Why Authoritarianism Refuses to Die

The death penalty and sex crimes have more to do with the psychology of this year's lurch to the right than you might think.

by Tshepo Mokoena
Dec 27 2016, 3:03pm

Brynn Anderson AP/Press Association Images

There's a fascist in every one of us. Yeah, you too. At least that's the thrust of an argument first made in the 1930s by an Austrian psychoanalyst who studied under Freud, developed theories on politics and sexuality that infuriated both communists and Nazis, and eventually came to the conclusion that you're more likely to warm up to the idea of fascism if you're sexually repressed. Wilhelm Reich, to put it mildly, pissed a lot of people off.

But before his theory linked fascism to stifled orgasms, Reich posited his idea on right-wing nationalism in his 1933 text "The Mass Psychology of Fascism." "My medical experience with individuals from all kinds of social strata, races, nationalities, and religions showed me that 'fascism' is only the politically organized expression of the average human character structure," he wrote, "a character structure which has nothing to do with this or that race, nation, or party but which is general and international. In this characterological sense, 'fascism' is the basic emotional attitude of man in authoritarian society." Meaning the way we defer to authorities—first our parents, then our teachers, then our bosses, and so on—bakes a potential predilection for fascism into every society.

Fast-forward to 2016. It's been a year when we've struggled to even verbalize the direction in which Western politics has drifted. Some call this wave of Anti-Establishment surprise election results and anti-immigrant sentiment a form of right-wing populism. Others, a pivot toward conservatism or perhaps nationalism. People first started using the word "fascist" to describe Donald Trump in 2015, before he was even made the Republican presidential nominee. We've ended up with a load of different ways to try to express a basic concept: There are lots of people worried about safety and security who want the firm hand of an authoritarian state to shield them from the perceived trauma of globalization, migration, and international terrorism.

Left-wing politics as we've come to know it—centered on the ideas of welfare, openness to other nation states, and accepting multiculturalism—has lost ground to a politics steeped in law and order with just a touch of protectionism. And as Reich observed in the 1930s, cash-strapped, overworked people who feel afraid can vote (some against their interests) to pick authoritarianism over liberalism.

But the question is: Why? Just what is it about, say, Brexit or Trump that psychologically appeals to millions? Voting emotionally isn't really understood, and we easily descend into damaging stereotyping—"'Little England' northerners voted to Leave" or "out-of-touch London elites voted Remain"—rather than proper analysis. But politics professor at Birkbeck University of London Eric Kaufmann quickly discovered a unifying thread running through the types of people more likely to want out of the EU. And it had nothing to do with class, wealth, or location.

"Culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters," he wrote the day of the referendum result. "This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education, and even party." And those values relate more to authoritarianism.

When looking at a 2015 British Election Study survey of 24,000 white Brits, the probability of someone voting Leave leapt to 73 percent if they were in favor of the death penalty. Similarly, if they responded to wanting to see people who commit sex crimes "publicly whipped, or worse," they were much more likely to want out of the EU. On the other hand, the probability of voting Leave hovered at about 14 percent for those who said they were opposed to the death penalty. Boiled down, those more likely to favor a tough-on-crime, conservative approach to punishment leaned toward wanting Brexit.

This not only explodes the idea that the white working class somehow voted as a monolithic bloc in favor of leaving the EU, but also hints at why times of economic and social upheaval push populations toward the right. "Right-wing authoritarianism is on a level of psychology almost," says Kaufmann, speaking over the phone. "In one population, you're not going to have one response—it's not like 'all whites' are going to say no to immigration. What you have is one group of whites, to put it crudely, interested in change and novelty and experience. They're quite accepting of change, or even embrace it. Another group sees the world as a dangerous place and wants to be protected from it—they embrace law and order."

Though Kaufmann noticed this in June, more data seemed to confirm it elsewhere. In November, YouGov data from from 12,000 people polled showed that authoritarian populist ideas—once consigned to the margins—were held by about half the population in eight out of 12 European countries. In Britain, this figure was at 48 percent, though 20 percent of those polled self-identified as "right-wing." Many still ascribed to an opposition to human rights (itself a deeply counterintuitive view, surely) and anti-immigration views backed by support for strong foreign policy. From Romania to the Netherlands to Poland, a particular value system appears to be on the rise.

Academics have tried to define it for years. In the 1980s, now-retired psychology professor Bob Altemeyer came up with his own extension of a 1940s right-wing authoritarian scale, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sort of ranking system to make sense of why people gravitate to the right. It encompasses traits like a submission to authority, aggression toward outsiders, and loving social norms or traditions. Though Kaufmann isn't a fan of the term "right-wing authoritarianism," he acknowledges its complexities.

"There are really two types: one, social dominance, who really believe in survival of the fittest; and two, those who are fearful and seek order and security and routine," he says. That bid for comfort feels magnified when life is hard—for example, during the Great Depression, before World War II, and in today's post-recession uncertainty.

"At the moment, people do not perceive their future as vivid or certain," says Dr. Simon Moss, associate professor in psychology at Charles Darwin University. "Because of this uncertainty, they tend to prioritize their immediate needs over their future goals." In turn, that leads to a heightened response to perceived threats. "When people bias their attention to information that aligns with their preferences and preconceptions," Moss continues, "they tend to perceive their own group as superior and other groups as inferior. That is, they want to feel better rather than seek accurate information. Consequently, prejudices are rife. They gravitate to leaders that reinforce these prejudices. Brexit and Trump follow."

Academic Matthew MacWilliams pointed this out as early as January, in relation to Trump. Again, authoritarianism looks to be the unifying factor among the president-elect's supporters. "Authoritarians obey," MacWilliams wrote. "They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to 'make America great again' to building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations."

And that's where the appeal lies. A strongman becomes both a comfort blanket and a stern, trusted figurehead. They're the ones who can help people "take back control of their borders" or make their country great again. And if there's apparently a little fascist inside each of us, that may be just what they want to hear.

Lead photo: Eva Braun / NARA via

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