously not thought to be racially distinct), and that redirect attention away from the structural economic causes of their increasing marginalization. And finally, Trump’s strategic use of falsehoods points to their “prophetic” character as predictions rather than truth claims, intended to construct ideological grounds for rationalizing future actions, as Arendt describes. Citizens and political analysts alike should continue to monitor these elements of the Trump administration, and to guard against their expanded use and exploitation.


Andrew J. Pierce is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of Justice Education at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago. His specialization is social and political philosophy broadly conceived, with interests in critical theory and the philosophy of race. He is the author of several articles in these areas, as well as a recent book: Collective Identity, Oppression, and the Right to Self-Ascription.



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[1] See for example Wayne 2016 and Hibbing 2016.

[2] Methodological criticisms of Adorno et al. gave rise to decades-long debates in the social sciences about the proper way to measure authoritarian attitudes, and the crucial difference between authoritarian predispositions and authoritarian behaviors. Yet the existence of these measurement problems does not fundamentally challenge the underlying conception of the authoritarian personality, and the fact that the method that is widely considered to avoid such problems returns to questions about childrearing lends some evidence to Adorno’s original emphasis on childhood experience.

[3] See for example the discussion of what have come to be called “deaths of despair” among this demographic in Case and Deaton 2015.

[4] Neither is it necessary for the present analysis to identify the deep anthropological origins of the “scapegoat mechanism” as, for example Rene Girard 1977 does. Whatever role (if any) scapegoating plays in human culture generally, it is clear that this feature takes on a particularly intense and specific form in authoritarian regimes.

[5] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic is an “ethnicity” rather than a racial identity. Thus, respondents are asked whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic, and then must answer an additional question about race. The racial category “white” explicitly includes people from the Middle East and Arabs.

[6] Arendt’s analysis is focused on “totalitarianism,” which she understands as an extreme version of authoritarianism that aims to extend its sphere of control beyond opposing parties and branches of government and into the fabric of everyday social life, demanding not just obedience, but assent to the dominant ideology of the State. The differences between authoritarianism and what Arendt calls totalitarianism are interesting, but can be set aside here for the present purpose of an analysis of authoritarianism, since it is not clear that this particular feature – the strategic use of falsehoods – is one that distinguishes the two forms of rule.

[7] On the link between criminalization and race, see Alexander 2010.

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