by contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

This post is adapted from the author’s contribution to a panel discussion entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute, New York City on October 25, 2017, featuring co-panelists Jack Jacobs, Liliane Weissberg, and Anson Rabinbach. A video recording of the event can be found here.

Over a year after the election of Donald Trump, countless comparisons have been made between our populist moment and the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in twentieth-century Europe. Placing even greater stress on this tenuous analogy, many of Trump’s critics have turned to analysis of these phenomena by German-Jewish émigré intellectuals, notably Hannah Arendt and members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In this flurry of citation, critics have tended to elide deep rifts between these German traditions, even as the theories invoked in fact support two distinct and opposing interpretations. The first of these we might call the anti-tyranny camp (a darling of liberal publications) the faces of which are the historian Timothy Snyder (Yale University) and his theorist of choice, Hannah Arendt. The alternative is what we might call the anti-capitalist camp. It is here we find the Frankfurt School, which brings together an analysis of fascism with anti-capitalist critique. Conflicting temporalities underlie these divergent approaches: anti-tyrannists characterize Trump as a historical rupture, a deviation from history as usual, while for anti-capitalists he is a historical continuity, a product of history as usual. I will make the case that it is the latter tradition, as distinct from an Arendtian fixation on totalitarianism, that best articulates a critical synthesis of historical precedent and contemporary threat.

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The anti-capitalist approach developed here can be summed up in a line: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” Max Horkheimer, a longtime director of the Frankfurt School, penned this dictum in his controversial essay “The Jews and Europe” from exile in New York in 1939 (an ominous year for a German Jew like himself). Notable among those returning to the Frankfurt School today is the political theorist Corey Robin (Brooklyn College), who recently gave second life to Horkheimer’s dictum in a tweet: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about Bushism should also remain silent about Trumpism.” Another reprise connects climate change and market imperatives for economic growth: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about the 6th mass extinction.”

How did it come to be that “if you want to understand the age of Trump, you need to read the Frankfurt School”? As expressed in Horkheimer’s line, the most defining feature of the Frankfurt School’s multidimensional analysis of fascism was their emphasis on historical continuities between fascism and the forms of failing liberal democracy that historically paved the way for it. Instead of seeing fascism as an alien phenomenon that attacked liberal democracy from without, they emphasized elements of fascism that also flourished—both before and after fascism—under liberal democracy.

Alex Ross’s December 2016 New Yorker article “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” emphasized the role of what Theodor Adorno called “The Culture Industry” in Trump’s rise to power. In Ross’s words, our present “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination….Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.” This invocation of Adorno is, crucially, two-pronged: it brings together the way mass media and celebrity culture can be used to exploit resentments accompanying the accelerating economic inequality and displacements endemic to what Adorno already in the 1940s called “late capitalism.” (As Anson Rabinbach (Princeton) has quipped, I suppose we are now in “too-late capitalism.”) Without both threads, the twinned critique of culture and capitalism, this analysis fails.

Adorno and Horkheimer realized by the late 1930s that a reductively materialist interpretation of fascism fails to account for why the working class sometimes opts for right-wing demagoguery instead of socialist revolution fitting with their “true” class interest. To explain this, Marxian materialism needs to incorporate theories of mass psychology, the spectacle of modern media, and class-based social manipulation. The Frankfurt School has thus been characterized as “the marriage of Marx and Freud.”

In particular, many today have turned to the notion of the “authoritarian personality” seeking a key to understanding Trump. The term was popularized by Adorno’s co-authored work of empirical social psychology published by that name in 1950. Following an astute reconstruction of published and unpublished versions of this text by Peter E. Gordon (Harvard), I would define this term as a historically-produced character type incapable of genuine experience and hence also incapable of autonomous moral, political, and aesthetic judgment. As Gordon remarks, this work “moved in the dialectical space between sociology and psychoanalysis, guided by the critical ambition that one might develop, without reductionism, a correlation between objective socioeconomic conditions and subjective features of individual personalities.” Hence this type should be seen as a broad sociological heuristic; it does not map onto individuals’ actual political practices or beliefs, but rather describes, in the authors’ words, the “potentially fascistic individual,” the qualities of whom were measured by an “F-scale” (where F stands for fascist) along several dimensions: submissiveness, adherence to social convention, aggression, superstition, a rejection of inwardness, repressed or paranoid sexuality, projection, and anti-intellectualism.

Before the 2016 election, The Authoritarian Personality had quite a bad rap. It had long been cited, rather superficially, as offering an argument about human nature akin to the famous Milgram experiments, which presented authoritarian individuals as mere “cogs in the bureaucratic machine.” Adorno co-authored the work with several psychologists, and many of them tended toward the simplistic conclusion that authoritarian personalities are merely “bad apples”—discrete pathological cases that arise innately or as a result of authoritarian parenting. Adorno notes many problems with these psychological conclusions in his own contribution to the book: first, they assume an unchanging Freudian subject, and second, they distract us from how authoritarian subjects are socially produced by changing historical conditions. In this respect, Adorno offers something like a dissenting opinion in this collective work.

According to Gordon’s structural reading, insofar as Adorno “refused to identify such social pathologies with specific personalities or social groups…the authoritarian personality signifies not merely a type but rather an emergent and generalized feature of modern society as such.” Gordon thus criticizes attempts to diagnose the particular pathologies of Trump or his supporters. “If Adorno was right,” he presses, “then Trumpism cannot be interpreted as an instance of a personality or a psychology; it would have to be recognized as the thoughtlessness of the entire culture.” Hence “Trumpism itself” would be “just another name for the culture industry, where the performance of undoing repression serves as a means for continuing on precisely as before.” Gordon finally rejects the tendency to analogize Trump and fascism, suggesting, per Godwin’s law, “that the Nazism analogy functions less as description than as expression” of “alarm” about a state of affairs ultimately unique to our time.

Following Adorno’s own critique, the task, as I see it, is to historicize the notion of the authoritarian personality—to emphasize how what Adorno called “bad society” in turn produces “bad subjects,” dimming the emancipatory potential of mass politics. Viewing this work in light of the Frankfurt School’s broader social theory, we see that the concept of the “authoritarian personality” links together many spheres of analysis long considered distinct: the critiques of capitalism, culture, nationalism, and antisemitism.

The most sophisticated—if at points impenetrable—product of this synthetic approach is Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 work, Dialectic of Enlightenment. According to their critique of “the culture industry,” monopoly capitalism had transformed art, music, and film—produced by ever fewer mega-corporations—into homogenous commodities to be passively consumed—thus enforcing conformity and hampering the possibility of dissent in advance. Once commodified, culture becomes an ideology that upholds the existing capitalist order rather than challenging it. The capitalist imperative for mass consumption produces a society of consumeristic followers rather than citizens; it creates superficial and homogenous individuals incapable of genuine creativity, spontaneity, or autonomy—much less critical thought or resistance. The culture industry produces individuals unable and unwilling to endure the complexity of life in common. It not only exploits but also produces the “intolerance of emotional and cognitive ambiguity” co-author Else Frenkel-Brunswik described in The Authoritarian Personality (p. 464).

The Frankfurt School’s writings on the culture industry anticipated the perils of commodified information that roiled the U.S. around the 2016 election. The circulation of fake news on television and social media sites was far from an accidental aberration in the allegedly “value-free” marketplace of ideas. Rather, the process we witnessed of dumbing-down and making up news is a tendency intrinsic to all cultural and intellectual production submitted to the imperatives of click-counts, ratings for mass audiences, and, ultimately, profit. In 2016, our culture industry systematically favored scandals to policy solutions, preferring to cover simple but false campaign promises to the unsexy but vital work of governance. In Ross’s words: “At some point over the summer, it struck me that the greater part of the media wanted Trump to be elected, consciously or unconsciously. He would be more ‘interesting’ than Hillary Clinton; he would ‘pop.’” Ross invokes Adorno’s 1945 reflection in Minima Moralia on “the conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power”—and, once more, of profit.

The culture industry and the instrumentalization of mass media set the stage for one of the oldest plays in the authoritarian handbook: the cultivation of the heroic and celebrity status of the leader through the modern spectacle. In 1933 as in 2016, the cultural process Adorno and Horkheimer called “mass deception” helped win over what Adorno saw as a society of dejected, resentful, hollowed-out subjects. There was no tyranny at work here: freedom was not stolen by the might of dictators, but willfully offered up to an imagined collective represented by a strongman promising national redemption.

Adorno argued in a 1951 essay on the Freudian mass psychology of fascist propaganda that the “bond” of the collective is what enables the “fascist demagogue…to win the support of millions of people for aims largely incompatible with their own rational self-interest” (p. 135). There are echoes here of Trump’s claim in January, 2016, that he “has the most loyal people” behind him and “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and…wouldn’t lose any voters.” Yet Adorno dialectically interrelates this mass psychology of conformity with structural social critique: “The deeper we go into the psychological genesis of the totalitarian character, the less we are content to explain it in an exclusively psychological way, and the more we realize that its psychological stiffness is a means of adaptation to a mutilated society.”

The crucial hinge in Ross’s claim that “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” is that the theorists were not only thinking of Nazi Germany when they investigated the fascist potential of modern society. The empirical data for The Authoritarian Personality was gathered in the U.S., which during the 1930s and 1940s produced its own share of nationalist populism—albeit with less drastic consequences. The principal failing of the anti-tyrannists is their lack of self-criticality about such problems in American democracy that long predated Trump. A key element that held on both sides of the Atlantic was the way authoritarian subjects defined themselves through a negative relation to out-groups such as Jews, foreigners, and communists. As Adorno put it, authoritarian subjects “fall, as it were, negatively in love” with the out-group enemies they projectively construct. He crystallized this position: “I/We are categorically and absolutely not Them.” What Adorno called “negative integration” thus generates an in-group without necessary affirmative content. Mass media and propaganda techniques helped modernize and radicalize the long tradition of basing “real” American identity on the exclusion of racial others.

An equally important analysis of authoritarian populism in America comes from Leo Löwenthal, a lesser-known sociologist affiliated with the Frankfurt School since its founding. In the days before Trump’s election, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin (CUNY) invoked the relevance of Löwenthal’s 1949 co-authored book Prophets of Deceit to the Trump phenomenon. It offers a psychological ethnography of populist radio agitators like Father Charles Coughlin who mobilized millions across America through xenophobia, Judeophobia, and paranoia about imminent communist plots against America. Speeches by populist agitators they analyzed sharply recall the rhetoric of the 2016 election: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America” (p. 5).

As long as figures on the right continue to invoke fascistic rhetoric—from Trump’s “America First” to the alt-right’s “blood and soil”—it seems the fascist analogy is not going away anytime soon. As Martin Jay (Berkeley) once quipped, the concepts of our Zeitgeist are like the furniture in the room: we intellectual historians can only do our best to rearrange them. For now, the fascist analogy is ours to sit with and work through. Yet it remains to be seen how to counteract such agitation. Löwenthal and Adorno emphasize the rally as a participatory spectacle able to mobilize mass audiences through in-group identification. A key question today is whether Trump can sustain the power his “movement” accrued through his signature rallies, for since he stepped off the campaign trail his popularity outside his in-group has plummeted.

The Frankfurt School’s analysis of the authoritarian personality may prove more helpful in explaining the rise of Trump through media and mass politics than telling us what to do next. Blindsided by the shock of fascism and its crimes against the Jews, the first generation critical theorists came to believe that revolution was no longer possible in a “totally administered society”—one in which critique itself would not be possible. Writing from exile in the 1940s, Adorno reflected on this dark horizon in his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. His antipathy toward positive revolutionary social and economic programs is clear in the 1945 aphorism Mélange, in which he critiques liberal platitudes about the ideals of racial “tolerance” and “equality,” for he had witnessed in his own lifetime—from the Stalinist Left as well as the fascist Right—that “abstract Utopia is all too compatible with the most insidious tendencies of society.” Rather, he wrote that “an emancipated society…would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” A politics that took this seriously, he argued, should not advocate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings, but rather use critique to point out “the bad equality of today”—that we are, as it were, all equal under the cultural industry—“and conceive the better state as one in which people could be different without fear.” The challenge today would be to take up the critical concepts and emancipatory intellectual practices the Frankfurt School offered and to seek out points of social and political transformation in a society no doubt perversely administered, but far from totally administered.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.