Revisiting the Authoritarian Personality: Conspiracy Theories and the Crank

Since Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, many journalists have praised The Authoritarian Personality as a prophetic text that predicted the rise of fascism in the United States. On the seventieth anniversary of its publication, Andrew Woods reflects on The Authoritarian Personality’s approach to conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in the radical right.

Theodore Adorno

Following the 2016 presidential election, Alex Ross published an article in the New Yorker entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” In the article, Ross praises the famous 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality (AP)—a collaboration between the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) and the Berkeley Public Opinion Study—as a prescient text that foresaw the rise of fascism on the horizon of American politics. The study’s co-authors—Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford—hypothesized that it is possible to measure someone’s susceptibility to fascism and thus identify those psychological wants and needs that give rise to the “potentially fascist individual.” Earlier this year, the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale hosted a conference to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of AP’s publication, and invited scholars to discuss AP’s unique and enduring contributions to the study of antiminority prejudice and the radical right. In my next few blogposts, I plan to participate in this commemorative project of revisiting the ideas of AP and question whether they are still relevant for current research on right-wing politics.

Several academics, such as Alexander Dunst and Katharina Thalmann, point out that Adorno’s contributions to AP shaped and informed later studies on the function of conspiracy theories in the radical right. (Dunst even suggests that Richard Hofstadter took the phrase “paranoid style” from Adorno for his famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”). Adorno wrote about the nature of conspiracy thinking in his chapter on Types and Syndromes, in which he combines sociological analysis and psychological constructs to form a “critical typology” that could diagnose the various subsyndromes of the potentially fascist individual. For Adorno, those who display a high level of conspiracy ideation suffer from the subsyndrome that he describes as “the Crank.”

According to Adorno, the Crank experiences intense feelings of frustration and isolation, because they are incapable of adjusting to the reality principle. To cope with this social isolation, the Crank constructs a spurious inner world that draws on ethnic prejudices and cultural stereotypes. Adorno theorizes that housewives and old men are more susceptible to this subsyndrome, because their “isolation is socially reinforced by their virtual exclusion from the economic process of production.” Furthermore, he suggests that the Crank suffers from a lack of proper education. Consequently, Adorno judges that the social conditions of unemployment and inadequate education generate the feelings of paranoia and alienation that characterize the tone and form of most conspiracy theories.

Yet, the Crank is not entirely isolated from others. As Adorno observes, the Crank tends to seek like-minded people who share their warped sense of pseudo-reality. Frequently, they become followers of an agitator who leads a movement or organization on the “lunatic fringe.” Adorno remarks that agitators use ideas of conspiracy to project a vision of the world as a conflict between pure and patriotic Americans and the Elders of Zion (a popular antisemitic conspiracy theory based on the forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion). This is an instance of what Adorno describes as a false “projectivity” that imposes the mental framework of the Crank’s inner world onto outer reality.

Those who sympathize with Ross’ interpretation of AP as a prophetic text could probably list a dozen contemporary examples that match Adorno’s description of the Crank. As Molly Worthen remarks in The New York Times, “Adorno and his colleagues could easily have been describing Alex Jones’ paranoid Infowars rants or the racist views expressed by many Trump supporters.” Yet, I have some doubts about the validity of drawing comparisons between the content of AP and our present political situation in this way.

For example, the ahistorical use of concepts from AP continues to impede research on the nature of conspiracy theories. The sociologist Jaron Harambam comments that the scholarly literature on conspiracy theories is rife with “many versions of the stereotypical depiction of the conspiracy theorist as an obsessive, militant, and fundamental paranoid.” As Peter Knight and Michael Butter observe, Adorno was one of the first scholars to put forward this image of the conspiracy theorist as a paranoid crank. Countless studies, including Daniel Pipes’ 1997 Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From, accept this conception of the conspiracy theorist uncritically. Yet, even Adorno would resist these attempts to reproduce the products of his critical typology as rigid and automatic stereotypes. After all, the subsyndrome of the Crank was a product of the specific economic, social, and cultural conditions of California in the 1940s (where most of the interviews for AP took place).

The point is not to transplant the categories of Adorno’s analysis into the twenty-first century but, rather, to use his methodology of critical typology to identify the sociological conditions and psychological impulses that determine contemporary forms of conspiracy theorizing. For instance, the shift from mass culture to algorithmic culture has transformed the dissemination and reception of information, thereby affecting the transmission and impact of conspiracy theories. Whereas Adorno theorized that the Crank absorbed conspiracy theories unilaterally from prominent agitators (which resonates with his critique of the “culture industry”), Simona Stano’s research shows that contemporary conspiracy narratives are spread by a variety of different actors on a variety of platforms. Under these different conditions, what was once “the Crank” may have splintered into new and distinct psycho-social subsyndromes that require unique analysis. Consequently, those who wish to adapt Adorno’s critical typology for the study of conspiracy theories and the radical right in the twenty-first century should account for these major sociological and cultural changes.

Mr Andrew Woods is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and  a Doctoral candidate at Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario. See his profile here.

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