The Pathology of the Right
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
As an advisor to President Richard Nixon, John Dean got to witness the corruption of Republican power up close. Since Watergate he has remained a critic of presidential overkill, and he has achieved a new visibility in the Dark Age of W. This summer he followed up his first critique of Bush League Republicanism — Worse Than Watergate — with Conservatives Without Conscience. In his new book Dean, framing himself as a traditional Goldwater conservative, addresses the authoritarian mindset of the rightwing fanatics who have claimed the conservative mantle and now run Dean’s party — oh yes, and the country — and who are running both right off the edge of the earth.
Dean begins by trying to define conservatism, citing sources as different as William F. Buckley and David Horowitz, and has trouble finding consensus. The most, well, conservative definition asserts that it is a political philosophy rooted in the values and traditions of the past, the tried and therefore “true” as opposed to the untried and theoretical. However, in the interview of Buckley Dean cites, the founder of the National Review is actually unwilling to commit himself to a comprehensive definition, while ex-leftist radical turned rightist radical Horowitz ultimately confesses that all that unites modern “conservatives” is their hatred of liberalism.
Filling this philosophical void, according to Dean, is Right Wing Authoritarianism. The rest of the book chronicles Dean’s efforts to learn how the Grand Old Party he still identifies with became an asylum for incipient fascists, arch-fundamentalists, and Napoleonic complexes. The neocons and religious crusaders “have revived authoritarian conservatism,” Dean complains, “and not for the better of conservatism and American democracy. True conservatism is cautious and prudent. Authoritarianism is rash and radical.” Ergo, the America of George the Lesser, Richard Mellon Scaife, and James Dobson, bogged down in a war without end against enemies real and imagined, foreign and domestic.
So how did today’s rightwing radicals arise from the conservative movement? As one who still considers himself a rational conservative, Dean is surprisingly candid: conservatives tend to embrace a simple bipolar view of the world, one that lends itself to “fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others.” These conclusions Dean borrows from sociologist John Jost of New York University, whose study “Political Conservatism as Motivated Cognition” made the rounds not long ago, drawing denunciations from many a rightwinger who had not read it.
For a classic view of the Right Wing Authoritarian, however, Dean goes all the way back to the book Right Wing Authoritarianism by Bob Altermeyer, published in Canada (University of Manitoba Press) in 1981. It is worth digging into this study on one’s own; considering that it was written just before the dawn of the Reagan era in another country, it strikingly describes the RWA of W’s USA. For example, after empirically gathering data from a variety of sources and crunching it statistically, Altermeyer discovers three “attitudinal clusters” marking the RWA, to wit,
Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submission to the authorities who
are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives;
Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness, directed against various
persons, which is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities; and
Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the social conventions which
are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities.
More specifically, the RWA believes that authority figures — at least those s/he accepts as such — deserve unquestioning obedience, that anyone who begs to differ does so through sinister motives and goals. Thus, he “supports government censorship in order to ‘control others’ . . . . His reaction to electronic surveillance, unlawful search, and mail-opening is that only wrongdoers would object. To a considerable extent, he believes that established authorities have an inherent right to decide for themselves what they may do, including breaking the laws they make for the rest of us.” Déjà vu, anyone? Furthermore, the RWA accepts the axiom that social norms should be rooted in a strict Judeo-Christian belief system; thus, “authoritarians tend to be fundamentalist,” sticking close to “the childhood teachings of [their] religion.” Altermeyer managed to describe perfectly today’s Bush loyalist back when W. was still in his alcoholic prime.
The Great Usurper is of course himself a model of this particular pathology. In Bush on the Couch by Justin A. Frank, M.D., we have a modern psychiatric analysis of The Man Who Would Be King. Once again we find fundamentalism and authoritarianism linked, and once again by a child-like mind craving an easily grasped bipolar structure that will explain the world without the need for intellectual reflection. In Bush’s case, according to Dr. Frank, a lifetime of being an aristocratic ne’er-do-well, a lightweight in an ambitious political and business dynasty, a loser coasting on his family name, drove W. through substance abuse to an unexamined faith. Born again, he got what he always wanted: to paraphrase Frank, certainty in the absence of facts. “[T]he rigidity of his patterns of thought and speech,” the psychiatrist observes, “point to a considerable fragility.”
And when Jesus loves you, you can literally get away with murder, not to mention lying, bullying, and cheating. To quote Altermeyer yet again, “[w]hen a great deal of misbehavior is engaged in by born-again Christians, it troubles their fundamentalist consciences very little, for after all, they are the Saved . . . .” It is this conclusion that John Dean alludes to in titling his book Conservatives Without Conscience. The more these wingnuts assert adherence to a rigid code of “traditional” values, the more they are convinced that they themselves can do no wrong.
The fundamentalist, like the RWA, craves an Almighty Father telling him what to think and do, a Big Daddy who greets any response but unquestioned obedience with the Big Belt; either that, or he wants to be the Alpha Male himself. Either way, he hungers for the hegemony of absolute authority. What all this analysis comes down to is that the RWA is a case of arrested development, someone facing the complexities of adulthood with the fairy tale perspective and ego-centered apparatus of the kindergartner. Whatever he believes or wants to do is right. Anyone who disagrees is bad and should be hurt.
Scholars, pundits, and other interested parties have attempted to plumb the authoritarian mind ever since World War II showed us how bad it could get. From the essays of Bruno Bettelheim and Hannah Arendt, exiles from Hitler’s Europe themselves, to the sociological studies of Altermeyer and Jost quoted by Dean, the paradigm of the RWA is fairly invariable. As a type that embraces a mythic past of unchanging traditions and values, the authoritarian personality itself manages not to change over time. Evolution has passed fundamentalists by. No wonder they don’t believe in it.
By attempting to analyze this malignant cancer growing on the GOP and the conservative movement, Dean hopes to forestall terminal metastasis. In this quest he joins other vocal conservatives who have become disillusioned with their party, such as Kevin Phillips, who most recently warned of the Bush League’s marriage of Big Religion and Big Oil in last year’s American Theocracy, and gaycon Andrew Sullivan, who continues to distance himself from today’s redneck Republicanism in his work-in-progress The Conservative Soul. We also find Republican stalwart David Gergen, counselor to Reagan, Bush the Elder, and latterly Clinton, on the television talk circuit arguing the virtues of a moderate bipartisanship.
Others have gone so far as former Gingrich muse Arianna Huffington, now a heroine of the liberal-left with The Huffington Post, and David Brock, former Scaife-funded hatchet man now cutting his onetime colleagues down to size through his Media Matters project. Any conservative with more than half a brain is jumping ship, leaving only Karl Rove and ilk to steer it through the fine mess they’ve got themselves into. But with their expertise limited to ripping off elections and public resources, they have left their movement’s philosophy as bankrupt as the treasury.
Like those on the liberal side of our nation’s skewed equation, Dean hopes that the public will wake up enough to save what little remains of our democracy. As he concludes, “If Americans cannot engage in analytical thinking as a result of Republicans’ using fear for their own political purposes, we are all in serious trouble.”
This warning is worth remembering as Bush and Rove approach the fall congressional campaign waving the bloody flag of 9/11.