The Trumpian Personality

The Trumpian Personality

One of the crowning works of the Frankfurt School, The Authoritarian Personality has much to teach us about the age of Trump.

Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Dallas, Texas, 2015 (Jamelle Bouie / Flickr)

There’s a feeling in American political culture that’s screaming out for diagnosis. It’s heard every time Donald Trump suggests the government should be investigating the mainstream press for “fake news” rather than looking into the supposed “Russian hoax.” It’s heard every time he praises military solutions to diplomatic problems; it was seen when he hoped to parade American tanks and other military might at his inauguration. It’s heard when there’s the obligatory nod and wink at white supremacists who worry about the disappearance of “our culture,” and when Trump praises figures like Joe Arpaio, who sees crime and rot behind all foreigners. And most of all, you sense it when he sets out his worldview that unity—imposed by a strong leader—is the highest principle, with dissent and disagreement just getting in the way.

Trump’s ascendancy is an opportune moment to revisit The Authoritarian Personality, a book published just five years after the Second World War came to its fiery end. Its best-known author was Theodor Adorno, a leading architect of Western Marxism. He developed a biting critique of the “culture industry”—including everything from radio and Tin Pan Alley jazz to Hollywood—which, he argued, had turned individuals into cheerful automatons for formulaic and unchallenging fare. Some of Adorno’s characterizations of American culture reflected his own mandarin background, creating what the journalist Stuart Jeffries recently labeled “pessimistic Marxism.”

Adorno is often remembered for his ponderous aphorisms, a member of the Frankfurt School who wrote elliptical prose about negative dialectics and barbarism. But in the case of The Authoritarian Personality (or TAP) we encounter a theorist turned social scientist, who, with the help of his long-term colleague Max Horkheimer, organized a team of investigators to comb through hundreds of interviews with Americans about their political and psychological beliefs, often refining the questions as the study proceeded.

TAP was conceived and funded by the American Jewish Committee, which was fearful of a potential rise in anti-Semitism in the United States as the stench of the death camps still lingered in the historical air. Who better to perform this unpleasant task than a man who had escaped Nazism in his home country and was steeped in German culture and history? The mission of the book was to identify and diagnose both the type of individuals who fell prey to authoritarian leaders and the attributes of those leaders that appealed to them. In ominous tones, Adorno explained his starting point: “Fascism, in order to be successful as a political movement, must have a mass basis. It must secure not only the frightened submission but the active cooperation of the great majority of the people.” Although written in ...