The Melting of the American Mind

Figuring out how people became fascists was the aim of Adorno and his colleagues’ 1950 study, The Authoritarian Personality. Has the answer changed?

Should women be compelled to swear a loyalty oath to their future husbands? Should a “strong, determined leader” enforce “God’s laws” on abortion and homosexuality? Would the country “work a lot better” if “certain groups of troublemakers” would “just shut up”? Answering these and a dozen or so similar questions in the affirmative nudges one’s assessment toward the “authoritarian” end of the spectrum. These ideas can be found in the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) test, which offers a series of statements that subjects must assess on a nine-point scale, with a score of −4 corresponding to “very strongly disagree” and +4 corresponding to “very strongly agree.” The higher the resulting score, the more “right-wing authoritarian” the person.

The comments to the online version of the RWA test abound with people determined to tell on themselves. Though the test’s “results” page displays only one’s own score, scrolling down reveals a Facebook plug-in where several years’ worth of political navel-gazers have reported their numbers. Some are proud of their scores, be they low or high, but others express surprise or dismay—often unintentionally confirming the test’s veracity.

A user calling themselves Paulo Vítor DaSilva Bernardo, for instance, bristled at the idea of “[seeming] like an authoritarian,” writing that despite being a “liberal,” they felt that “there is a need for a certain level of hierarchy.” “That’s just the result of human evolution,” they added, “and will form naturally.”

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but they might know you’re a fascist. Not because you shared a racist meme or made an edgy joke—after all, it’s at least theoretically possible to do these things “ironically”—but because you took a diagnostic personality test and chose to discuss the results on social media.

First developed in 1981 by Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, the RWA test sought to refine and update the original Fascism Scale, or F-Scale, that German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903–69) and three sociologist colleagues created for a 1950 book they called The Authoritarian Personality. Had “Paulo” participated in the original study that yielded The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his colleagues would likely have concluded that, like many higher scorers, this person had a tendency to attribute “major social problems” to immutable structures like “human nature” rather than fungible constructs created through a combination of deliberate choice and historical contingency. This type of thinking leads to the conviction that anyone seeking to remedy injustice is “either an impractical idealist or an agitator making trouble” for profit. Rather than fall in with these foolish or venal rabble-rousers, the high scorer reasons, it’s better to preserve society as it is, avoiding large-scale changes altogether.

Three-quarters of a century after the end of the Second World War, the categories Adorno and other scholars of fascism were only beginning to invent have become commonplaces. German Nazism and its many spin-offs can continue to horrify, but no longer is the very fact of their existence likely to surprise the educated layperson. The decades of public historical debate, survivor testimony, revisionism, denialism, and so on are actually a time-saving life hack for today’s busy fascist, who can signal an entire manifesto’s worth of right-wing allegiances simply by brandishing a swastika. The agglomeration of historiographical and discursive experience since 1945 means that, unlike the original subjects of The Authoritarian Personality, the average RWA test taker today is likely to be aware of the negative implications of being deemed “authoritarian,” if only by an anonymous online test. Chances are, today’s respondents are also familiar with terms like racism, misogyny, and homophobia and understand their pejorative connotations within many mainstream communities in the West.

Because of the accumulated weight of postwar history, it is no longer possible to “disagree very strongly” with a statement like “gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else” without knowing where that places one politically. As the following exchange indicates, commenters to the updated RWA test have a clear sense that certain types of responses are indicative of an underlying “authoritarian” bent.

In this case, users clocked “Barnie Sandpaper”/“Bryan McMillan” as 100 percent right-wing based solely on their objection to commentary in Spanish (the user’s alias, a devastating burn on Senator Bernie Sanders, may offer another clue to their political affiliation). Such exchanges indicate that Altemeyer’s 1981 update to Adorno et al.’s 1947 study is now itself outdated, potentially preventing savvy test takers from honestly reporting their feelings on various topics for fear of being labeled “authoritarian” and therefore “bad”—if only, again, by an anonymous online test.

Adorno and his colleagues found that a crucial feature of the authoritarian personality is its inability to take in new information, to “form experiences.” For this reason, no amount of contact with perceived out-groups can ever dislodge prejudicial ideas. “Even if brought together with minority group members as different from the stereotype as possible,” the authors write, bigots “will perceive them through the glasses of stereotypy, and will hold against them whatever they are and do.” Exposure to new ideas cannot change minds that externalize every emotional impulse, so that “optimism with regard to the hygienic effects of personal contacts should be discarded.”

The Authoritarian Personality contains many pearls of wisdom for the observer of contemporary right-wing movements, with many chilling parallels to today. The final transformation of “rugged individualism” into “far-reaching social control” via the growth of monopoly and the disempowerment of the worker; the fueling of right-wing politics through fear, anxiety, and low tolerance for uncertainty; the authoritarian’s irrational hatred of labor and taxes; the notion that collective bargaining is an immoral “racket” that seeks to subvert the irrefutable “moral law” of the market; and the reflexive application of the label “communism” to any effort aimed at altering our rapacious economic order—all of these and more are features of our own time.

Of the book’s four main coauthors, two—Adorno and Jewish-Austrian-Polish psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1908–58)—had direct and recent experience with German Nazism. Adorno initially departed Germany in 1934, returning periodically to visit his parents and fiancée until February 1938, when he sailed for New York. Frenkel-Brunswik’s family had already emigrated from Poland to Austria in 1914 to escape antisemitic persecution; after the Anschluss, Frenkel-Brunswik left Austria for the United States.

In 1947, the researchers’ goal of preventing future fascist explosions could not have been more urgent, setting it as they did in the wake of a quite successful genocide and a murderous world war. Yet the prose of The Authoritarian Personality betrays no trace of fear or rage. Instead—confronted with subjects who mused at length on the inherent filthiness of Jews and the untrustworthy whorishness of women—the researchers and their assistants managed to not only maintain their sangfroid but even cultivate a wicked sense of humor. The Berkeley psychologist R. Nevitt Sanford (1909–95), one of Adorno’s colleagues on the study, recalled the philosopher as a “most stimulating” interlocutor whose strengths were “a profound grasp of psychoanalytic theory, complete familiarity with the ins and outs of German fascism, and, not least, a boundless supply of off-color jokes.”


Populism, Right and Left

By Matt Wilde

Adorno’s understated sarcasm is one of the great joys of The Authoritarian Personality and a hallmark of its time: one can hardly imagine an academic study of fascism today indulging in such intensely dark humor. In a section on “Mack,” one of two paradigmatic subjects who reappears throughout the tome, Adorno quipped: “It is not difficult to infer that his concern with justice is primarily concern with getting something. A man who can speak sentimentally of justice in one breath and almost in the next speak of barring Hitler’s victims from this country on the ground that they are ‘Europe’s misfits’ is hardly employing the term ‘justice’ in its basic sense.”

Adorno’s participation in the project virtually guaranteed that the study would not restrict itself to data collection or superficial empirical analysis, instead delving deeply into what Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) had in 1931 called “the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture.” On the basis of numerous interviews, as well as analysis of quantitative results, Adorno and his fellow researchers arrived at several fundamental insights—not just about the type of person likely to fall under the sway of right-wing demagogues but about the features of American society that help bring such “personalities” into being.

The Authoritarian Personality concludes that antisemitism and other prejudices are the product of nothing less than “the total structure of our society,” which is fundamentally “coercive.” Many right-leaning subjects reported fears of exploitation, of “never getting their full share,” of being an “underdog”—regardless of the specific material conditions of their existence. Many respondents, even those who were solidly middle-class, shared a feeling of persistent downward mobility. This status anxiety easily transformed into a resentment exacerbated through the idiosyncratically American vision of “success” as a cutthroat, zero-sum game with exclusively monetary rewards.

One surprising finding of the study is that even around 1950, today considered the heyday of the postwar economic boom in the United States, the majority of people—even those superficially invested in the “American dream,” with its Horatio Alger myths and knee-jerk support of “liberal values”—were pessimistic about their chances of attaining this financial form of “success.” “It cannot be disputed,” The Authoritarian Personality notes,

that formal democracy, under the present economic system, does not suffice to guarantee permanently, to the bulk of the population, satisfaction of the most elementary wants and needs, whereas at the same time the democratic form of government is presented as if—to use a favorite phrase of our subjects—it were as close to an ideal society as it could be. The resentment caused by this contradiction is turned by those who fail to recognize its economic roots against the form of democracy itself. Because it does not fulfill what it promises, they regard it as a “swindle” and are ready to exchange it for a system which sacrifices all claims to human dignity and justice, but of which they expect vaguely some kind of a guarantee of their lives by better planning and organization.

Mainstream media, which Adorno and his colleagues bluntly call “propaganda,” plays a special role in obscuring the causes of incipient economic distress, effectively catalyzing the development of protofascism. The issues are not misinformation or conspiracy theory but the pernicious habits of mind people inevitably develop as they swim through the poisoned waters of American public discourse.

Demagoguery, of course, is always “aimed at the ignorant” and “maliciously anti-intellectual.” But from Adorno’s perspective, even the very clever are at pains to battle the “uncertainty and anxiety” they feel when confronted with the deliberate “opacity” of modern life. “Our social system,” the researchers write, “tends objectively and automatically to produce ‘curtains’” that the average person never gets to peek behind. At the same time, “capitalism, instead of expanding the old way and opening up innumerable opportunities to the people, has to maintain itself somewhat precariously and to block critical insights which were regarded as ‘progressive’ one hundred years ago but are viewed as potentially dangerous today,” which “makes for a one-sided presentation of the facts, for manipulated information, and for certain shifts of emphasis which tend to check the universal enlightenment otherwise furthered by the technological development of communications.” Further contributing to the “standardization” of thought in the modern world is a disinvestment in “idle curiosity,” an instrumentalization and therefore devaluation of knowledge as such. “Being ‘intelligent’ today,” Adorno affirms, “means largely to look after one’s self, to take care of one’s advantages.”

Yet because larger economic and political questions are both increasingly complex and deliberately obscured from public view, the set of things a person actually needs to know in order to function is continually reduced; the result is a kind of sleepy consumerist apathy, in which people “do not bother about things which apparently have little bearing on their fate and upon which they have, as they are dimly aware, not too much influence.”

In this setting, political media, and media of all types, is reduced to mere entertainment, a hastily concocted mishmash of empty intellectual calories that leaves the genuinely hungry—and Adorno implies that all of us, “conservative” and “liberal” alike, hunger for real insight and knowledge about the world around us—perpetually unsatisfied. Modern media practices thus produce a population that is alienated, mistrustful, and prone to being swayed by anyone promising the straight dope.

Even if we remain blind to other clues that our society is deeply diseased, the rising tide of reaction is a symptom we can no longer ignore.

Certain passages in The Authoritarian Personality produce a jolt of particularly uncanny self-recognition: for instance, the story of subject M208, who “insists” that “President Roosevelt lost the popular vote by several thousand votes,” according to “counts he and his father made following the news reports over the radio.” Another midcentury idiosyncrasy that persists into the present is the superficial and ultimately reactionary nature of many forms of “liberalism.” Exemplary in this respect for Adorno are the views of subject M202, a construction engineer who professes to love American democracy but is possessed of “violent reactionary impulses within the sphere of his own immediate interests.” A propensity toward “ticket thinking” produces both lip-service liberalism and a totalitarian left-wing fanaticism that expresses itself in a “mechanical belief in the triumph of progress.”

A related phenomenon is pseudoconservatism. “The pseudoconservative,” according to The Authoritarian Personality, “is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” This definition perfectly describes many of today’s Republicans, who, after decades of cultivating a reputation for “conservatism”—that is, preservation of the status quo—have begun advocating for nothing less than a coup d’état. Particularly “pseudoconservative,” for Adorno, is the ethnocentrist, whose bigotry “betrays a tendency antithetical to democratic values and tradition.” Ultimately, the wish to preserve “traditional” values loses out to the elemental desire to punish the out-group—without, however, the surrounding rhetoric needing to change very much.


Trump Syllabus 3.0

By Nyron Crawford et al.

This dialectical concept explains how the Capitol stormers could insist that they were “defending democracy” as they attacked the seat of American democratic governance on January 6, 2021. The mind that maintains these apparently mutually exclusive positions is neither hypocritical nor irrational, but an exquisitely compartmentalized machine that easily squares “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” on the conscious level with “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere.”

The same explanation makes sense of the apparent contradiction at the heart of right-wing and centrist economic policy, both of which actively seek to reduce economic opportunity and mobility while signal boosting the “rugged individualism” of “working people.” For Adorno, “rugged individualism” is a slogan that only apparently “expresses the liberal concept of free competition among independent and daring entrepreneurs.” In reality, it designates “the uncontrolled and arbitrary politics of the strongest powers in business”—another aspect of the social Darwinist “religion” to which free-market fundamentalists across the American political spectrum continue to subscribe today.

For all its trenchant insight, The Authoritarian Personality is thin on prescriptions. Those it does offer suffer from the depressing totality familiar to readers of the Frankfurt School: pull on one string, and the whole cursed sweater unravels. On the other hand, at least this “global” set of prescriptions is honest—to quote the writer Malcolm Harris, shit is fucked up and bullshit, and reversing course is going to require the mobilization of tremendous resources. When it comes to prejudiced individuals, Adorno and his fellow researchers write: “Rational arguments cannot be expected to have deep or lasting effects upon a phenomenon that is irrational in its essential nature; appeals to sympathy may do as much harm as good when directed to people one of whose deepest fears is that they might be identified with weakness or suffering; closer association with members of minority groups can hardly be expected to influence people who are largely characterized by the inability to have experience.” An alternative is to steer into the ideological skid, activating not the high scorer’s “reason” or “sympathy” but his “conventionality” or “submissiveness toward authority”—although even such measures would “in no way reduce” the underlying factors that lead to fascist tendencies.

Ultimately, even with improved psychological resources that teach children how to “see themselves and be themselves” from the very beginning, far-right resurgence cannot be quelled on an individual basis. For Adorno and his colleagues, fascist ideology is symptomatic of “the total organization of society” and can change “only as that society is changed.” It is true that, no matter how prosperous or economically egalitarian the society, there will likely always be a small community of bigots who blame political, economic, and social problems on perceived out-groups.

Yet even if we remain blind to other clues that our society is deeply diseased, the rising tide of reaction is a symptom we can no longer ignore. Daunting as it may seem to begin dismantling our entire soulless technocracy, we can take comfort in the relative ease of this project compared with the alternative of changing even a single authoritarian mind.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image: Students taking an exam. Aalto University Commons / Flickr