A little over a year ago, we launched this website to give people a safe place to gain some background and context for things that were happening in the world around them-a place free from political spin where we didn’t tell people what to think. Instead we told them the why behind things and challenged them to come to their own conclusions. The last two publications on chartwellwest.com have been intentional departures from that practice. They were opinion pieces motivated by a political end-to encourage opposition to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Though focused on Trump, he was not actually the greater end to our intent. Instead, the focus was defeating something larger-authoritarianism. For such an important message, I’m fine with the purposeful hypocrisy we’ve indulged. There’s more at risk here than most people appear to be grasping. But we’re going to get back to talking about the why anyway. Because when you shine a light on what is behind the political rise of Donald Trump, opposition grows a strong and graspable handle. Whether or not you grab it, is up to you.
This past weekend, Amanda Taub wrote a thorough and appropriately candid review of several research projects conducted by PhD candidate Mathew MacWilliams at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Professor Jonathan Weiler at Vanderbilt and Professor Marc Hethrington at the University of North Carolina. Taub’s article is magnificently detailed and long. But it can be effectively summed up by three insights and a conclusion that will help paint the why behind my vitriol opposition to Mr. Trump.
These insights are based on the assumption that there are people who, as a function of their personality, are predisposed to gravitate towards authoritarian ideology. This assumption is backed up by data and research in the field. Authoritarian ideology being formally defined as favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.
Here’s the big story of their findings highlighted in Taub’s article, in her words.
- “In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians.”
- “many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been activated. This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.”
- “when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.”
It’s fair to point out that not all Republicans are authoritarian. But it is also fair to imply that if you were of authoritarian disposition, and you were inclined to choose a political party over the last 50 years, it would be Republican. Which leads to the compelling conclusion that explains the phenomenon that has culminated in the symptom of our national political sickness-Donald Trump:
“… if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.”
Pretty straight forward. Now consider this timeline:
- 1964-The Civil Rights Act
- 1973-Roe V. Wade
- 1984-The First Woman Vice Presidential Candidate
- 2008-The First African American President
- 2015-Same Sex Marriage Equality
- 2016-The First Female Presidential Candidate
These represent a half dozen landmark social progress milestones that, at the time, the Republican party opposed in some way. Which tells us that we’ve been marching forward with social progress for 50 years and the Republican Party, as is it’s function as our conservative voice, opposed it. I’m not bashing them. It’s their job. But we haven’t had Donald Trump until now. Why did it change?
There’s another critically important event that’s missing. On September 11, 2001, foreign born, Muslim terrorists hijacked and flew four planes into two skyscrapers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing over three thousand Americans, live on national television. There was no state to defeat in order to declare an end to this threat. The broadly amorphous entity that did execute it and other attacks since, still exists. The slow warming pot of fear and social progress had been brought to a roaring boil over the last 15 years. Social progress and physical threats are happening at the same time. And now, we’re facing the fallout.
But why is it that some of us, more than others, are so concerned with the rise of an authoritarian sounding candidate? Why don’t we just take it in stride and surrender to the “he’s gonna tell it like it is and show those guys who’s boss” mentality? Why do we refuse to say the words “at all costs” when it comes to protecting our sovereignty and our traditional culture? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know for me, the reason is clear. I’ve actually seen it and experienced it first hand. And most of the people I know who have at the level I have, are shouting right along side me.
I’ll start with a not too unique experience of mine. The first time I actually felt it was when I was on a trip to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I was a freshmen at the Naval Academy, there on a trip for one of my classes. If you’ve ever been there, you probably know where this is going. I walked into the “shoe” room. The room where thousands of shoes from the people murdered by the Nazi’s were piled four feet deep in a display. They were all shapes and sizes and styles-womens shoes, kids shoes, baby shoes- representing the horrible, indiscriminate massacre of Europe’s Jews. For the first time in my life, I was in the room with the human toll of authoritarian rule. It was one of a handful of times where I have been overcome with grief and was unable to contain my emotion. It would not be the last time I would see it though.
A few years later as a lieutenant in the Navy, I was a part of a humanitarian mission to East Timor, a small Pacific Island nation north of Australia. After decades of occupation, the Indonesian military had pulled out two years earlier. I was on my way to an orphanage to supervise a construction project. Our driver suddenly veered off course and into a back alley. Just about the time that I was about to hit the panic button, we emerged from the alley and onto a loading dock next to a seawall in the harbor. The driver got out and stood on the sea wall and started to shout. Our guide translated. He was telling us that the children we were going to see lost their parents on that sea wall. They were lined up and shot there about 18 months before we arrived, by the authoritarian forces leaving the island. The driver’s brother was one of them. As he stood there, screaming at us, that feeling, the one you get when you are in the presence of true, avoidable human tragedy, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. You know it when you feel it. If you haven’t you won’t understand.
Later in Sub-Saharan Africa I witnessed a land forgotten by time and progress as resources funneled from the people to the government to sustain their own power. Later in Iraq, I saw the dysfunction of a society that had lived for so long under authoritarian rule that it had lost its ability to self regulate decency and good will towards their fellow man. Like an abused child, you could not undo overnight what took decades of abuse to cause. The problems in all three of those areas rage on. Some are getting better-too slowly. Others are falling back into darkness.
When I hear Americans, most who by virtue of living in this great land have been entirely sheltered from the true destruction of authoritarian rule, calling for a leader who embodies it to rescue them from their deepest darkest fears, I feel compelled to shout back as loudly as I can, because they know not the evils of the cure they seek. So I’m going to keep shouting. And I’m not going to stop.
In the spirit of fairness, this isn’t really Donald Trump’s fault. He is a symptom of our disease, one fifty years in the making. And maybe it’s not as dire as I think. About a third of Americans are registered Republicans. And less than half of them are actually supporting Donald Trump. They are those vocal few who subscribe, perhaps even subconsciously to the “at all costs” authoritarian mentality. That means that about 80% of Americans do not. So maybe this goes quietly away after the general election.
But maybe it doesn’t. I’ve seen what the end of the path looks like-in the eyes of those whose lives have been destroyed by it. And I know how few off-ramps that path offers. So I’ll shout as long and as loud as I have to in order to keep us from taking it. Because there is no fear great enough, no tradition strong enough worth abandoning our true founding principle to be a more perfect union built by our people, for our people-all of our people. No one ever promised us safe. No one ever promised us traditional. They promised us freedom and liberty-two inherently unstable, unpredictable and delicate things. Be wary of who you entrust with their preservation.