On Authoritarian Cops in the USTagged:
Cops in the US are a hot mess of authoritarianism, viewing themselves as an occupying army. They’re sufficiently out of hand that the “defund the police” movement is starting to look like the side with the cool-headed, sensible arguments.
Apologia pro vita mea
First, let me apologize for infrequent posting. Post-COVID syndrome is a thing, you know. I get extreme fatigue each afternoon and become non-functional. Before that there’s the brain fog, making even simple tasks difficult. It’s hard to take apart a paper from the scientific literature, check its conclusions statistically, and then formulate a clear opinion to write up!
We’re getting better slowly, here at Château Weekend. Please be patient.
Also, this is a pretty angry post. Be forewarned.
Background on Authoritarianism
Back in the 1980s, the rather silly Reagan strand of Republicans began to dominate the party. I shrugged, decided I’d outgrown the Republican phase of my life, and became a Democrat. That was the first phase of my transition to becoming a progressive. (Yeah, I know: I wasn’t born this way, but I got here as fast as I could. Sorry it took the first 1/3 of my life.)
But then, in the 90s, it dawned on me that the rhetoric of American Republicans was getting angrier, and by a lot. Also, they were becoming vastly more authoritarian: viewing themselves as the only legitimate authority regardless of election outcomes, creating crisis after crisis to force right-wing policies down unwilling throats, a whiny claim of persecuted victim status despite holding vast power, and a generally nihilistic and personality cult approach to power.
If I’d thought about it – and I did not, at the time – I’d have realized that this strain of politics of the id had been common in American politics. Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”  (later collected into a book of essays shown here) opened thus:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.
He was of course speaking of the Goldwater campaign in 1964, with its full flowering of paranoid xenophobia and embrace of the possibility of nuclear war. As a kid, I knew something was wrong there, but didn’t quite get what was wrong. I grew up in a Republican family, and thought that made my decisions for me. So, yeah: I get the tribalism thing, but am an example that it’s possible to grow out of it.
It’s been described as one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of [Harper’s]”. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that it has become a playbook for several right-wing figures, seeking to work the volatile resentments and emotions of conservatives. One of the best modern examples of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” is QAnon.
Back to the 90s: I was surprised that the study of “the authoritarian personality” had a rich literature. That’s not surprising, given the concerns of WWII where everyone wanted to now, more or less, “what the hell just happened?!” That was the study of Adorno, et al.’s groundbreaking study The Authoritarian Personality. 
This book rapidly became holy writ in political science circles. It’s an excruciating 1,000 pages or so in length, and I’ve personally only painfully excruciated my way through maybe 300-400 pages, concentrating on the tables. Still, the conclusion was clear: fascism finds fertile ground among those with incandescent fury against current authority figures, an idolatrous adoration for their chosen replacement authority figures, and a deep, racist hostility toward anyone who might be part of an outgroup.
They tend to be racist (usually white supremacist), take patriotism to xenophobic extremes, are fascinated by a cult of personality, have an aggrieved sense of perceived injury, feel they have a natural inalienable right to power over all others, and prioritize defense of their tribe as the ultimate good.
That’s pretty much fascism. Adorno and colleagues attempted to construct a psychological test to measure objectively who fit that pattern and to what degree. This became their famous F-scale instrument. They also developed scales for anti-semitism, ethnocentrism, and political & economic conservatism extremes.
The attributes of the F-scale were, as summarized on Wikipedia with nice succinctness, more or less like modern conservative Republican attitudes:
- Conventionalism: Adherence to conventional values.
- Authoritarian Submission: Towards ingroup authority figures.
- Authoritarian Aggression: Against people who violate conventional values.
- Anti-Intraception: Opposition to subjectivity and imagination.
- Superstition and Stereotypy: Belief in individual fate; thinking in rigid categories.
- Power and Toughness: Concerned with submission and domination; assertion of strength.
- Destructiveness and Cynicism: hostility against human nature.
- Projectivity: Perception of the world as dangerous; tendency to project unconscious impulses.
- Sex: Overly concerned with modern sexual practices.
That more or less summed things up for me, in the early 1990s. As a then-housemate summarized, “It sort of makes me sick to my stomach to think people can be like that.” Amen, brother. Amen.
Then somehow I stumbled across Bob Altemeyer, and his book The Authoritarians. 
He’s a political scientist who made his entire career studying the authoritarian personality. The book is a semi-popular summary of his entire research career’s findings, in language people who aren’t psychologists and political scientists can swallow.
It was mind-opening for me.
Importantly, he reacted – badly – as I did to the Freudian basis of Adorno’s F-scale. Yes, Freud was intellectually popular then, but all that reads like pseudoscience today. So Altemeyer’s RWA scale (“right-wing authoritarian”) is much more principled and founded in objective statistics about personality types without speculating about childhood treatment by fathers and mothers.
His vision for the political trajectory of the US starting in the 1990s is terrifying. Donald Trump is the archetype of the authoritarian dominator (AD), and his acolytes are clearly the authoritarian followers (AF) types that Altemeyer measures.
Then, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind  in 2013, helped make it all clearer for me.
He applied something akin to factor analysis to data on how people made moral decisions. While I have little patience for his “rationalist delusion” stuff, he did make a major contribution to how we think about morality. He ended up with 5 significant factors, upon each of us rely to varying degrees. The first 2 are universal, while the last 3 are almost exclusive to more conservative authoritarian people:
- Harm vs Care: We should avoid harm where possible, and care for people as we can.
- Fairness: We should treat people on an equal basis, where possible.
- Submission to Authority: It’s best to follow the leader and do what they say.
- Defense of the Ingroup/Hostility to Outgroup: It’s best to defend the tribe, and be suspicious or even violent to outsiders.
- Purity: It’s important to cultivate a taste for what’s disgusting to avoid it, and what’s pure to encourage it.
The correlation of factor loadings on these 5 moral foundations factors vs political group is stark. Shown here is an (illustrative, unlikely to be quantitatively detailed) graph from Wikipedia. Note that conservatives value all 5 factors, whereas liberals tend to use only the harm/care and fairness.
- Conservatives tend to pounce gleefully and say things like this is proof that liberals are morally defective, since they miss 3/5 of everything righteous in the world.
- Liberals, on the other hand, tend to look at authority submission, xenophobia/outgroup hostility, and elaborate rituals of purity as character defects. Your humble Weekend Editor certainly feels that way, and the quote from the old housemate above is another anecdotal example.
So the fundamental discord is: conservative authoritarians regard as foundational to their morality 3 aspects which the vast majority regard as character defects which border on being wrong in and of themselves.
The Awful Consequences on Policing in The Present
So that’s 4 books worth – literally – of where I’m coming from with regard to the perils of authoritarians in general and Republicans in particular.
How does that reflect on our problems with police violence? Huffing on a vial of Republican/authoritarian entitled rage can’t be leading to a good place. Let’s look at some news items from just this month:
The WaPo has a truly nauseating article about police in Indiana engaging in direct intimidation  to remove a political candidate from a race.
Because the candidate favored body cameras, which were the standard of practice in all neighboring communities, the police decided he was “anti-cop”. Apparently they do not like being held responsible for their actions by having a video record. Hence in July they trumped up charges against the politician (that were previously rejected by prosecutors as having no evidence) and arrested him, amid threats if he did not withdraw from the race.
Think it through: a political candidate advocates for police body cameras, and is shortly after that slandered with a false charge, arrested, threatened with police harassment unless he withdraws from a race for being “anti-cop”.
That’s not police. That’s Gestapo, the enforcement arm of fascists.
(Also in Indiana, long the home of my family, they have elected a right-wing US senator who believes the Supreme Court decision allowing inter-racial marriages was wrongly decided. Apparently he thinks each state legislature should be able to outlaw my marriage. It’s come down to that, apparently, in the red states: official racism.)
In Georgia, another red state, cops were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on a young man. However, they first physically ripped down his parents security camera, throwing it into the bushes so they would not be recorded. 
Unfortunately for them, they were caught on the other security camera. They were also recorded uttering “vile and disgusting” racial slurs, showing a level of racist anger sufficient to motivate cops to destroy evidence.
Think it through: they hate being recorded by body cameras, but they also hate your cameras and are willing to destroy them. They engage in destruction of evidence while spouting absolutely vile racial epithets against you.
They want power, absolutely beyond review or responsibility. Fascists feel they have a right to power, and that it should be a crime to limit them in any way.
In Arkansas last week there was a typical cop beating, notable chiefly in that it was recorded by bystanders unbeknownst to the cops administering the beating to a handcuffed prisoner. It first hit in social media, where it kept getting taken down, and “real” news outlets ignored it.
Here’s one person re-Tweeting it, to preserve the evidence (NB: disturbing video of 3 cops holding down a handcuffed prisoner, beating his head against concrete):
Note at the end of the video how quickly the “subject stopped resisting” once the cops figured out they were on video.
Initially, the cops who beat this man so severely for “resisting arrest” (while handcuffed) were put on paid suspension/vacation during an “internal investigation” by their buddies. Fortunately, the story eventually broke into the media where it received overwhelmingly negative coverage:
- The NPR coverage  noted that after the video “went viral” and could no longer be suppressed, there was finally political notice from the governor. The beating was severe: one officer holding down the handcuffed prisoner, another kicking his lower body, and a third slamming his head against concrete. NPR did note that the video was repeatedly taken down, but kept getting put back up by insistent members of the public.
- The WaPo covers much of the same material using an AP report. 
- The PBS News Hour  went a bit deeper. They consulted
Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College & the CUNY Graduate
Center, where he coordinates the Policing and Social Justice project, and is the
author of The End of Policing.
- He points out that American police kill about 3 people every day in the US.
- Also, he says police departments have “consistently refused” to report body camera data in a way that would allow analysis of excessive use of force over time.
- But sadly, for the worst sort of officers, the fact that they’re being recorded “doesn’t seem to make any difference” either in their excessive use of force or in resulting prosecutions (presumably due to qualified immunity).
- There are 18,000 or so police departments across the US, each with different standards for use of force (or no standards at all). Hoping for a consistent policy is impossible as long as those are all under separate local control.
- Vitale favors reducing the use of police in many situations, in favor of public safety infrastructures to handle things like mental illness and drug addiction. Apparently, between 25% and 50% of people killed by police are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Denver seems to be leading in this regard.
There are numerous other reports; I’ve only selected a few here. The miracle is that the video made it out despite attempts to suppress it. The opposite of a miracle is that this will never stop so long as police have qualified immunity and think of themselves as an occupying army.
The venerable Boston Globe reports a proposal, by the former mayor of Ithaca, to use a test for authoritarianism on candidates who apply for police jobs. 
Some of this is perhaps due to the mayor’s selection of a commissioner who, as a former Boston cop, suffered a near-fatal beating at the hands of other Boston cops. He’s… unlikely to just take the cops’ word for whether they’re authoritarian or not, and wants a chance to take on “a culture of police violence and corruption that is so entrenched it may prove once again to be intractable” without new tools.
They are considering robust pre-employment psychological screenings, including polygraph tests. This would require a change to the law on polygraph tests. Polygraphs are generally regarded as BS, though not by police.
When used in a test for authoritarianism, it would seek to screen out certain types (emphasis added):
The test is for psychological characteristics with a focus on authoritarian tendencies, because we believe these, even more than other problematic factors such as racism or implicit bias, are both easier to detect and ultimately the most predictive of violent behavior down the road.
Authoritarian individuals are those who feel they must be obeyed. They are bullies who demand subordination from others and display aggressive, impulsive traits. When we administered our combined polygraph and psychological screening, we found a sharp contrast between these unsuitable applicants’ statements in their earlier job interviews and their answers during the final screening process.
We had applicants who told us they wanted to be police officers because an uncle was a cop, or because they wanted to serve the community, who later confessed the real reason was their love of guns. We had applicants who told us during the polygraph that they were bullied as kids, wanted the respect they were denied elsewhere, or needed to teach “those people” who disrespected them a lesson. Frighteningly, the phrase “those people” was one that arose again and again. Sometimes applicants admitted to a history of violence. The results were sobering, to say the least.
Once we added this step to our application process five years ago, it helped us eliminate a full 75 percent of applicants we otherwise would have hired. We were disturbed when we saw many of those applicants hired in other departments.
They also found in Ithaca that police unions don’t object to pre-employment tests of this nature the way they would to post-employment tests, because:
There just aren’t many good arguments against a publicly stated goal of preventing bullies and sadists from putting on the uniform.
Amen to that.
Finally, consider Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC interviewing NYT columnist Charles Blow on The Last Word. 
Propaganda and disinformation are big deals. But as long as people vote for authoritarian politicians, we will have fascist problems. People who vote for authoritarians and fascists are the problem!
Blow points out that “conservatism in this country has always been against democracy”:
- We never even began to approach democracy until 1870 when a constitutional amendment gave Blacks the vote (at least for men); the immediate response of the conservative/fascist South was to suppress that with Jim Crow.
- Women couldn’t vote until the 1920s.
- Jim Crow wasn’t dismantled until the 1960s with the Voting Rights Act. The response of the newly über-conservative modern Supreme Court has been to gut the Voting Rights Act.
- Not to mention: the unrepresentative nature of the Senate which gives disproportionate power to rural red states of low population.
- Also not to mention: the now-insane levels of red-state gerrymandering to disenfranchise the majority and ensure white minority rule of Republicans.
- They apparently now do not even plan to try to win the most votes for president, but instead to install secretaries of state in each state who will simply overturn votes, or hand them off to the legislatures to overturn.
Hence the unapologetic claims from Republicans that the US is a republic, but not a democracy!
The Weekend Conclusion
So, yeah: we got big problems with right-wing authoritarians having taken over the Republican party.
Now, if it’s just me saying things like that, you’re entitled to dismiss it as the view of an angry old man. (Which it is. But that is not incompatible with also being correct.)
When many people say things like that, you can dismiss it as just some political movement. (Like, say, everyone who’s anti-fascist.)
But when people whose profession is to determine threats against American democracy say things like that… then it may be time to start paying attention:
Now, look: I have little sympathy for the US Central Intelligence Agency or for those who rise high in its ranks. They tend to hit the Machiavelli and Nietzsche way too hard, while tending to the authoritarian personality disorder themselves.
But when even they recognize Republicans as the biggest domestic terrorism threat to the United States, it’s time: never vote Republican ever again. Not for any imaginable political office, not for any conceivable reason.
An elegant summary, found on Twitter via RWK:
Addendum 2022-Aug-29, after getting some sleep
Well, I wrote a pretty angry little jeremiad there, didn’t I? Still… it sums up how I feel about this political moment.
This morning I found an interview on MSNBC with Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) on Morning Joe.  He’s written a book called House on Fire  calling out the dangers Republicans are posing to US democracy through their authoritarianism and fascism. And yes, he uses those exact words when speaking of Republicans.
Addendum 2022-Aug-30: Godwin’s Law & Serious Fascism Scholars
Back in 1990, attorney Mike Godwin, upon watching endless Usenet flame wars, proposed Godwin’s Law as a possible antidote for the inevitable reductio ad Hitlerium:
when a Hitler comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress.
He later pointed out that when discussing actual Nazis and fascists, Godwin’s Law does not apply. Here’s what he had to say about Biden’s characterization of the Trump wing of the Republican party as “semi-fascist”:
Ok, good snark. But what do serious scholars of fascism think?
No less a personage than Robert Paxton, professor of political science and history at Columbia, has devoted his career to the study of fascism (in particular the Vichy government under Nazi occupation in France). This is a serious, heavy-weight guy, to whose opinion I will listen respectfully. Writing in Newsweek just after the insurrection on 2021-Jan-06 , he writes that he’d hesitated to call Trump fascist until that point.
After Jan 6 though, no doubt remained. Trumpists are fascists (emphasis added):
Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2020 removes my objection to the fascist label. His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.
Nobody blinks an eye when Republicans call Democrats “socialists” or “communists”, both of which are laughably untrue. So why do Republicans throw a hissy fit when they get called “fascists”, a description for which there is amply convincing evidence?
If you are a Republican, take note: it’s time to vote out the fascists who have taken over your party.
Or, you can be complicit.
Notes & References
1: R Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Harper’s, 1964-Nov. Adapted from the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered at Oxford in 1963-Nov. ↩
2: TW Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality, 1950. I know it’s snarky, but to this day I can hardly want to utter the title without wanting to editorialize a bit: “the authoritarian personality disorder”, since it’s so repugnant to me.↩
3: R Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, 2006. NB: This book, as well as much supplementary material, is available on Altemeyer’s web site, as well as in print form. ↩
4: J Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Vintage Books, 2013 ↩
5: M Kornfield, “Two Ind. officers suspended after arresting man thought to be anti-police”, Washington Post, 2022-Aug-10. ↩
6: R Beschizza, “Cops suspended after being filmed vandalizing homeowner’s security camera by homeowner’s other security camera”, BoingBoing, 2022-Aug-15. ↩
7: E Bowman, “Arkansas officers were suspended after video on social media shows a police beating”, NPR, 2022-Aug-22. ↩
8: AP Staff, “3 Arkansas officers suspended after video captures beating”, Washington Post, 2022-Aug-22. ↩
9: A Nawaz, “Arkansas police officers suspended after a video shows brutal beating”, PBS News Hour via YouTube, 2022-Aug-22. ↩
10: S Myrick, “To transform Boston policing, test for authoritarianism”, Boston Globe, 2022-Aug-05. ↩
11: L O’Donnell, “Interview with Charles Blow: Republicans are America’s Problem”, The Last Word on MSNBC, 2022-Aug-19. ↩
12: J Scarborough, M Brzezinski, “House Member Sounds Alarm On Authoritarianism In New Book”, MSNBC, Morning Joe, 2022-Aug-29. ↩
13: D Cicilline, House on Fire, Twelve Books, to be released 2022-Aug-30 (tomorrow). ↩
14: R Paxton, “I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now”, Newsweek, 2021-Jan-11. ↩
Amen! Thank you for this.
BTW: I believe The Righteous Mind is the most important book I’ve read this century.
Or even… this millennium?
Yes, it’s undoubtedly a very important book! I have slightly mixed feelings about it though:
On the one hand, his stuff about the “rationalist delusion” just drives me nuts!
It gets used as an excuse to avoid the hard work of learning to think clearly. Yes, people wallow in the swamp of feelings and tribal affiliation. No, that’s no excuse for remaining there.
On the other hand, who can resist applauding the use of factor analysis in social science?
Ever since Steve Hanks (remember him?) pushed me into learning singular value decomposition, my career took a sharp upward turn. I got into a lot more machine learning in R, and wondered why everybody didn’t use SVD or eigenfactor methods to uncover the “real” variables in their data, to build good supervised classifier models under crossvalidation.
(Then I tried explaining SVD to biologists at work, studying gene expression datasets. I’ve never met such fierce resistance! Eventually I learned to say I used machine learning to “uncover underlying variables” without showing any math. To my great disappointment, that worked.)
So, yeah: I’m impatient with Haidt’s helplessness in the face of irrationality, but applaud his use of (reasonably) modern statistical methods to find underlying factors in moral thinking.
(Though I wish The Righteous Mind had included some math! I admit this is a niche preference. :-)
Thanks for stopping by – sometimes I worry nobody reads this stuff.