#CaseStudy Vox’s ‘The rise of American Authoritarianism’

Donald Trump: the man who’s rise is, for many, the first interesting development in American politics in their lifetime—in their opinion for better or for worse. Trump has the world’s attention and so he must be explained, and the validity of those explanations must be considered.

Is Trump a fascist? An authoritarian? A strongman? A charismatic demagogue? Well, he surely is all of those things in the sense that they could only exist in moderate forms in America. This is what is meant by the title of Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism. It is similar to how socialist activists in America don’t advocate for the totalitarian brand that was characterized by the most extreme examples such as in the Soviet Union.

Vox’s The rise of American Authoritarianism, briefly summarized

We are not going to consider Trump here as much as we will consider a popular explanation of him that was presented in a fairly lengthy March Vox writing by Amanda Taub called The Rise of American Authoritarianism and more recently by Taub in a Vox YouTube video called Authoritarianism: The political science that explains Trump. Taub explains that in the end of the 20th century a theory was suggested that there is an authoritarian psychological profile—”a profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.” But, this turned out to be difficult to study. One of the political scientists, Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt University, said to Taub, “[t]here are certain things that you just can’t ask people directly. You can’t ask people, ‘Do you not like black people?’ You can’t ask people if they’re bigots.” Stanley Feldman, a professor at SUNY Stonebrook, came up with an answer. Taub says, “[h]e realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.”

From there, Feldman developed four questions that Taub says “[have] since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism”: “Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: [1] independence or respect for elders? … [2] obedience or self-reliance? [3] to be considerate or to be well-behaved? [4] curiosity or good manners?” Taub then describes the authoritarian profile as “prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.”


Beginning generally, it should be noted that the idea that societies are ruled according to the psychological profile of the people in that society is actually one of the oldest political theories that there is. The view in Classical Philosophy was that political society is a person writ large. It was even said that society has a psyche just as an individual does. It is something to wonder at that modern thinkers so frequently vindicate Classical Philosophy even while they are so committed to never citing it. It’s almost as if these political scientists have a common psychological profile. Quite a lot needs to be said about the label political science, but here it will suffice to suggest that the inclusion of science may serve to satisfy people that they are informed by our superior modern physical science. After all, Plato & Aristotle didn’t accurately describe gravity—much less quantum mechanics—so what could they know about how our society works? But, how superior is modern social science likely to be when ideas that are thousands of years old are so frequently treated as though they are modern—as though they are scientific?

Turning to the specific procedure, Taub says that studying parenting goals is “so banal it seems almost laughable”. Excuse me? This, too, has been known to be an important factor in society’s psychological profile for thousands of years. Its importance is why Plato places so much emphasis on the kinds of stories people will hear growing up—an issue that seems like it could be an apt substitute for Feldman’s four questions. It should be considered that Plato had the children in his ideal city raised in common because families are among the most fundamental bases for private life, and Plato wanted his ridiculous ideal city to be the public city par excellence.

As for Feldman’s specific questions, they are very questionable. The premise seems to be that they suggest alternatives, but only the first set seems close to being relatively sober. [2] “Obedience or self-reliance”, [3] “considerate or well-behaved”, [4] “curiosity or good manners” are very bizarre pairs. The first choice, choosing between [1] independence or respect for elders, even though comprehensible, is still problematic, as we’ll discuss later. It should be noted, though, that all this is apparently what our society—or at least Vox—considers to be the scientific way to study these things.

A very problematic part of the writing is the myopic view of what is considered to be authoritarianism, which Taub said was “prizing order and conformity… and desiring the imposition of those values.” We should say that this designation fails by infinite regress, that someone who says that they don’t value order or conformity is really saying “I don’t value order or conformity except for with regard to this statement, and that statement, and that statement, and so on, for infinity.” Someone that doesn’t value order and conformity would nevertheless raise their children to have similar values. But, what else has happened here is that Taub has only focused on a partisan set of specific examples. It seems that if we are going to be scientific, then we have to ask about examples like, which people support the aspect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires that everyone that provides “public accommodations” conform with not discriminating based on race? Or, for same-sex weddings? Or who would support banning guns? Or limiting carbon emissions? Each of those issue entail order & conformity, and the point here isn’t to say that any of them are illegitimate. Rather, it is just to say that it is questionable whether or not someone could have views about policy and not be considered to want their ideas of order and conformity imposed on people. Frankly, it has to be considered whether or not the reason almost all people don’t get sexual satisfaction from playing with their feces is because of values to which society demands conformity. There are many decisions that have to be made by society and society will demand conformity, even if only for licentiousness.

Similarly problematic is the direct translation of people’s views about children to their views about society. Someone’s views about how children should be raised is one of the best indicators of what sort of society they prefer. But, they can nevertheless believe that adults should be treated differently from children. In fact, one of the main reasons people think that children should be ruled by their parents is so that the children can grow up and rule themselves so that they can live freely. As Harry Jaffa says, self-rule is practically a synonym for virtue.1

The two conceptions of freedom, freedom as license (i.e. to do whatever you want, typically so long as you don’t hurt anyone) and where freedom is a result of virtue, are not well understood in modernity. Or rather, it is taken for granted that freedom is license. But, as Montesquieu said, “in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is VIRTUE. What I say is confirmed by the entire body of history and is quite in conformity with the nature of things.”2 Leo Strauss said that “the political question par excellence, [is] how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.”3 If asking this question is authoritarianism, then George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were authoritarians. Authoritarianism then loses its meaning and can’t be meaningful for describing Donald Trump either. But in reality, virtue is the requirement for people to live in the free way that can exist without authoritarianism. We now see that [1] independence and respect for elders are intrinsically linked and not the opposites suggested by Feldman. If we have to use the word science to satisfy our modern palette, then it seems to me as though it is Leo Strauss, informed by the Classics, who has asked the decisive scientific political question.


1. Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, IX

2. Montesqueiu, Spirit of the Laws, (1,3,3)

3. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

Categories: #CaseStudy, commentary, trump

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