Right-Wing Authoritarianism Denuded - On Big Apes and Presidents

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Right-Wing Authoritarianism Denuded
On Big Apes and Presidents

In cults of personality, the personality is often a dominant male primate. History is riddled with powerful men—Ismael the Bloodthirsty, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, and Stalin, to name a few—who have used fear to draw in followers and command mass murder on their behalf, ultimately to serve their own evolutionary interests. While some men have murdered more, none stand out in the memory of Westerners quite like Adolf Hitler, such that today when men of power start making demagogic postures, Hitler's name and image are evoked as a warning. The rise of Hitler offers a poignant historical case study in the dangers of demagoguery.

In 1933, German president Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor. When Hindenburg died the next year, Hitler quickly consolidated power to become absolute dictator of Germany. Hitler's rise coincided with a swell of fear and uncertainty brought about by the aftermath of World War I, when Germany was left in complete economic ruin. Hitler relieved Germany's woes in part by building a massive military-industrial complex and greatly expanding public works, which included the construction of the autobahn. Led by its strongman, the Nazi Party gained wide popular support for soothing the existential fears brought upon by Germany's Great Depression.66

In the alpha role, Hitler quickly began exerting totalitarian control over all aspects of German life. His word became law and his power godlike. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda, declared in a 1936 broadcast that “Germany has been transformed into a great house of the Lord where the Fuhrer as our mediator stands before the throne of God.”67 Hitler's subordinates pledged unconditional loyalty to him, personally, both above any political ideal and even above the state of Germany. Any challenge to his supremacy was summarily crushed—political dissenters were jailed, publications uncomplimentary to the Nazi regime were suppressed, and civil liberties were tightly constricted in order to cripple any potential for opposition.68 From this seat of absolute power, Hitler behaved as we might expect of a dominant primate male, with the added advantage of enormous manpower, modern weaponry, and purported alliance with God: he began seizing territory. Starting with Austria, and then Czechoslovakia, he continued his expansionist pursuits across Europe. With the help of Joseph Stalin, Hitler attacked Poland, and so began the start of World War II in Europe.

Germany's economic depression was a result of reparations that the Allied forces required under the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of World War I—in a way, the reparations could be considered pressure from an outside tribe that resulted in resource shortages. Following the classic pattern, Hitler responded by demonizing outsiders, and, mesmerized by this evolutionary terror, his loyalists rallied behind him with an emotional fervor. The Nazi Party soon became deeply rooted in racism—anti-Semitism in particular, though all so-called “outside races” were deemed inferior. To secure the ascendancy (social dominance) of the Aryan race above all others, Hitler's men exterminated millions. Some were killed with bullets, others were burnt in ovens, others were starved to death, and others died as subjects of macabre scientific experiments. In total, WWII brought the death of some fifty-five million human beings (to date the deadliest conflict in human history), and much of Europe was bombed into ruin. The volume of human suffering set in motion by one man's personal ambition stupefied the world. Perhaps equally stunning was the fact that Hitler's subordinates followed him with such unquestioning obeisance.

Since WWII, an army of social scientists has set itself the task of understanding the psychology that gave the world Hitler. Refining the work of Berkeley researchers—including Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford—psychologist Robert Altemeyer devised a concept called right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). By pairing down the Berkeley scientists’ original notions of authoritarian personality, three discrete factors emerged, explains Altemeyer:

RWA is characterized by (a) “a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate”; (b) “a general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, which is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities”; and (c) “a high degree of adherence to the social conventions which are perceived to be endorsed by society.”69

RWA shares some similarities with social dominance orientation (SDO), which we talked about in chapter 4. Like SDO, RWA is associated with xenophobia,70 being closed to experience,71 and, strongly, with political conservatism.72 There are theoretically meaningful differences, however. In discussing those differences, Altemeyer argued that RWA best captures passive deference to authoritarian leaders, the tendency to “trust unworthy people who tell them what they want to hear,” whereas SDO best captures the tendency to target out-group members for domination.73

As it turns out, RWA and SDO are only modestly correlated.74 Citing Altemeyer,75 political scientists John Jost and his colleagues explain that while SDO and RWA reflect different concerns,

Together, they account for both halves of the “dominance-submissive authoritarian embrace” and they predict more than half of the statistical variance in prejudice and ethnocentrism. One can therefore infer that the most inexorable right-wingers are those who are motivated simultaneously by fear and aggression.76

From an evolutionary standpoint, these two constructs reflect the survival strategies underlying the conservative political stance—on the one hand seeking to identify, villainize, and target outside competitors (SDO), and on the other hand deferentially following authorities who protect against the external threat (RWA), particularly large, aggressive male leaders. Ultimately these strategies are rooted in reproductive strategy. Tellingly, RWA and SDO do not develop until adolescence when humans reach reproductive capacity.77