Authoritarian Populists, Paleoconservatives and Donald Trump

Events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which, among other things, an “alt right” neo-Nazi ran his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a paleoconservative rally, killing one and injuring several, have brought questions of Donald Trump’s relationship with paleoconservatives into an all too fuzzy focus.[1] Trump was slow to condemn the incident, initially blaming both sides, then blaming the “alt right” (paleoconservatives), then reverting to blaming both sides. This is the first of a few postings in reaction to those events, slightly refined from the now-removed original on the Daily Bullshit.

While Jeffrey Toobin notes that “[t]his is hardly the first time that [Trump] has been hesitant to distance himself from right-wing extremists” and may be correct that racism is a political strategy,[2] Trump appears to be confirming my earlier assessment (in my dissertation) that he is an authoritarian populist rather than a paleoconservative.[3] There are two major points that distinguish authoritarian populists from paleoconservatives:

First, paleoconservatives are unabashedly racist and will tell you so, arguing that social order requires people of different ethnicities, races, and religions to be segregated. Authoritarian populists are more likely to be in denial either that s/he is racist or that there is racism or both.[4] Trump seems to see the charges of racism leveled against him as attempts to delegitimize his presidency.[5] If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should: It’s the same game that Donald Trump, among other authoritarian populists, played unrelentingly against his predecessor, Barack Obama, with ‘birther’ allegations. Trump’s understanding is not, regardless of how folks may try to spin it, an advocacy of racism, but rather a view of racism not as racism in and of itself but rather as an attack upon him. Allowing for a fuzzy boundary between the two tendencies, this is significantly closer to authoritarian populism.

Second, despite the presence of neo-Nazis among their ranks, paleoconservatives join traditionalist conservatives and capitalist libertarians in generally opposing war, placing all three tendencies at odds with neoconservatives, who rarely see an opportunity for war they don’t like. Authoritarian populists are more likely to support war,[6] possibly because they may conflate support for the troops with support for a war they’re fighting in. Crucially, here we see the distinction between an authoritarian populist Donald Trump and his paleoconservative now-former[7] chief strategist, Steve Bannon:

Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”[8]

Authoritarian populists don’t generally think that far ahead—they’re more about a backlash against “elites” (including academics) and both cultural and economic change.[9] The more interesting part is this:

[Robert Kuttner] asked Bannon about the connection between his program of economic nationalism and the ugly white nationalism epitomized by the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s reluctance to condemn it. Bannon, after all, was the architect of the strategy of using Breitbart to heat up white nationalism and then rely on the radical right as Trump’s base.

He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”

“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.[10]

Bannon is right that paleoconservatives are a fringe element. What’s curious is his apparent distancing of himself from that element and I have no explanation for that other than that perhaps, in giving interviews to non-paleoconservative outlets, he is seeking to bolster his own credibility.

But what that also means is that Trump really does himself very little harm with his “base” by disavowing paleoconservatives and one might accordingly question his apparent loyalty to them. The recurring problem we’re seeing with this presidency, however, is that even conservatives underestimate the differences among themselves, differences that were the primary topic of my dissertation.[11] Everybody, including conservatives themselves, hoping to push forward or resist a so-called “conservative” agenda wants to treat conservatism as monolithic.

It just ain’t so and when, as seems increasingly likely, we face a President Mike Pence, conservatives will continue to face difficulties advancing that very non-monolithic agenda.

  1. [1]Joe Heim, “Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017,
  2. [2]Jeffrey Toobin, “Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Charlottesville,” New Yorker, August 15, 2017,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  5. [5]Jeet Heer, “Trump’s Racism and the Myth of ‘Cultural Marxism,’” New Republic, August 15, 2017,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  7. [7]Michael C. Bender and Peter Nicholas, “Steve Bannon, Controversial Aide to Trump, Exits White House Staff,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2017,
  8. [8]Robert Kuttner, “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant,” Prospect, August 16, 2017,
  9. [9]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  10. [10]Robert Kuttner, “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant,” Prospect, August 16, 2017,
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).

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