What Ails the Right Isn’t (Just) Racism

An authoritarian fear of difference best explains the intolerance sweeping the Republican Party.

Donald Trump stands in front of a podium and an American flag.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

What if the left was right on race?

That’s the question Jane Coaston posed to movement conservatives in Vox. She was mulling claims from the right that the GOP would never have united around a man like President Donald Trump if not for what many Republicans see as decades of unfair accusations of racism against figures such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

Yet long before any such ostensibly unfair or overzealous accusations, the conservative movement was catastrophically wrong on matters as consequential as Jim Crow and apartheid. And many of today’s conservatives would have objected, as to an outrageous, bad-faith slander, had a leftist claimed just a few years ago that Rush Limbaugh and most of the rank and file would eagerly support a big-spending birther who denigrated Mexicans, sought to ban Muslims, and told American-born congresswomen of color that they should “go back” to where they came from.

“What if, in truth, the conservative movement’s inability to self-police itself against racism and establish firm guardrails against racists in the movement has resulted in an American right increasingly beholden to racism and racist arguments?” Coaston asked. “And what if, in truth, it’s the left that has seen this most clearly and that has been pointing it out again and again?”

She argued in part that “the kind of racism that’s most common in movement conservatism is ‘instrumentalized’ racism, the deliberate use of racism and racist tropes for the sole purpose of winning votes and elections.” Those who exploit it do so “not necessarily because they themselves are ‘racist’ on an individual level,” Coaston wrote, “but because they believe that voters will respond—and perhaps only respond—to racism.”

I concur that Trump, as surely as Lee Atwater, marshals racist tropes. But I doubt the last claim: “Instrumental racists” believe that voters will perhaps respond only to racism. And I doubt that voters, in fact, respond only to racism. Something distinct and deeper is at work. This deeper force explains nearly all of Trump’s most odious and irresponsible comments, not just the racist ones. It helps explain why so many conservatives and Republicans were caught off guard by Trump’s rise and the resonance of his bigotry. And it helps clarify what the left sees and doesn’t see about racism. Once leftists understand it, they will find it easier to defeat the identitarian right.

No one better anticipated today’s societal divisions than the political psychologist Karen Stenner, author of the 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic. The book built on research literature that distinguishes between “authoritarians,” who prize what Stenner calls “oneness and sameness” so much so that they are prone to support coercion to effect it, and “libertarians,” who not only defend but affirmatively prize diversity and difference. (Those labels are not to be conflated with the popular definitions of the terms.)

Stenner began her research with a questionnaire that probed the attitudes of her subjects toward child-rearing. Their answers indicated the extent to which they think that it’s more important for kids to obey their parents, have good manners, be neat and clean, and follow the rules—or alternatively, that it’s more important that they are responsible for their own actions, and creative, curious, independent thinkers who follow their own conscience and show good judgment. Designed to provide an unobtrusive, bare-bones measure of each subject’s fundamental stances toward conformity and difference, the child-rearing questionnaires were scored and the subjects arrayed from most libertarian to most authoritarian. Stenner was most interested in the people who scored at the extreme poles.

She thought that both the most extreme authoritarians and the most extreme libertarians have powerful, largely innate and highly durable psychological predispositions that affect how they react to all that is unfamiliar and different. Trying a new cuisine, attending a different faith’s religious service, or carpooling for a week with someone of a different race is energizing, exciting, and engaging for one type of person but leaves the opposite type frightened, even “unhinged.” And she wondered how those predispositions would influence how intolerant (if at all) a person was likely to be when circumstances confronted them with racial or political or moral differences.

To test her hypothesis, she designed a double-blind study.

Trained student-interviewers in pairs were randomly assigned to visit the homes of the white people assessed as the most extreme “libertarians” and “authoritarians” (based on their original responses to those child-rearing questions). Some interviewers were African American, others white. They asked the same broad, open-ended questions provided by Stenner, recorded audio of their conversations for later “coding” and analysis, and kept interview logs to document their observations of the encounters, too.

Neither interviewers nor subjects knew the true nature and specific purpose of the research nor the psychological profiles of the subjects. The same was true of the people transcribing and coding the interviews for Stenner’s subsequent quantitative analysis.

If Stenner was correct, the way her subjects answered the original questions about child-rearing would predict how well they tolerated different people and beliefs months later in their homes. And insights would be gained into their likely comfort with, and ability to “put up with” the diverse peoples, attitudes, and behaviors that confront everyone in a modern liberal democracy.

The results were staggering. The group whose child-rearing preferences skewed most toward traits of obedience and conformity were less pleasant, less intelligent, angrier, and less open to experience, among other attributes. But I want to focus on the results related to race. If contacted by white interviewers, the “authoritarians” were almost indistinguishable from the “libertarians” in their willingness to schedule a conversation. They proved dramatically more reluctant to participate when contacted by black interviewers.

The authoritarians were more hostile, suspicious, and anxious with black interviewers, whereas “especially given a black interviewer, libertarians were vastly more likely than authoritarians to display great warmth toward their visitors.”

With white interviewers, authoritarians were less likely than libertarians to introduce talk about “social exclusion, isolation, and disconnection,” but with a black interviewer they were far more likely, even as libertarians were indifferent to the interviewer’s race. “The language of authoritarians was especially inclusive when it was just ‘us’ talking among ourselves,” Stenner explained, “but they were clearly thinking exclusion when confronting one of ‘them.’”

Authoritarians displayed more anxiety, “but their fearfulness and nervousness was far more (and perhaps only) apparent when trying to get through the whole ordeal with a black interview partner listening.” They were far more inclined than libertarians to talk in terms of “us” and “them” when discussing race. They tended to echo negative racial stereotypes. And they were more likely to confess that they disapproved of mixed-race socializing.

Regardless of the interviewers, authoritarians tended to say fewer overall words and fewer different words than libertarians. And the evident differences were greatly magnified in the presence of black interviewers. The sophistication of discussions “tended to diverge by just over one grade level when both interviewers were white,” with authoritarians “talking at almost a fifth-grade level” and libertarians talking “around the sixth-grade level,” Stenner found. “But when forced to engage in conversations with a black primary interviewer, the two characters were as distinct as third and ninth graders in the complexity of their discussions.” Why? The crucial distinction between libertarians and authoritarians, Stemmer argued, is that “the former are excited and engaged and the latter frightened and unhinged by difference.”

Authoritarians also proved far less comfortable than libertarians with “the idea that one could be critical of America and Americans while still being a loyal citizen.” They were more inclined to voice the sentiment that Americans ought to “love it or leave it.” They were more likely to become emotional when talking about the American flag. They tended to support right-wing groups that believe there is a “true America” being undermined from within by minorities, political dissidents, and moral decay. And they were more inclined to believe that morality is on the decline.

Indeed, Stenner observed that “fears regarding immorality and crime, claims about the critical need to reestablish some normative order, and elaboration of plans for accomplishing this” occupied the bulk of “their psychic space,” consuming a hugely disproportionate share of their time and energy.

Using “racist” as a shorthand to describe Stenner’s intolerant subjects is inadequate. Remember, they were distinguished eight months prior to being interviewed only by how they answered seemingly innocuous questions about child-rearing. The scores on those questionnaires turned out to predict huge differences in their behavior and interactions with interviewers of different races, who recorded their impressions without knowing the predispositions of their interview subjects or Stenner’s hypothesis.

That’s because their intolerance of difference was much broader than racism, encompassing racial and ethnic out-groups, political dissidents, and people they consider moral deviants. Authoritarians display distinct traits across very different domains of tolerance. Stenner added that this intolerance manifests most commonly in demands for broad conformity, typically including “legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration; limits on free speech, assembly, and association; and the regulation of moral behavior, for example, via policies regarding school prayer, abortion, censorship, and homosexuality, and their punitive enforcement.”

And she cautioned that “a good deal of what we call racial intolerance is not even primarily about race, let alone blacks, let alone African Americans and their purported shortcomings,” though antiblack, ideological racists do of course exist, and African Americans are harmed regardless of what drives intolerance. “Ultimately,” Stenner contended, “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism,’” defined as “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.”

The distinction isn’t merely about word choice. It has critical implications for fighting and easing both racism and other forms of intolerance. For example, in an entirely separate experiment meant to manipulate the way authoritarians viewed “us” and “them,” subjects were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life––beings “very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.” After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half, a result that suggests a general intolerance of difference that varies with perceptions of otherness, not fixed antagonism against a racial group. Their boundaries (and thus their behavior!) can be swiftly altered, Stenner emphasized, just by this simple cognitive device of creating a “superordinate group”: making “black people look more like ‘us’ than ‘them’ when there are green people afoot.”

Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn’t only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals—that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance.

My thinking about Western politics has been influenced by Stenner’s insight that what she calls “the authoritarian dynamic” provides a better account than mere racism of political conflict “across the seemingly diverse domains of race and immigration, civil liberties, crime and punishment, and of when and why those battles will be the most heated.” And that brings us back to 2019.

To its credit, the left long discerned that there was more racism on the right than many elites in the GOP or the conservative movement understood or wanted to see or admit. But many on the left and the right misunderstand racism in politics because neither quite understands the role of authoritarians.

Movement conservatives need to face up to the fact that authoritarians have existed across time and societies, and that the left is not responsible for the racism or bigotry of authoritarians in their electoral coalition, nor for GOP politicians and operatives who cynically pander to them. Authoritarian intolerance is not a response to unfair accusations of racism. It likely stems from a perhaps innate predisposition to prize oneness and sameness that manifests most powerfully under conditions of perceived threat. And Trump has repeatedly stoked the anxieties of authoritarians in just the ways an amoral politician would do after consulting research on how to exploit that predisposition.

The left is morally blameless for Trump’s actions.

Still, the left makes several significant errors with regard to racism on the right. Perhaps most important, leftists too often conceive of Trumpist politics as rooted primarily in racism, or even an ideological belief in white supremacy, rather than an authoritarian “different-ism” that manifests as racism at times but as distinct (if psychologically similar) intolerances at other times. The distinction matters regardless of whether one wants to fight the racist manifestations of authoritarianism or the full range of intolerances.

Stenner’s book reaches a conclusion that cuts against one of the main progressive strategies for fighting racism in American society: the belief that if we have the will, everyone can be socialized to respect and value difference.

“All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference … are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors,” she wrote. The appearance of sameness matters, and “apparent variance in beliefs, values, and culture seem to be more provocative of intolerant dispositions than racial and ethnic diversity,” so “parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness” seems wise when possible.

If you want an authoritarian neighbor to be maximally tolerant of the refugee family that moved in down the street, don’t relate how cool it was to go to their house and discover food and music unlike anything you’d ever encountered. Relate that despite growing up half a world away, their dedication to their children shows how much we humans all have in common.

There is no better example of both paying homage to America’s diversity and reassuringly emphasizing a deeper unity than Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, and yet still come together as one American family.  

“E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

Obama then preempted those “preparing to divide us” by insisting on the reality of a more fundamental underlying sameness. “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America,” he insisted. “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes.”

That’s how an African American Democrat with a foreign-sounding name overcame rumors that he was a secret Kenyan and won two presidential terms while getting votes from millions who later supported Trump. Of course, every candidate and campaign is different. But the left needs to know that it will better grasp reality and increase its odds of defeating Trumpism if it understands that antiauthoritarianism, rather than anti-racism, is the most apt, effective framework for opposing what ails the right.

Trump sometimes seems like the paradigmatic example of the authoritarian personality type. But he may simply be a charismatic leader who understands—whether by some adviser’s dark calculation, or his own instincts—the vulnerability and malleability of his audience, and the themes, language, and symbolism that he needs to effectively manipulate them.

The left must grasp, as Stenner put it, that “showy celebration of an absolute insistence upon individual autonomy and unconstrained diversity pushes those by nature least equipped to live comfortably in a liberal democracy not to the limits of their tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes.”

I’d also advise the left to bear in mind that the right is a diverse coalition composed of authoritarians as well as many libertarians and people in between. Talking about it as a monolith is a mistake, especially given Stenner’s finding of sharp distinctions between authoritarians and ideological conservatives that suggest a way to weaken Trump with a key constituency in 2020.

Promiscuous labeling may erode the stigma associated with the word racist. False or frivolous accusations of racism aren’t at the root of authoritarian intolerance or racism. But when directed at nonauthoritarian nonracists, false accusations could conceivably make them less inclined to probe, ponder, or perceive actual racism in others.

Representative Steve King is going to be intolerant whether or not anyone calls him a racist, and he’s going to ally with authoritarians rather than try to undermine their power in the Republican Party. In contrast, if former Speaker Paul Ryan is accused of engaging in racist dog whistles when he plausibly insists that he is doing nothing of the sort, he may find it less personally advantageous to validate Democratic claims of racism, or he may form a cognitive bias that makes him more likely to simply dismiss leftist claims on race, or feel less able to convince nonauthoritarian colleagues, donors, or supporters that there’s cause to worry.

Put another way, the right is correct that crying wolf matters. And the left is correct that the boy who cried wolf ends with a wolf feasting on folks who concluded that they shouldn’t worry about wolves, because one kid fibbed. The left should refine its best critiques on race and abandon its worst as lacking fairness and rigor. And the nonauthoritarian right needs to wake up to the authoritarians in their midst, taking responsibility for trying to deprive them of power rather than scapegoating or fixating on the least persuasive of the left’s critiques.