Shortly after WWII, scholars undertook massive research designed to understand what led people in Germany to enable and accept Hitler’s fascist takeover. They developed a profile of what they called “The authoritarian personality,” which has been refined and integrated into research on political attitudes and behavior ever since.

Now it makes sense as a framework as I try to answer what has gone wrong with my country.

Russia is sabotaging our elections, trying to destroy liberal democracy and break up Western alliances, and reduce the United States to an authoritarian society pursuing an undemocratic purpose in common with them. History suggests that Russia is a people predominantly with authoritarian personalities. They have gone from right-wing rule (the Tsars), to the Stalinist distortion of communism, and back to conservative authoritarianism (Putin’s brand of corporate fascism), with only a few years of a doomed attempt at democracy.

Thus it makes sense that Russia would be the country that would help install an American president whose psychology renders him the perfect instrument for the destruction of democracy and the abandonment of humane, liberal values. It is not surprising that such a leader would emerge through the Republican Party as research has shown that party to be the conventional home in the United States of people with authoritarian personalities. It’s not random that Russian money channeled into American politics is not exclusively in support of Trump, but some of his fellow Republicans as well.

In the past our military power, coupled with our moral authority based on liberal values, enabled us to build a new international order in alliance with the United States in the interests of peace, democracy and global prosperity. But now we are in a new age technologically and as regards our changing political culture. We are being attacked through sophisticated cyberwarfare, and we have as commander in chief a man who denies science; disdains the tortuous requirements of democracy; assails our traditional allies; loves and admires authoritarian leaders and regards himself as similarly above the law; considers the Constitution a nuisance; seeks to politicize the judiciary and delegitimize opposition; and refuses to admit we are under attack or to expend the resources to do anything about it.

And this is where our changed political culture matters, with its grotesque marriage of plutocracy and right-wing populism; and its tolerance of neo-fascism, white supremacy and other ugly movements, now out of the sewers and in the mainstream, and claiming the president of the United States.

There are many who make excuses for all of this, and who should know better because they are more educated than the typical Trump supporter. But they tend to be people who find Trump to be useful and profitable, and who place their own financial gain above the public interest.

Thus, the normative and institutional foundations of our liberal democracy are being undermined from within and attacked from without. Young people need to understand that this has not been politics as usual during this chaotic Trump interlude. It has been a coordinated effort to transform American democracy into an authoritarian state ruled by a minority. White supremacy, worsening of inequalities in wealth and opportunity, human and planetary exploitation and ruin, and mammoth tax cuts for the very rich are all part of the same package. We are in such a disastrous state as a society that it is not unseemly partisanship, but real patriotism, to pray for a sweeping Democratic victory throughout this great nation in 2020. Without that, I think it is quite clear where we are headed.

Lawrence K. Pettit


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