When the Simpsons’ television was out of commission, singing together seemed like an excellent substitute—that is, until Lisa brought them up short by asking if the family knew any songs that weren’t commercials. For the past four years, Donald Trump has done for our social intercourse what advertising jingles did for the Simpsons. He gave us something to talk about.
During that period, even respectable intellectual fare was often spiced up with a hefty side order of Trump. I have in my hand an informative and insightful essay by the intellectual historian Peter E. Gordon on The Authoritarian Personality, a famous social science project conducted after World War II, in which Theodor Adorno valiantly attempted to correlate psychological measurements with political attitudes. Gordon examines the dissonance between the narrowly empirical, results-oriented goals of the project and Adorno’s more global, ideological displeasure with American culture. In commenting on Adorno’s 1950 essay on Freud and fascist propaganda, Gordon calls attention to intriguing remarks about why many people love a leader precisely because the leader makes no show of loving them. He signals the applicability of these remarks to Trumpism. Gordon’s title is “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump.” The same is true of Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein and featuring an all-star cast of authors. For the most part, they reassure us that traditional coups d’état are unlikely here, given American division of power, the size and localization of the American polity, and other factors. This fine effort, too, comes with obligatory references to our controversial then-president. A few years down the line, will the diligent topicality make these sober discussions appear dated? They feel a bit dated right now.