Trump and the Social Origins of Authoritarianism

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(Photo: Commander Paul von Hindenburg and Crown Prince Wilhelm III, June 1918. Wikimedia.)

Richard Lachmann

Trump’s election has created boom times for a cottage industry of self-styled experts on dictatorships past and present, most prominently Timothy Snyder and Masha Gessen. Snyder, a Yale historian previously best known for Bloodlands, a work that not only equates Hitler and Stalin but argues that Stalin’s crimes in some unspecified way caused or at least amplified Hitler’s, has written two recent books—The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018) and On Tyranny (2017)—as well as a spate of magazine articles that seek to draw lessons for Americans from Hitler’s rise to and exercise of power. Snyder mainly focuses on Trump’s and Putin’s use of language to induce fear of others and call into question objective truth. In essence, Snyder asserts that if Trump and Putin sound like Hitler and other Nazis then the rhetorical parallels allow one to predict that the U.S. and Russia are on the path to what Snyder variously labels tyranny, authoritarianism, or fascism.

Snyder, in The Road to Unfreedom but not in On Tyranny, repeatedly mentions the high level of inequality in Russia and the U.S. However, he doesn’t identify any causal path that leads from inequality or oligarchy to tyranny, nor does he attempt to determine if Germany in 1932 or any other country that fell under tyranny had higher levels of inequality than those that didn’t. Instead, Snyder offers moral lessons to the American public in general, arguing that ordinary citizens need to be engaged and to seek truth, and to Republicans in particular, warning that they shouldn’t follow the path of old line German conservative parties that supported Hitler’s assumption of power. But again, there is no effort to explain why German conservatives did, while conservative parties in other countries did not, back dictators. Most crucially, Snyder never attempts to identify factors that might determine whether the Republican Party in the U.S. will support any effort by Trump to impose authoritarianism.

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who has written extensively on Vladimir Putin, has produced numerous articles that find parallels between Trump and Putin that she uses to argue that Trump is rapidly leading the U.S. toward a future like that of Russia’s present: suppression of truth, government leaders enriching themselves from state revenues, encouragement of extreme rightwing ideology, and vulgar, openly racist rhetoric that demonizes minorities and foreigners and degrades the public sphere. Since Gessen’s explanation for Putin’s rise to and consolidation of power is based largely on the judgment that he is a Machiavellian genius, an unrestrained thug, and skilled demagogue, her writing on the U.S. also give great weight to Trump’s rhetorical techniques and to his or his aides’ strategic planning.

This approach is not new to the Trump era. Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism, a book first published in 1980, took off when it was reprinted with a photo of then President Reagan on the cover. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, a mediocre novel with a great title, came out in 1935, at the height of left mobilization and New Deal legislation, qualifying it for the hall of fame of bad predictions. It once again became a best seller after Trump’s election.

Gessen and Snyder and their predecessors and imitators trade careful comparative analysis for sensationalism in pursuit of sales, attention, and no doubt a sincere belief that they need to warn their compatriots of a dire, if not unprecedented, threat to democracy. The result is argument by analogy and jumbled, ad hoc lists of ‘lessons’ and signs of impending tyranny. There is very little reflection in such work on the nature of the societies they compare or efforts to identify the differences that mattered or might matter in determining authoritarian outcomes.

This is where comparative historical sociology can make a contribution. From Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, still the urtext on the causes of authoritarianism, to Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and the many works both books have inspired, we have a base of knowledge that can let us make informed projections on how America’s ongoing hegemonic decline can combine with Republicanism and its recent Trump twist to affect U.S. democracy.

In building such an analysis, and addressing the growing chorus of voices that see Trump as a dictator in the making, we would do well to begin with Michael Mann’s (2004) definition of fascism in terms of five elements: nationalism, statism, transcendence of class and ethnic conflicts, accomplished in part by cleansing the nation of enemies through paramilitarism. Mann finds that these elements developed most powerfully, not where there was a serious threat from the left, but where “old regime conservatism, which (more than liberal or social democracy) was fascism’s main rival . . . [was] weakened and factionalized”  (p. 364). Here Mann is doing the work Snyder should have undertaken as well: explaining why some conservative parties endorse dictatorship while others do not. It is not, as Snyder claims, a matter of morals or willpower or even historical learning. Rather, conservative parties, like any party in an electoral system, have social bases of supporters that are affected by economic shifts, wars, demographics, and the strategies of competing parties.

Mann shows that the ‘populist’ parties of the late twentieth and very early twenty-first centuries (his book was published in 2004) express nationalism and want a cleansing (mainly of immigrants). However, contemporary extreme rightist parties do not have significant paramilitaries, which in interwar Europe initially were composed of veterans. In Europe today there are far fewer veterans since most of the continent abolished conscription decades ago and has not fought such large wars in the lifetimes of almost all living citizens. “In 2016, 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980” (Bialik 2017). Young people, who in the 1930s fortified the first fascists of the 1920s, now are the least nationalistic cohorts and the ones most open to multiculturalism in both Europe and the U.S.

Most significantly, the right in America, and to a lesser but still significant degree in Europe, is not statist. Mann’s analysis suggests that neoliberalism in fact immunizes societies against fascism by delegitimizing and foreclosing statism, though milder forms of authoritarianism can thrive under neoliberalism. The Republicans do not offer a statist program. While Trump hinted at statism in his 2016 campaign, he has not acted on any of those tendencies (calling them programs or even ideas attributes too much coherence to his statements), and the current Republican majorities in Congress show no sign of wanting to enact any sort of statist programs. Le Pen’s Front National is probably the most statist rightwing party in Europe, but it too doesn’t offer a program with any coherence and such elements do not motivate its core supporters.

Of course, the absence of fascism does not mean Trump or his European allies don’t aspire to, or won’t be able to, impose authoritarianism. Yet, the most authoritarian rightwing governments are in (no surprise) the places with the newest and weakest democratic institutions: Turkey and the former Soviet bloc countries. Among these, Turkey and to a lesser extent Russia stand out in their ability to imprison, terrorize, and kill opponents rather than, as the other countries do, confining their efforts to weakening their rivals’ ability to win elections. Thus, so far, the opportunities to create authoritarianism are just where we’d expect them. That is why it is just as unanalytic to look to Putin’s Russia or Orban’s Hungary for lessons that apply to the U.S. as it is to look to Hitler’s Germany.

The authoritarianism we see in Trump’s America manifests in two realms: in voter suppression and electoral manipulation, and in the expulsion of immigrants. Both of those have deep histories that predate January 20, 2017. Voter suppression and terrorism (most famously in lynchings) were the fundamental strategies of white oligarchic rule in the post-Reconstruction South.  Voter suppression and gerrymandering are essential to Republican electoral success and are pursued ardently where and whenever Republicans held office since the 1980s. Certainly, Trump has settled the debate within the GOP on immigration in favor of roundups and expulsions. But that too has a long history in the U.S., and both in the past and now immigration restrictions have no causal relation and little correlation with repression in other realms.

The first lesson we can take from Mann’s case studies, and from The Eighteenth Brumaire, is that parties, classes, elites, ethnic groups and other blocs that lose power under democracy have an interest in developing authoritarian forms of control. The second lesson comparative historical sociology teaches us (and this is a point of agreement among Marx, Moore, Tilly, Mann, Wallerstein, and many others) is that we need to identify the forces and structural openings that allow otherwise declining blocs to subvert democracy. The openings that made fascism possible were historically specific to certain post-Word War I countries. That is why calling Trump or Erdogan or Orban fascists obscures rather than enlightens. However, even though fascism is not in our future, authoritarianism could be. Authoritarianism and authoritarian leaders are outcomes of structural openings created by contingent chains, albeit different ones from fascism. We need to trace out those chains and then show how rulers or parties are able to exert authoritarian powers and reconfigure the terrain of politics by weakening or excluding blocs of voters. Democracy and authoritarianism are ideal types and real polities are in motion along the continuum between those descriptive ends.

Trump’s election, his style of governance, and the policies his administration has implemented are all possible only within an existing Republican Party that has been able to exploit the openings created since the 1960s through, in ascending order of importance: (1) the deregulation of media and campaign finance, (2) the party realignment that followed the 1960s civil rights acts, (3) the drastic weakening of unions, and (4) the restructuring of American and global capitalism. Before Trump, the Republican Party had, by carefully and patiently exploiting these structural openings, achieved a stronger position than since the Reagan years or perhaps since Coolidge.

U.S. democracy has become progressively weaker over decades. Voter turnout has declined since the 1960s, most drastically in non-presidential election years. Campaigns are ever more lavishly funded by a tiny fraction of the population. So far in the 2017-18 election cycle, 0.05% of Americans have accounted for two-thirds of campaign contributions ( Of course, these two factors are causally related. As candidates increasingly depend on rich donors rather than unions or party organizations, they deliver policies that the rich want even if large majorities prefer the opposite, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2016) among others document. Voters become disillusioned or decide that strategic one-issue voting, largely on social issues, is the most they can get out of the electoral process. As voters lose attention and commitment to politics, the rewards for the rich from buying politicians increases, justifying ever-greater investments in elections.

Republican politicians have skillfully navigated as they have deepened the general public’s cynicism. That was true before Trump, and probably the Republicans today would have been in an even stronger position, and better able to manipulate future elections, if they had nominated any of the other 2016 presidential candidates.

Republican obstructionism during the Clinton and Obama presidencies dashed hopes that electing Democrats could yield the reforms and social programs voters desired. The viciousness and vulgarity Republicans displayed even before Trump’s advent served to make electoral politics ever more distasteful to potential voters. Declines in voting have not occurred evenly among Americans. As participation dropped, core Republican constituencies—the rich, elderly whites, evangelicals, and racists—became a majority of voters in many non-presidential elections.

Of course, these developments are not unique to the U.S. Voter turnout has declined in Europe as well, albeit from much higher peaks. Europe has its share of racists, buffoons, and ultra-conservatives running for and winning office. The EU’s policy failures, or its subservience to big capitalists, breeds cynicism as much as did Obama’s immobilization by his opponents (and/or his own initially well-hidden conservatism).

Compared to those factors, Trump’s open expression of authoritarian desires and the ugliness he has brought to presidential discourse, which in turn has emboldened lesser politicians and ordinary Americans to give vent to racist and nativist beliefs, have had a minor impact on political, let alone policy, outcomes. The burden remains on those who would argue otherwise to show how Trump and Trumpism will affect the balance of power.

It is clear that the Republicans’ strategy will be a continuation of what it has done for decades. Such policies can coexist, and have coexisted, with robust civil liberties. The most extreme manifestation of authoritarianism in present-day America, the horrific police murders of African Americans, unfortunately are nothing new, and they are not politically focused in the way that police and FBI assassinations of Black Panthers or the FBI’s broader Cointelpro projects in the 1960s were.

The 2018 elections will show the extent to which previously successful Republican efforts to stymie political opposition has been undermined by mass revulsion against Trump. If the electoral tide turns, the Democrats will win the House in 2018 along with some governorships and state legislatures. In 2020, when 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats will be up for reelection, Trump’s policy failures and personal corruption could deliver the presidency, more governorships and legislative seats, and the Senate. Democrats would then gain control of the 2022 redistricting in a majority of states.

This picture looks a lot like the outcomes in 2014 and 2016, and we all know how the Democrats fared when they had to assume responsibility for cleaning up the economic and foreign policy messes Bush created while Republicans successfully obstructed much of Obama’s agenda and pushed him to the right in a vain effort to reach bipartisan agreements. Democrats lost the House along with massive numbers of state offices in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the presidency in 2016. The elements of authoritarianism enumerated above were not appreciably slowed during the Obama years, and are unlikely to be reversed in another Democratic return to power. The U.S. could remain the hybrid it has been to varying degrees since its beginning: with repression of noncitizens and African Americans, declining voter participation produced by a combination of voter suppression and disillusionment from policy paralysis, while dissenters are free to say what they want and continue to create a vibrant culture that barely affects real political outcomes.

Such a future could be called authoritarian, at least as it impacts significant groups of Americans, but it would be an authoritarianism that can’t be explained historically or dynamically by drawing on the experiences of mid-twentieth century Europe or of dictatorships in the contemporary world.

Richard Lachmann is Professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His work focuses on elite conflict, states, and empires, especially in early-modern and modern Europe and the United States. His book, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers, is forthcoming from Verso.


Bialik, Kristen. 2017. “The changing face of America’s veteran population.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.

Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2016. American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mann, Michael. 2004. Fascists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2018. “Donor Demographics.” Washington, D.C.: Center for Responsive Politics.