Bioethics Blogs

The Specter of Authoritarianism

by Andrew J. Pierce

ABSTRACT. In this essay, I provide an analysis of the much-discussed authoritarian aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign and early administration. Drawing from both philosophical analyses of authoritarianism and recent work in social science, I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.

The unorthodox campaign and unexpected election of Donald Trump has ignited intense speculation about the possibility of an authoritarian turn in American politics. In some ways, this is not surprising. The divisive political climate in the United States is fertile soil for the demonization of political opponents. George W. Bush was regularly characterized as an authoritarian by his left opposition, as was Barack Obama by his own detractors. Yet in Trump’s case, echoes of earlier forms of authoritarianism, from his xenophobic brand of nationalism and reliance on a near mythological revisionist history, to his vilification of the press and seemingly strategic use of falsehoods, appear too numerous to ignore. In this essay, I attempt to provide a sober evaluation of the authoritarian prospects of a Trump administration. As presidential agendas inevitably differ from campaign platforms, much of this analysis will be unavoidably speculative. However, the nature of Trump’s carefully studied campaign, the early actions of his administration, and the wealth of philosophical reflections on earlier forms of authoritarianism provide ample resources to inform such speculation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.