Behavior Economics

The Authoritarian Dynamic: MAGA Really Are Snowflakes

One of the abiding mysteries of the Trump era is the ongoing MAGA love affair with one of America’s and the West’s bitterest enemies, Vladimir Putin. It has become a glib hot take to quip that MAGA is drawn to “strong,” read, authoritarian, leaders, but that isn’t really explanatory, is it?. It is possible to explain the attraction using Follow-the-Leader Theory, meaning if Trump likes him, they’ll like him, but proportionality bias kicks in — extraordinary events require extraordinary causes — so it doesn’t seem quite adequate. Into this disturbing explanatory-predictive quagmire steps Karen Stenner and her authoritarian dynamic model.

After reading “The Authoritarian Dynamic” and several subsequent articles she wrote and interviews of her, it seems that her dispositional-situational dynamic accurately reflects what we’re seeing happening around us, predicts what is to come, and suggests actions we might take to mitigate it.

Just reading through the news, measles outbreak in Ohio, sending unprepared legal migrants to be jettisoned into blizzard conditions, burning and banning books, hunting teachers, and continuing #COVID19 resistance, all points to the same cesspool, authoritarianism. These are authoritarians. They are happy to violate the civil liberties of those that they don’t agree with. They are happy to defy a government they view as illegitimate. They are happy to discard democracy if it allows them to attain their goals of making us all in their image. They are not, however, conservatives.

In The Zeitgeist of Our Time: The Authoritarian Dynamic, the model was explained. Here, the model will be applied to our current situation, and in the next post solutions for abetting the authoritarian moment we seem to be having will be explored, so fun!

Much of this post is based on Stenner’s article, Magazine: Essay – Authoritarianism, on the Hope Not Hate website.

Why are Authoritarians Such Fragile Snowflakes?

Let us begin where we ended the last post with Stenner’s observation that many people no longer have the capacity to tolerate liberal democracy.

[L]iberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it. Until we fix this central problem, nothing else works.

Karen Stenner, Magazine: Authoritarianism

We now bugger the question, why can’t the authoritarian-loving types tolerate democracy any longer? The short answer is because they are snowflakes. Honest to goodness that is the answer.

The Authoritarian Dynamic

Stenner’s hypothesis is that certain people — about a third of the population, but maybe slightly more for some reason in the US — have an innate desire for authoritarian rule, but that it isn’t sufficient to cause them to seek out authoritarianism in their governments. It is only when society starts to seem out of control or the presiding government seems incapable of governing that they begin to agitate for authoritarianism. Or course, the out of controlness of society and incapacity of the government are based on their values and predilections.

Authoritarians seek a society that minimize all differences in the populace and eliminate diversity so that everyone is behaving, believing, and doing the same things. As long as the organs of the society, its governments, and leaders are respected, we will have a consensus on the norms (beliefs, values, behaviors) so that everyone feels a part of the group and understands the group. Shared norms means that life is predictable from one situation to the next.

Triggering the Authoritarians

When societies begin to to diversity and grow complex, then that predictability begins to become less sure. The consensus less shared. Leaders and institutions less respected. The individuals understanding of what makes them a part of the group and where they fit into the group begins to fizzle.

When a person predisposed to authoritarianism finds themselves in a diversifying society, their inner authoritarian begins to be stimulated and when it is over stimulated, they begin to have a major meltdown that might could even end with a genocide or world war.

As long as the core values, beliefs, and norms are ones they support and predict the behaviors of most people, then everything is fine. Democracy, whatever. However, when some unknown threshold is breached, they are ready to throw over the old order, meaning discard democracy, in favor of something that reassures their broken little souls that they are the be bestest of all and everyone else will live by their rules or they’ll grab ’em by the pussies with their small hands and stamp their little feet on their necks and shake their their puny little necks until they do!

See? Snowflakes.

Authoritarians: Infringing on the Rights of Others

Lest we think that they are harmless, Stenner notes that this type of person will always be willing to infringe on the rights of others and will only be dissuaded by the judicious application of the following (See if you can spot the one making them snowflakes!):

  • “responsible leadership
  • force of law
  • fortuitous societal conditions, and
  • near-constant reassurance” [emphasis mine]

Near-constant reassurance? Yep, snowflakes.

Let’s go through these just to see how fucked we really are.

RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP. Which of the current crop of Repube leaders would you call responsible? McConnell, whose proudest moment was telling Barack Obama (Black president, trigger warning) that he would not fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antoine Scalia. McCarthy who promises everything to everyone just to secure the speakership. DeSantis who is dismantling the democracy in Florida one Democratic voter at a time. Abbot who can’t seem to maintain their power grid but can abandon migrants in death-defying weather conditions. The MAGA caucus in Congress?

Here is where we must take great pains to separate out the conservatives like Liz Cheney and, well, fiddle-sticks, who? from the MAGA crowd like Elise Stefanik and Brian Kemp and whoever else engages in wholesale voter suppression and nullification and votes to overturn an election they know to be legit and refuses to impeach or convict the person responsible for the coup on 6 January.

What constitutes conservatism is another fuzzy dice problem that will have to be addressed in another blog post, but it should not be confused with authoritarianism. And, right now, MAGA is an authoritarian movement, the Republican Party is an authoritarian party, and the only way to safeguard our country is through responsible leadership, which the Republicans and MAGA don’t have.

FORCE OF LAW. We had the force of law behind democracy when we were able to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but the great moderate conservative justice, John Roberts, saw that it was gutted. We had the force of law behind democracy before the great moderate conservative justice, John Roberts, declared that money was not corrupting and decided Citizens United meant money was speech.

Back in the halcyon days of yore when we could force the racist authoritarians to play nice with our democracy, we kept them in check. When Roberts neutered the law, we saw them begin to run rampant.

FORTUITOUS SOCIETAL CONDITIONS. These are the great demographic changes. As long as white people could out vote the Democratic coalition of Black women, some Black men, Latinas, some Latinos, a whole lotta, but never quite a majority of white women, and a few white men, they were good with democracy. As soon as that coalition demonstrated that it could elect a Black man president in 2012 (Obama’s 2008 election was special due to the Great Recession crippling Republicans), white people decided democracy was too much of a risk.

NEAR-CONSTANT REASSURANCE. White people be like channeling their inner Trump with his narcissistic need to have his be best status reassured his every waking moment. They see the election of a BLACK MAN as president and the rise of BLACK LIVES MATTER and the presence of SPANISH-SPEAKING BROWNS in the towns and they REACT! This is why most of the 6 January insurrectionists came from counties that Biden won that also had declining white, non-Hispanic populations. All of this is evidence that world is changing around them and their ain’t nothing they can do about it.

Authoritarians are not necessarily on the look out for normative threats or changes to how homogeneous the society is, but when it is brought to their attention, they REACT. And by react, I mean they are ready to jump ship to a more reassuring system one that is more likely to enforce the sameness that they have come to know and love.

When they are not assured that their world is staying the same and that the predictions of behaviors that they made yesterday are the same ones they can make tomorrow, that’s when the authoritarian meltdown starts and they are vulnerable to the sweet siren populist song.


What song have the Republicans been playing since Nixon? The PoC are coming to rape your fathers, murder your jobs, and want better than to live in Cancer Alley, drink Flint water, pay for Texas utilities, and die quickly and quietly when they stop contributing more than they cost like every decent god-fearing white person does so that the one percent can become even more obscenely wealthy just like Jesus decreed in the Bill of Rights to our Declaration of Independence amending the Constitution.

It’s like Black people aren’t willing to be worse off than the poorest white person just so that poor white will be happy enough to give his wallet to the white politician that enforces that system. How is that even fair?

From this analysis, it should be clear what we need to do to mitigate this authoritarian moment we’re living through, right? Well, if not. It will be later this week when that post is ready… unless it won’t be ready. You know. Blogging.

Many people are saying that websites are begging for money, but Ye Olde Blogge doesn’t! It runs on likes, shares, ratings, comments, and follows!

Image Attribution

Snowflake” by AMagill is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

24 replies »

  1. We haven’t mentioned cognitive dissonance yet in this discussion, so here it is. When fragile people are confronted with an event outside of their definition of how the world works or is supposed to work they have three choices, denial (COVID is a hoax), conspiracy (voter fraud = electing a black president), or moral panic (groomers). Whichever way they go, they are stuck in fight or flight mode. That has health consequences — all the chronic diseases of stress, substance abuse, etc.. The health stats from counties and states under GOP control bear this out, and it is not just that they don’t expand Medicaid and such. It is the price of being an activated authoritarian snowflake.

    One thing this discussion has done is helped me finally get to a set of definitions of a three axis model of political spectrum that I’m happy with. The key is that conservative does not equal authoritarian. More on that later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      The incredible thing to me in all of this is the willingness of people to act against their better interests in favor of supporting a political party or candidate. It demonstrates the strength of our need to belong to a group and our ability to justify our actions. Cognitive dissonance, group think, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and all the other cognitive shortcuts we use work against us in this regard.

      The other thing you describe, constantly being stuck in fight or flight mode, creates mass psychosis, too.

      I’m thinking of a fourth post in the series just for a round-up of odds and ends like these that didn’t fit in the previous three.


      Liked by 1 person

      • These brains served us well enough for about 200,000 years as hunter gatherers who lived mostly in kinship groups of up to 120 others who (mostly) knew survival meant cooperation, and serious conflicts were almost always with outsiders in competition for resources. Now, we pack millions of strangers together with those same brains working the same shortcuts.

        “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen. Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself.”

        ― Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          Given our ultrasociality, we have to figure ways of living and working together without these kinds of upheavals, especially, as our friend Ten Bears points out, we will eventually move to human-engineered environments either under domes, in space, or on Mars. It seems to me that one of the things that probably correlates quite highly with authoritarianism is short-sightedness and self-absorption. Given an inability to cognate complexity — long-term thinking and planning and the needs of the many are all inherently complex — they would seem to focus on the immediate payoff for themselves not realizing that in the long-run it can make the entire planet uninhabitable by human beings.

          We really have to consciously use our big brains to solve this problem and construct systems that take advantage of our biases and heuristics so that they don’t end up destroying us.


          Liked by 1 person

            • I don’t know that I can do much with it immediately, but designing social interactions and approaches to problems and other tools that will help use our biases and heuristics to our advantage instead of disadvantage sounds like something I would like to think on. It seems like an idea that has some promise, but not very practical, more like a plot device in a novel than something attainable in reality.


              Liked by 1 person

              • It is a very peculiar problem. Those biases and heuristics survival value is in avoiding difficult and time consuming thinking when immediate action is needed. The difficulty is in accurate, rapid assessment of actual immediate threat versus having time to think the situation through. In a way, there is an opportunity in this to engage the genuine basic conservative personality, the one that says, “Wait, slow down. What could go wrong? What about unintended consequences?”, and which would prefer to support the institutions of stability, order, incremental change, and due process.

                I don’t see much immediate chance that such real conservatives like Liz Cheney and a few others taking back the GOP from the authoritarians. They might better go ahead and create a Conservative party as a party of tradition, calm deliberation, and disciplined good order, and then hammer the authoritarians who dare to call themselves “conservatives”.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Howdy Bob!

                  Most of hardships we evolved to cope with and survive, we now no longer experience. A good example is our diet. We evolved to survive famine, so we add fat whenever we can. We crave sugar, fat, and salt. However, we now live in a calorie rich environment, and those instincts and that physiology no longer serve us well. We live in large ultrasocieties where many many of the accurate, rapid decisions no longer are needed. Our environments are safe. Most of our biases and heuristics evolved to keep us safe from environmental dangers and to keep us working as a cohesive group. None of those things are necessary.

                  All of the contributions that you articulate the conservative supplying are valuable in our rapidly changing technological environment, but, unfortunately, they have all been so abused for so long by bad faith actors that we no longer trust them. Now, they’re just used to delay making the changes necessary to blunt climate change and to continue an overuse and reliance on fossil fuels.

                  I guess our issue is two fold, reigning in the authoritarian MAGA movement as in mollifying the rank and vile and convincing the billionaire funders and movers and shakers that it is in their best interest to forgo some of their immediate profits to help preserve planetary habitation. I guess, now that I think about, those are both very different questions and will have very different answers.


                  Liked by 1 person

                  • I think those answers are very different. I’ve tended to think that the big money people will be influenced on the subject of planetary habitability most pointedly by the actuaries. Being told that one’s major assets are going to become uninsured tends to grab the attention. If the MAGA movement could be abandoned by the big donors, that would make a difference.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      I think that if the big money people were rational investors, they would’ve divested from fossil fuels and reinvested in renewables. Instead, we have them quadrupling down on fossil fuels and working directly against us. Cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning is alive and well in the billionaire class. Limiting the influence of money in our politics and social decision making is key.

                      I really appreciate your thoughts on these matters. Discussing these things with you really helps me focus on what is important. Right now, I’m reading “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth” by Peter Turchin. Essentially, it is about cultural evolution and how technology has sped up our non-biological evolution. Really interesting. I’m working on putting it together with the authoritarian dynamic findings.

                      The Jared Diamond thesis in “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” the authoritarian model, and this cultural evolution concerning the influence of war technologies should be really interesting to explore over the rest of the winter.


                      Liked by 1 person

                    • There’s a passage in Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell in which The Devil observes that in the arts of peace, man invents nothing that a greedy dog couldn’t have invented if it had wanted money instead of food, and that man’s heart is in his inventions in the arts of war.

                      I’ve speculated that the development of electrical systems in the early 20th Century might have had a chance of moving toward electric vehicles and such but for WWI which locked us into the internal combustion engine for the next 100 years.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      That is exactly Turchin’s point! He has developed a mathematical model that predicts the rise and fall of various countries and empires as a result. I’m looking forward to writing it up this week before we return to school.


                      Liked by 1 person

  2. People get into this “follow the leader” mode, I think, because they just, don’t want to, think for themselves, I mean, it’s, way easier, just, following what someone else, tells us to do, or, how we should act, than to, make up our iwn minds about, the, different things we encounter from day to day, which gives “birth”, to, an assortment of, authoritarian leaders like Trump, Putin, Xi, etc., etc., etc., who are, currently, sending this eorld, straight, to hell right now. I mean, if the people don’t and, can’t see that, this is bad, then, there’s, nothing we, as individuals, can, do…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Taurus!

      Thinking is not only hard, it uses energy. Energy out of proportion to the rest of our body, so we evolved to avoid it whenever possible. We have lots of cognitive shortcuts to help keep from thinking. For example, the legal fight over Title 42, I must confess, I just don’t quite get. I haven’t spent a lot of time or energy figuring it out, either. Because I align with Biden and AOC and other politicians on many other issues, their opposition was enough for me to oppose Title 42, too. The idea of keeping legal asylum seekers out of the country in inherently dangerous conditions seemed wrong to me, but, to be honest, I didn’t know what Title 42 was or the reasons Trump imposed it or the reasons Republican governors favored it beyond it kept immigrants out of the country.

      When confronted with a novel situation or an unexpected situation, we look to those in our immediate surroundings for clues of what to do and how to react. It has been well demonstrated that most people will sit in a room slowly filling with smoke if there are other people sitting in the room not reacting to the smoke. It has been well demonstrated that two-thirds of the population will deliver a lethal dose of electricity to an individual is an authority figure tells them to.

      We are social creatures. We must work together as a group. We have evolved ways to develop and maintain group cohesion.

      The thing that comforts me in this moment of authoritarian power grab is that for the past three elections (2018, 2020, and 2024), the coalition has held and we’ve rejected Republican authoritarianism… barely. Can we continue the streak in 2024? Can we peel off a few more white MAGA voters in 2024? My next installment of the series will tell.



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