Tag Archives: false claims

Our Brush with Authoritarianism

Americans need to become smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

German academic T. W. Adorno was the lead researcher of the first major analysis of social conditions that give rise to populations overly-enamored with authority figures.1 The researchers, some of whom had escaped from Europe at the start of World War II, traced the origins of a multitude of personality traits, including anti-Semitism, “susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda,” ethnocentrism (judging others by one’s own values), and predispositions toward fascism. The rise of the Nazi Party and its wide acceptance even among well-educated Germans was the puzzle they wanted to solve.  Are certain kinds of citizens overly susceptible to appeals based on authority, especially “official” sources? Are some types of audiences too willing to ignore the natural ambiguities of everyday life in favor of the rigid ideological certainties of a demagogue (i.e., Hitler’s stereotypes of Jewish “failings”)? And what psychological needs are satisfied when total allegiance is given to such a leader?

One product of their work was a paper and pencil questionnaire called the F-Scale inventory probing for signs of “authoritarian submission” and “uncritical attitudes toward idealized moral authorities.” It consisted of claims, such as the ones listed below, to which a respondent would agree or disagree.

  • Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  • Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions will be obeyed without question.
  • What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, are a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.

Positive responses to these and similar statements were identified as likely authoritarians.


Authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The researchers found that anti-Semitism, rigidity, ethnocentrism, undue respect for power, and other traits tended to cluster within many of the same people. They theorized that the clustering was tied to styles of family life. They also learned that authoritarianism can be identified in segments of almost any population. Some people may be psychologically hardwired to seek a “place” in a clearly defined social order led by a dominating leader.  It also seems clear that many authoritarians–who can be followers or leaders–want to take ambiguities and uncertainties out of their lives.  They prefer simple answers to complex problems.  As with Adolph Hitler and many others since, authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The recently concluded political campaign is a reminder that many among us also want simple and magical answers to entrenched problems: all the better if the explanations include scapegoating others.  We have lived through a seemingly endless number of false alternate narratives told and retold about stolen elections, pedophile Washington elites, dead voters who managed to cast a ballot, and all the rest. Presently the political right simmers with many of these fears, as us evident from the compliant silence on wild fantasies expressed by Trump and some of his staff.  Four more years from this puffed-up leader might have been too much for our unexpectedly frail constitution.

Not all authoritarians are on the right. Any number of countries ruled by populist leaders can fall victim to the same patterns. Wherever they come from, they are the enemies of democracy and the values of an open society. As for us, Americans need to get smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

By the way, you probably noticed that the “F” in the F-Scale Inventory stands for fascism.


1The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

The Tacky Business of ‘Affirmation by Denial’

Roman masks commons wikimedia.org
Roman masks                          commons wikimedia.org

All of us have probably engaged in some form of the dark gambit of ‘affirmation by denial.’ But it’s a long way from the more honest style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.   

Sometimes we try to produce a rhetorical sleight of hand when we pretend to not notice the effects of what we’ve said.  We can do this with a “stage whisper” that everyone can overhear. Or we may throw out a “marker”—an added verbal modifier—that puts a certain spin on everything else that follows, as with “the Mexican-American judge” or “the Jewish banker.”  The source may pretend not to notice the obvious and intended effect created by the unnecessary word.  But that feigned innocence makes as much sense as a child who tries to disappear by covering their eyes.

So it is with the simple rhetorical maneuver of “affirmation by denial.”  This is usually a statement in which a questionable claim is repeated, but then innocently disavowed. The wily speaker thinks he has been able to have it both ways: repeating a slander or untruth as an innocent piece of information, then stepping out of the way and feigning a degree of neutrality.  The rhetorical advantage is that the idea has been put in play.

Listen to some samples from Donald Trump and you find a variation on this.  He often starts a comment in a speech with some form of the expression, “A lot of people think. . .”  Then a dubious “fact” is inserted, creating just the kind of indirect assertion that wounds but leaves no fingerprints.  For example, “A lot of people are think that . . .

  • President Obama is not even an American
  • Hilary Clinton in not well
  • the Clintons killed a former law partner
  • Ted Cruz is not an American citizen
  • Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.”

This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty.

Sometimes he goes on to suggest that he’s not sure.  Or the prior statement isn’t necessarily his view.  It’s a maneuver that allows deniability.  But it’s intellectually dishonest, and downright scary in a potential leader who needs to measure the effects of words carefully.  This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty, especially in a president.

To be sure, all of us have probably all engaged in some form of affirmation by denial.  Sometimes we want to put more cards on the table than we can play.  But it’s a long way from the far more laudable style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu