How does a Conservative differ from an Authoritarian? Part 2
Updated: Jun 20
I ended the previous post defining authoritarianism with a loaded question: “are Trump and his followers authoritarians?” To discuss Trump is to invite controversy and throw discretion to the wind; his critics balk at the suggestion he’s anything less than literal-Hitler and his supporters bristle at the slightest slight. As is usually the case, the truth is nestled somewhere between extremities. The gravest danger in the Trump era is that otherwise reasonable, civil adults devolve to political tribalism and never venture outside the silo of media they choose to accept as “fact.” Conservatives reject political tribalism; authoritarians thrive on it.
I will say at once that a distinction should be made between the Trump supporters who blindly follow his ever-changing rhetoric and those who supported him to oppose Hillary and applaud his right-leaning appointments while cringing at his otherworldly Commander and Tweet leadership style. Reasonable people can support the president. And reasonable conservatives can praise the president when he makes conservative policy decisions, just as reasonable conservatives could occasionally praise president Clinton when he ventured right. The complexities of political worldviews would suggest that it is uncharitable to equate praise or support of Trump with authoritarian tendencies.
And while there’s no need to be uncharitable, there is also no need to mince words: authoritarians are a danger to the social order and the liberties that conservatives cherish. While I argued here that conservatives and libertarians are natural allies in the fight for liberty, that sentiment does not hold for authoritarians who would smash liberties to bits in their efforts to freeze in time a vision of some perfectible society. Those who blindly support the president aren’t necessarily authoritarians, but they do have more in common with authoritarianism than conservatism. Perhaps another way to say it is, Trump’s predominant message during the campaign was an appeal to authoritarian appetites. He pledged not to limit the power of government, but to use that power to Make America Great Again!
To blindly support Trump is to support everything and nothing. It is to support a person, not a coherent set of values or ideas. It is to support a Messiah, not a leader. The real danger of authoritarianism is not that a charismatic leader would eventually abuse their expanding powers (that’s as predictable as Democrats suggesting higher taxes and more government regulation is the solution to whatever problems we’ll face in the future), but that we begin to believe all hope is lost unless we vest absolute power in that leader. Those who held America was literally one Clinton away from total ruin and that only Trump could save us were challenging authoritarian fears over conservative prudence.
Let me just say it: Trump isn’t a conservative; he isn’t even a liberal, at least not an ideologically driven progressive like Obama, Hillary, or Sanders. Trump’s rhetoric bespeaks authoritarianism with a dash of nationalism and populism thrown in for good measure. But even still it wouldn’t be quite fair to label Trump an “authoritarian” because he hasn’t spoken consistently about nearly anything, as evidenced by this list of 138 distinct shifts on 23 major issues. Could we confidently discern, for example, precisely what his views on health reform are beyond a vague notion he doesn’t like Obamacare and thinks the Republicans in Congress should do something different?
At times Trump appears conservative (appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court), at times liberal (his “very pro-choice” stances before the 2016 election and his campaign donations to primarily liberal politicians), at times socialist (the Carrier deal), at times protectionist (threatening to slap a punitive 45% tariffs on Chinese imports), at times alt-right (calling for an American judge to recuse himself from a lawsuit brought against Trump because of his Hispanic heritage), at times populist (blaming our nation’s problems on our leaders who are losers, lightweights, and morons), and at times authoritarian (threatening to change the laws to bring libel lawsuits against journalists who say things he’d find unsavory, declaring he’d order the military to violate international war crimes by murdering people related to suspected terrorists, and declaring “I alone can fix” America).
Trump’s constantly shifting policies make any label an awkward fit, but if you had to pin Trumpism with a political ideology, I believe he could best be described as an authoritarian. Let me say at once that I do not mean to compare Trump with the likes of a Hitler or a Mussolini, or even a more benevolent authoritarian such as Francisco Franco. Nevertheless, his insistence that our leaders are losers and morons and that he alone can Make America Great Again!, his blatant disregard for constitutional restraints, his slandering of vulnerable ethnic groups and civilian opposition, his calls for jailing, lawsuits, and physical violence on dissenters, his near-utopian promises of a bright tomorrow, and his admiration of third-world strongmen all point to the underpinnings of authoritarian sentiments, even if a well-crafted ideology or detailed agenda is lacking.
I also want to avoid the pitfall of reducing Trump to some passing fad or bumbling idiot who just happened to pull off one of the most stunning election upsets in American history. To scorn Trump’s buffoonery delights his critics, persuades none of his followers, and, basically, gets us nowhere. To reduce the Trump phenomenon to an inexplicable surge in bigotry, sexism, and homophobia is both grossly oversimplifying and offensively accusatory of the underlying motives of millions of our fellow countrymen. When I suggest Trump’s rhetoric sounds authoritarian in nature my aim is not to dismiss him. My aim is to respect any threat to liberty enough to respond with adequate and appropriate opposition.
But why criticize a man who—for the moment—seems to be advocating conservative policies? As I argued here, conservatism is about far more than a checklist of political policies; and even if we accept that Trump exclusively advocates conservative policies, which he most certainly does not, there is still a grave danger to liberty in handing the keys of power over to a man who shows such blatant disregard for restraint. It isn’t necessary to have a bona fide authoritarian ideologue in power to be creeping towards authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is the default position of a society that doesn’t vigilantly maintain order, peace, and liberty. It’s not so much something you “do” it’s something you allow to happen.
And supporting authoritarians is not a stance taken exclusively by skinheads and neo-Nazis. It can be done by unsuspecting honest and decent people who simply fear their culture is dying and look to a Messiah to set it all back in order. “People may start out with an initial prejudice against tyrants,” warned philosopher Aldous Huxley, “But when tyrants or would-be tyrants treat them to adrenaline releasing propaganda about the wickedness of their enemies…they are ready to follow the tyrants with enthusiasm.” It was disturbing to conservatives when Trump said in his acceptance speech at the RNC last year that he “alone can fix” America. But it was far more horrifying how many were applauding as he said it.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.