Photo credit: Nicolas Pinault, Voice of America / Wikimedia Commons
Ezra Klein, a prominent white liberal, is the top editor at Vox. During August’s Republican National Convention, he tweeted something I think we should address head-on. “This isn’t a political party,” Klein said. “It’s a personality cult.”
There are good reasons for making such a claim. The president’s most ardent supporters exhibit traits in keeping with adherents of religious cults. Dear Leader is always right even when he’s always wrong. His word carries more authority than observable empirical reality. (The sky isn’t blue. It’s green, because he said it is.) Fidelity to the leader, and subsequently the sacred group, is more important than personal liberty and well-being. If he says people wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic are the enemy, well, that’s what they are. They deserve the group’s wrath, even as the new coronavirus eats away at one’s own family and livelihood.
That the GOP is a personality cult is a claim white liberals tend to accept at face value, but be that as it may, white liberals are making a grave error. The Republican Party isn’t a personality cult as much as it is a collection of authoritarian personalities.
Authoritarian personalities believe morality is obedience. They cannot tolerate nuance, ambiguity, and precarity. As political psychologist Fathali Moghaddam wrote in Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty, individuals, taking pleasure in belonging to a “sacred group” (which revels in the new vitality and promised glory under Dear Leader), are submissive to authority, punitive toward minorities and “difference,” and adherent to “tradition.” Their worldview is black and white. Their “anti-scientific attitude” dismisses fact if it doesn’t “correspond to what the potential or actual dictator presents as the truth.”
On the one hand, white liberals buy into the idea, proffered by prominent “Never Trump” conservative pundits, that the Republican Party isn’t what it used to be: the party of individual freedom.
But Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. The present is a product of a past in which “conservatism,” as political scientist Frank Wilhoit famously said, stood for the idea that “there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” “Conservatives” have desired the installation of a president-king for at least forty years. That they now have one has been the occasion for non-stop celebration for the last four.
On the other hand, white liberals buy into respectable but uncritical explanations of Republican behavior under Donald Trump. The Brookings Institution, for instance, released a report trying to understand why some Americans refuse to wear masks. “We find that the number one reason given by Americans who are not wearing a mask is that it is their right as an American to not have to do so,” said co-authors Edward D. Vargas and Gabriel R. Sanchez. “This is an important finding that suggests the core principal [sic] of individualism in American culture is leading to significant health consequences across the country” (my italics). This conclusion, while in good faith, is as wrong as it is empowering of the dangerous politics that’s fueling such dangerous behavior.
People refusing to wear masks are not practicing individualism. We know this from the way they police people who do wear masks. We know this from the way they attempt to punish mask-wearers, either with physical harm, which is rare fortunately, or with social sanction and emotional harm, which is common, unfortunately. Recall that obedience is morality. Recall that fidelity to the sacred group trumps rational choice. These are not rugged individualists. These are craven collectivists. Some white liberals are stuck in the habit of thinking of conservatives as anti-Communists. They forget that conservatives merely want to swap one kind of collectivism for another.
This is hard to hear, but I suspect that some white liberals want to believe the GOP has been reduced to a personality cult. They want to believe our age is the exception, not the rule; a bug, not a feature. They want to believe it’s just a matter of time before Donald Trump is gone and things can return to normal. This is a powerful desire on the part of white liberals. So powerful, I suspect, that they are willing, even eager, to ignore the real political problem. There is no return if normal means the absence of authoritarian politics. It has been with us. It will be with us. White liberals must face that truth.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.