As explained by Robert Altemeyer, who has spent much of his career as a psychologist studying right-wing authoritarianism, the phenomenon is characterized by a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be legitimate, and a general aggressiveness toward those perceived to be targeted for abuse by the established authorities.
This explains why in Rush Limbaugh's mind, it's not ok to criticize Petraeus, but it is ok to criticize soldiers who are anti-war. The latter class are targeted by authorities for abuse. Conduct unbecoming means not going with the authoritarian program.
Altemeyer sees the foundation of authoritarianism as a basic personality trait within the individuals who make up a nation.
I think the disturbing thing for me to learn in the last six years how this is perhaps a near majority trait in this country. I thought better of us Americans, and I see now that was naive.
His definition of the authoritarian personality, developed over years of testing and experimentation based on the scientific method, consists of three attitudinal clusters: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism – a high degree of devotion to the social conventions which are perceived to be sanctioned by society and its established authorities. [See Robert Altemeyer, Right-Wing Authoritarianism]
By “attitudinal clusters” he means “orientations to respond in the same general way toward certain classes of stimuli (namely, established authorities, targets for sanctioned aggression, and social conventions).”
He further identifies one of the defining characteristics of authoritarians as their belief “that established authorities have an inherent right to decide for themselves what they may do,” which may include breaking the laws that they make for the rest of society.
That's why most Americans don't care about the loss of habeas corpus and warrantless wiretaps. The authorities should be allowed to do what they need to do without oversight or challenge.
While granting substantial leeway to established authorities, authoritarians generally reject the idea that regular people should develop their own ideas of what is moral and immoral, because the laws and social conventions have already been laid out.
Thinking through the issues for oneself takes too much time and effort, and besides that's what pointy-headed intellectuals do. Freedom for authoritarians is an empty phrase that has little meaning beyond choices made available to them as consumers. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the courage to stand outside of speak against the dittohead conventional wisdom.
Most of these tendencies can be seen in America today and have risen to new heights over the past couple of weeks with events such as the MoveOn controversy and the vitriol surrounding Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York when compared to the free pass given to President Bush over his hypocrisy.
As Parry pointed out earlier in the article, "This important context disappeared in the U.S. press coverage which dutifully reported on President Bush slamming the UN for abandoning the cause of human rights around the world and calling on the international body to return to its founding principles of promoting freedom and democracy. Perhaps Bush’s hypocrisy was simply too vast for the U.S. media to explain. Perhaps major U.S. news outlets felt that properly dissecting this level of double standard would take too much time or space. Maybe they were just lazy. But more ominous may be the possibility that the U.S. media and political establishment are succumbing to a good vs. evil view of the world, in which America represents all that is good, and those designated as enemies represent all that is bad." Most in media management, particularly on TV, are in thrall to this authoritarian collective psychology. We saw what happened to Dan Rather and Phil Donahue. Olbermann wouldn't last but a week or two past next crisis, unless he would quickly change his tune.
For years, Altemeyer has warned that based on his empirical research into the authoritarian personality, it is apparent that many ordinary people living in advanced democracies are psychologically disposed to embrace antidemocratic, fascist policies.
Spain, France, Germany, Italy and other European countries learned this about themselves in the first half of the 20th Century. My fear is that Americans will have to go through something similar in order to recognize this trait in themselves so as never to let it arise again. Europe is further advanced than we are for this reason. They've learned a lesson we have yet to learn. We Americans think we're immune.
Because of this disposition, Altemeyer concludes that “a potential for the acceptance of right-wing totalitarian rule exists in … the United States.” [See Robert Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter]
This threat can be exacerbated by a national crisis or emergency. In such a circumstance, Altemeyer notes, the fearful mood of a populace “can create a climate of public opinion that promotes totalitarian movements.” This state of mind “can intimidate politicians, journalists and religious leaders who might otherwise oppose repression.”
With the authoritarian foundations laid by the Bush administration and to a degree legitimized and legalized by the U.S. Congress – including elimination of habeas corpus rights, warrantless wiretaps, and military commissions run by the Executive Branch – it may not be long before this authoritarian specter becomes a reality.
The legal infrastructure is laid; the collective psychology is receptive. All it will take to push us over is another major crisis. I believe that in the long run, we'll come to our senses, as Europe did. But I fear we will have to learn our lesson the hard way. We seem incapable of learning from the mistakes of others.