Why do Right Wing Extremists (RWE) act the way they do? Why do they accept the flimsy excuses and obvious lies that their leaders proclaim and cling to them so dogmatically? Why do their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites?
These are the questions that Psychology Professor Bob Altemeyer (University of Manitoba, Winnipeg) addresses in his book The Authoritarians (Amazon.com). While his profile of the RWE follower might appear obvious, Dr. Altemeyer’s insights come after years of research.
He says that RWEs are highly submissive to the established, legitimate authorities in their society, highly aggressive in the name of their authorities to those who are outside their group, highly conventional, far more afraid than those in the general population, and less concerned about process and reasoning because the conclusion, as defined by the leader(s), is the end game. Facts that contradict the leader’s vision are discounted as irrelevant. The leader’s Truth is simple and clear.
High RWEs see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, are highly loyal to the in-group, and more ethnocentric than the general population. They believe, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and if members question the group’s leaders and beliefs the questioners can quickly become regarded as traitors.
High RWEs are dogmatic and stubborn. They think in black and white terms, are relatively unchangeable, and are possessed of an unjustified certainty.
Religious fundamentalists score high on Altemeyer’s RWA scale and mix easily with the authoritarian personality. Such fundamentalists glean little purpose and joy in the exploration and discovery of new knowledge and ideas. They stand firm in their faith/beliefs, feel that they are in personal touch with the all-good Creator of the universe Who loves them and takes a special interest in them, and are certain that they will enjoy eternal happiness. In America they say, “Our country should always be a Christian country, and other beliefs should be ignored in our public institutions… All people may be entitled to their own religious beliefs, but I don’t want to associate with people whose views are quite different from my own.”
Professor Altemeyer surveyed RWA lawmakers in 50 state legislators to determine their approach to governing and policy, and received 682 responses from Democrats and 549 from Republicans. Though high RWAs tended to be mostly Republican conservatives, there were some Democrats who fit the profile.
High RWA legislators supported conservative economic policies, and rejected a law to raise the income tax rate for the rich and lower it for the poor. They held a much higher degree of racial and ethnic prejudice than low RWAs, opposed a law requiring affirmative action in state hiring, favored capital punishment, opposed gun control laws, favored a law giving police fewer restrictive rules regarding wiretapping, search-and-seizure and interrogation methods, favored a law requiring Christian religious instruction in public schools, did not think that wife abuse was a serious issue, favored restrictions on abortion, favored a law restricting anti-war protests, and opposed a law extending equal rights to homosexuals in housing and employment.
Dr. Altemeyer noted that fear exacerbates latent right wing extremist and authoritarian tendencies and brings them mightily to the fore.
And so, what do we do about this?
Dr. Altemeyer suggests five strategies:
 While protecting ourselves from legitimate threats is necessary, we should avoid stoking the embers of fear to unjustifiable levels;
 We need to eschew self-righteous posturing.
 We should resist ethnocentric self-justification and denial of the legitimacy of the “other.”
 We should teach our children to question all authority while at the same time noting that authority legitimately granted to institutions necessary for the perpetuation of democracy and to duly elected leaders or properly appointed officials should be respected and supported.
 We should do everything we can to educate our people to think so that they will not be taken for suckers and susceptible in the hands of charismatic and dogmatic extremist leaders.
The upcoming US presidential election has already brought the RWEs into the public eye in a big way. RWAs are also operating in Israel, the Arab/Islamic world and Europe.
Dr. Altemeyer has done us a service with this study, and I recommend it.