Recent polls show that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are tied in this very early stage of the 2024 presidential race. Each has just over 40 percent support of registered voters.
To many liberals everywhere this is a puzzlement. Joe Biden is a decent man who has restored sanity to the presidential office while introducing programs that have had extraordinary effects in creating good jobs, repairing infrastructure and dealing with global warming. Meeting all the major challenges in other words, something his predecessor failed to do.
Furthermore, his predecessor is now facing three indictments on a range of serious criminal offences., the latest having to do with his attempt to subvert the 2020 election, an attack not only on that election but on democracy itself. All this quite aside from his utter lack of character.
So how, one asks, can such a man remain as popular as Biden, one of the country’s better presidents?
One person who isn’t puzzled, and who has answered this very question, is Matthew C. MacWilliams, research associate at the University of Massachusetts and author of On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History.
Through a series of surveys, Dr. MacWilliams found that approximately 18 percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism. A further 23 percent or so are just one step below them on the authoritarian scale. In other words, about 40 percent of Americans tend to favour authority, obedience and uniformity over freedom, independence and diversity.
This suggests that even in good times roughly one in five citizens prefer authoritarian leadership to democracy and if things go wrong, that can jump to two out of five. And, with globalization and automation destroying good jobs, replacing them with precariat employment, things have not been going well for millions of American workers.
For conservatives, there is the added angst of major social changes they disapprove of, from racial equality to abortion to gay power and other assaults on the fundamentalist Christian way of life.
Thus is explained Trump’s persistent 40+ percent. He has 18 percent without making a speech, the authoritarian handicap one might say. And then if he is a competent rabble-rouser and the times are right, and he is and they are, he gets another 20 percent.
Forty percent is still not a majority, but an authoritarian doesn’t need a majority. Hitler got about 40 percent of the vote in 1933 and parlayed it into a dictatorship. A large minority and the willingness to use any means necessary will suffice.
One might wonder why authoritarian governments seem to slide so easily into power. Why are people so easily controlled? Where do the secret police come from, the enforcers, the torturers and murderers, and the corrupt judges? Who are those citizens who rat out their neighbours over small indiscretions?
The answers are all around you. Every fifth citizen, every fifth person you know, is ready, willing and able to do their patriotic duty for the maximum leader. Such is every society, including the American version despite its legendary constitution and 250 years of democratic tradition.
According to MacWilliams, Trump stirred up a “deep, if often dormant, authoritarian strain” in American politics. He warned in 2020 that, “American authoritarianism will flourish if Trump wins the presidency again—and it won’t magically vanish if he loses.” Well, he did lose and the authoritarianism clearly has not vanished.
President Biden is attempting to address the problem. He has instituted major policies and programs that provide good jobs for American workers, jobs that can make them feel they are valued by their society, that they don’t need an authoritarian saviour.
But he is at a disadvantage. While he can ease American workers’ economic insecurities, he can do little for those suffering from social insecurities. As a liberal he is not about to compete with Trump and appeal to nativism and bigotry.
So it’s a big challenge. He is having difficulty getting ahead of his authoritarian rival. His success in meeting that challenge is very much in all our interests.