Revisiting the Authoritarian Personality: Pseudoconservatism and QAnon

In his latest piece on Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality, CARR Doctoral Fellow, Andrew Woods, unpacks Adorno’s definition of pseudoconservatism and determines whether we can use this concept to understand those who follow QAnon.


 The authors of the famous 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality (AP)—Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford—hypothesize that it is possible to measure someone’s susceptibility to fascism and thus identify the psychological wants and needs that give rise to the “potentially fascist individual.” As Peter E. Gordon remarks in his introduction to the new edition of AP, this potential “must be grasped dialectically, as both a reflection of objective political conditions and yet also in some sense anterior to politics.” Adorno’s concept of pseudoconservatism is an ideal example of this dialectical approach, because it demonstrates how the general cultural climate shapes the underlying psychological impulses that become rationalized into the overt ideology of the radical right.

Although some scholars criticize Adorno’s social-psychological approach to the radical right, it is undeniable that this concept of pseudoconservatism has been enormously influential. In his 1965 essay collection The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, the historian Richard Hofstadter borrowed this idea to explain the appeal of McCarthyism and the support for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. In their 2013 book Change They Can’t Believe in: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America, the political scientists Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto draw on Adorno and Hofstadter’s studies to classify the Tea Party as a pseudoconservative movement. In this piece, I unpack Adorno’s definition of pseudoconservatism and determine whether we can use this concept to understand what has been described recently as the “collective delusion” of QAnon.

The ‘collective delusion’ of QAnon

According to Adorno, pseudoconservatism corresponds to a certain psychological structure that exhibits “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness on an ego level” and contains “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness” in the unconscious sphere. As the pseudoconservative struggles to reconcile the need for conformity with his drive for destruction, he seeks a “surface ideology” that will express his violent tendencies in an indirect and modified way. Consequently, the ideology of the pseudoconservative represents a volatile identification with an “externalized superego” that regulates acceptable outbursts of aggression. How can we use Adorno’s definition of the pseudoconservative to understand the psychological appeal of QAnon?

Those who believe in QAnon appear to identify with a mythologized notion of a higher social group (“Q”) that permits violent fantasies about the destruction of American democracy. The QAnon conspiracy theory holds that top military officials, known as “Q,” recruited Donald Trump to save America from a “Deep State” or “Cabal” of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Members of the QAnon community predict that Trump and the military will arrest the ringleaders of the Cabal and send them to Guantanamo Bay in a dramatic turn of events called “The Storm.” They believe that progressive politicians, journalists, and celebrities must be forcibly removed from positions of power and influence to restore harmony to the nation. This is an instance of what Adorno calls the “usurpation complex,” where the pseudoconservative feels that it is necessary to abolish democratic norms to rescue American democracy from the “wrong people” or “the usurpers.”

Although the central claims of this theory may seem irrational and unrealistic, they function to rationalize a psychological response to current political realities. Followers of QAnon appear to suffer from feelings of frustration, anger, and alienation as they struggle to understand the causes of the multiple crises that afflict American life. The ideology of QAnon rationalizes these feelings into an overt demand for unity, harmony, and rebirth. Yet, Adorno describes these promises of national unity as a “cloak for repressive and ultimately destructive wishes.” As QAnon supporters believe that the Cabal is behind all protest movements against gender inequality and police brutality, it seems that their notion of national harmony entails the violent suppression of the democratic right to protest and dissent.

Although the QAnon community may believe that The Storm will rescue and revitalize American democracy, they appear to be calling for nothing less than the establishment of a theocratic military dictatorship where Trump can punish and imprison anyone who opposes his regime. In this sense, the average QAnon supporter bears a disquieting resemblance to Adorno’s portrayal of the American pseudoconservative: “a [person] who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Current strategies of removing QAnon-related accounts from social media platform have been unsuccessful in limiting the spread of this conspiracy theory. What we need is a strategy for dissuading potential followers from succumbing to the ideology of QAnon. Instead of dismissing QAnon supporters as “bizarre,” it is necessary to identify the underlying causes of their anxiety and anger. Even Adorno recognized that loss of socioeconomic status contributed to someone’s susceptibility to pseudoconservative ideology. For instance, various QAnon videos blame the Cabal for the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the opioid crisis, unemployment, poverty, and income inequality. Many QAnon-susceptible pseudoconservatives may be members of a frustrated middle-class who are seeking an ideology or rationalization that grants them a sense of control over their lives and the life of their nation.

Perhaps the first step in countering QAnon is to acknowledge the need for political and economic reforms to address the various crises that lead some people to embrace this conspiracy theory. In the meantime, we should demonstrate to potential QAnon supporters that The Storm, which is nothing less than an apocalyptic coup d’état, would significantly exacerbate these crises. As Adorno recommends, our “strongest hope for effectively countering this whole type of propaganda lies in pointing out its self-destructive implications.” He trusts that people will start to recoil from their investment in a pseudoconservative ideology once they become aware that it goes against their basic interests. Although this is more of a long-term strategy that may not yield immediate results, it will—as the co-authors of AP recommend in their conclusion—encourage people to develop an understanding of themselves, their social situation, and their political reality.

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

© Andrew Woods. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).