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The Cultists

[et_pb_section admin_label=”section”] [et_pb_row admin_label=”row”] [et_pb_column type=”4_4″][et_pb_text admin_label=”Text”]Between my work on a book of creative nonfiction and prelaunch publicity for Blood on Their Hands, my legal thriller due for May 4 release, I am absorbed in The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian, worldwide-best-selling novel

Both books eerily presage the arrival of autocratic government in the United States. The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1986, is much in the vein of George Orwell’s 1984, which came out in 1949 and imagined a society in which Big Brother, aka totalitarian government, exerted ultracontrol over the population by use of surveillance and extreme punishment for disobeyance of its dictums. “Doublethink” was its way of brainwashing people to accept as true that which is clearly false.

Bob Altemeyer

The treatise by Altemeyer, written in August 2018, contextualizes The Authoritarians with the advent of Donald Trump as president. Titled “Why do Trump’s supporters stand by him, no matter what?” it begins: “Many people, including I, have labeled Donald Trump an authoritarian leader. But they are honestly baffled by the loyalty of his followers. The decades of research on authoritarian followers provide some answers.”

It is an extraordinarily long piece, and I have excerpted key paragraphs. My abridgment is still long, but what better time than now, during the weeks in COVID-19 isolation, to ponder our current political miasma?

Scene from TV series The Handmaid’s Tale

George Orwell

Altemeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Winnipeg, remarking early on that “the fidelity of Trump’s base remains astounding,” searingly encapsulates the man’s character in one endless, Faulknerian sentence: “He has made so many unforced errors because of his lack of understanding and low problem-solving intelligence, his vast ignorance, his enormous, never-ending dishonesty which seems as reflexive as his breathing, his explosive hostility, his uncontrollable vanity, his despicable demeaning of women, his squalid vulgarity, the stupidity of his stereotypes, the shabbiness of his thinking, the buffoonery of his parading, his attacks on the institutions he needs most to safeguard the country, his incredibly poor judgment about the character of those whom he has brought into his administration, his equally mind-numbing lack of judgment about foreign leaders, friend and foe, and  his willingness to inflame Americans’ disagreements and turn them into conflagrations which make us that deeply divided house which the Gospels and Abraham Lincoln warned against—how can his supporters have stood so solidly behind him? You’d think they’d be having some second thoughts at least.

Margaret Atwood

“The main reason, I submit, is that most of Trump’s backers are authoritarian followers—people who submit too much to the leaders they consider legitimate, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want … Compared to most people, studies have shown that authoritarian followers get their beliefs and opinions from the authorities in their lives, and hardly at all by making up their own minds. They memorize rather than reason.”

Altemeyer continues with an incisive dissection of the Trump disciple’s psyche:

William Faulkner

“Researchers discovered decades ago that people validate their social opinions socially to a certain extent by selecting news outlets, friends, and so on that will tell them they are right. This produces an illusion of consensus, at least among all the ‘right’ people like themselves. Almost everybody does this, but authoritarian followers do it much more because they don’t have many ideas of their own, beliefs they have worked out for themselves and can defend. And they are much more likely to expose themselves only to sources of information that tell them what they want to believe. Getting only one side of a story raises the chances you will get it wrong, but as Ralph Peters, formerly the military analyst at Fox News, said recently, ‘People that only listen to Fox have an utterly skewed view of reality.’ …

“Maybe Donald Trump always was careless with the truth. But it seems that over the past two years he has become downright reckless. His base will swallow anything, he has learned, so he just says the first thing that comes to mind. …

Abraham Lincoln

“The trouble is, for him and the future of his presidency, Truth happens. Constantly. It may be seen differently by various folks, but things did happen as they happened, not something else. You can only ignore the truth so long, and then reality will inevitably catch up with you. It will destroy you if you have been massively denying it.

“Dogmatism comes rather naturally to people who have copied other people’s beliefs rather than figure things out for themselves. When you don’t know why your beliefs are true, you can’t defend them very well when other people or events confront them. Once you’ve run out of whatever counter-arguments your authorities have loaded into you, you’re done. But being flabbergasted doesn’t mean you change your beliefs. You can keep on believing as much as before if you want. You can even pat yourself on the back for believing when it seems clear you are wrong. Some people do this, and you know who taught them to.

Ralph Peters

“That is dogmatism, and experiments show that authoritarian followers have two or three times the normal amount of it because they believe many things strongly, but don’t know why. When the evidence and arguments against their beliefs becomes irrefutable, they simply shut down. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said, dogmatism is the last resort of overwhelmed followers. Thus they agree with the statement, ‘There are no discoveries of facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most in life.’ That says it all.

“In case you haven’t noticed it, authoritarian followers are more fearful, in general, than most people. (And wannabe dictators have known that for a long time.)

Samuel Johnson

“Accordingly Donald Trump was well-placed to gain the support of authoritarian followers, as he was a large and seemingly fearless, powerful man. All he had to do was say he saw the dangers the followers felt and he would fight to protect them. So he did. He would build a wall over 1000 miles long to keep Mexican rapists out. He would stop immigration from certain countries to keep terrorists from getting in and killing everyone. He promised to protect people who feared their jobs were going overseas to countries that he said were stealing America blind. ‘I am your voice,’ he said. He would fight for them with all of his great might. And that was just what threatened people who felt powerless wanted. …

“… Research shows that authoritarian followers value group cohesiveness much more than other people do, and strongly condemn persons who stop believing what the group believes. …

“Beyond these bonds, while Trump supporters feel exposed and vulnerable on their own, they feel safe, strong, even powerful when they are members of a large, determined movement. They gain strength from the crowd, as surely as Trump himself does.

President Richard Nixon

“The very sizeable number of authoritarian followers in the United States have, in my view,  joined together three times in recent history to endanger our democracy. They supported the war in Vietnam as it tore the country apart long after it was clearly lost. They supported Richard Nixon to the very end of Watergate and beyond. They will support Donald Trump long after it becomes indisputable that he is a felon and should be removed from office.

President Donald Trump

“The good news is the Republic has survived the past crises, thanks largely to the honest reporting of the press that would not be intimidated, the division of powers enshrined in the Constitution, especially the independence of the judiciary, and the good judgment of most of the American people. And it can survive this latest threat for the same reasons. But the bad news is the authoritarian followers will remain, unwitting carriers of a cancer upon the nation that the next authoritarian leader will arouse and set marching.

“I am not suggesting that people should exclude in any sense the most authoritarian elements in American society. With few exceptions, they are law-abiding citizens exercising their rights, and that should be respected and protected. But I do think their influence needs to be contained by outvoting them. And Donald Trump is betting that won’t happen.

“Whether American democracy endures could well depend on what happens at the polls in 2018 and 2020. Authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers have no great love of freedom and equality. Those who do had better organize and get out the vote, or they will make Donald Trump look like the super-genius he believes he is.”

For the entire essay, go to:

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#Watergate #RalphPeters #Doublethink #WilliamFaulkner #MargaretAtwood #RichardNixon #TheAuthoritarians #SamuelJohnson #AbrahamLincoln #BigBrother #DonaldTrump #BobAltemeyer #bloodontheirhands #theGospels #TheHandmaidsTale #GeorgeOrwell #VietnamWar

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