A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
They are blinded by their own self-righteousness. And this explains their over-the-top aggressive rages. They have very little capability of being self-critical or self-analytical in any fashion. They are zealous and aggressive in pursuing the policies of the authorities to which they’ve committed, whether it be religious or political, or the compilation of the two.
John Dean's latest provocative and keenly insightful book is Conservatives Without Conscience. In it, he cuts to the chase about how authoritarianism is at the heart of the Bush Administration, not just political partisanship. A drive for absolute power is at the heart of the matter -- and the American public gets distracted from this basic truth at our peril. Authoritarian personalities and policies are at odds with the very basics of democracy.
John Dean provides such valuable contributions to understanding how the Bush Administration violates the rule of law, dismantles the Constitution, and seeks dictatorial powers that Dean was honored as the BuzzFlash "Wings of Justice Award" winner. He well deserves it.
We were pleased to once again interview him.
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BuzzFlash: Given your expertise on Constitutional law and that you have written for Findlaw and covered the Bush Administration, before we begin talking about your book, Conservatives Without Conscience, I'd like you to comment on a legal question. The subheadline for a recent story in the Washington Post states: “The White House is seeking legislation that would allow people not affiliated with terrorism to be prosecuted in military commissions with far fewer rights than afforded civilians.” Reading a little bit further: “Under the proposed procedures, defendants would lack rights to confront accusers, exclude hearsay accusations or bar evidence obtained through rough or coercive interrogations. They would not be guaranteed a public or speedy trial, and would lack the right to choose their military counsel, who, in turn, would not be guaranteed equal access to evidence held by prosecutors.” This was in reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case. What we’re seeing is that the White House is coming back with even more Draconian measures that would impact, not just alleged terrorists, but also people who are not terrorists -- however that might be defined. What’s your reaction to this White House proposal?
John Dean: I’ve not read the Gonzales testimony yet. I plan to. But based on what I’ve read in the newspapers, I really doubt the Senate or the House will buy into this new proposal, which really tries to legislatively reverse Hamdan. I’m frankly appalled at their suggestion. I think it’s reminiscent of my former colleagues, Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Mitchell, who had taken the hard line "we don’t want criminals to have any rights" position, until they suddenly found themselves on the other side of the equation. Suddenly they were exercising every single ploy they could to try to protect themselves. It’s fairly short-sighted of these people, who could find themselves on the other side, the way they’re proceeding.
BuzzFlash: As you say, we haven’t seen the legislation. It's still in draft form
John Dean: I did read that Gonzales said they were still discussing it within the administration.
BuzzFlash: It may be a trial balloon, but what would prevent them crossing the line into applying this even to political prisoners? What if the Administration decides they have to trump up charges against someone because they are in some way in opposition to implementing Administration policy? It’s troubling enough in the Hamdan case -- the Supreme Court said this doesn’t even apply to alleged terrorists. But the Administration is trying to open this up to non-alleged-terrorists.
John Dean: Well, if it’s part of the code of military tribunals, as they call this new proposal, I assume there are to be some jurisdictional boundaries on it -- that it’s not going to reach out and get American citizens, for example. But, still, to set a standard for everybody other than Americans less than what we have held forth in this country is certainly not going to do us any good around the world.
BuzzFlash: But we did have in the Padilla case the up-to-then unlawful detention of an American without due process.
John Dean: No question. And they are pushing the envelope every chance they get by charging somebody with being a purported terrorist. But, again, just knowing what I’ve read in the newspaper -- I can’t believe they would try to replace the existing criminal justice system through some sort of back-door military commission. There have got to be some jurisdictional requirements on this.
BuzzFlash: I might add, the Post also reports that the military lawyers opposed this proposal.
John Dean: It would not surprise me. Senators McCain and Graham certainly understand that what we defend comes back and affects our soldiers. That’s the part I don’t understand -- how the Rumsfelds and the others who are setting these policies are really doing so and placing American troops in jeopardy. It is really quite incredible.
BuzzFlash: Now this leads into your book, Conservatives Without Conscience, which opens with a reference to Barry Goldwater. The word "authoritarianism" is a very key word in your book. Certainly this proposed legislation is another example of a whole series of initiatives that the Bush Administration has made to encroach upon authorities vested in the courts, and to transfer that power to the Executive Branch.
John Dean: No question that these proposals are just prototypes of authoritarian thinking, where the Executive dominates the process and really eliminates any due process. It’s striking as an example of what I’m talking about in Conservatives Without Conscience. It really is exactly the kind of mentality that I try to set forward in there and explain, because it is such a frightening mentality.
BuzzFlash: Tell us a little about that mentality. You know a bit about Dick Cheney, to say the least. Many consider him the man behind the throne. What is it in this way of thinking, which clearly was part of your experience and tenure in the Nixon White House, that these people feel they are empowered and skilled enough that individual rights should be sacrificed so that they can lead the country? Why should we all trust just in their judgment as authoritarian leaders, and not question it? To even question it, the Bush Administration and their supporters have said, is treasonous -- to question their ability to lead us.
John Dean: This is typical authoritarian arrogance. There’s no question that this is very typical of the authoritarian personality -- and there are two faces of that personality. The followers, who tolerate this kind of behavior, make up one group, and the second group is the leaders, who are by far the smaller number, who dominate and are totally amoral in their behavior.
Now, understand where I get this information. It’s something that academics and social scientists have been well aware of, but have never really talked to the public about. It comes from empirical evidence and years of testing these types of personalities using questionnaires that have been refined and honed and statistically verified. Unfortunately this body of information about authoritarianism really has never been translated for the lay reader or the general public. I thought it was time that this information get out to the public, because it is so explanatory of what we’re seeing right now in this Bush Administration, as well as in the core of the conservative movement. I don’t describe this behavior as evil, and I don’t try to use these labels as pejoratives, but rather as being descriptive of what’s going on.
BuzzFlash: In an appendix you include a right-wing authoritarian survey. Can you talk a little bit about that?
John Dean: Let me back up just a little bit and explain how this all came about. In post-World War II, a group of social scientists were very concerned or very interested to find out if what had happened in Italy and Germany under Mussolini and Hitler could occur in the United States. They initially undertook their work with a little bit of empirical study, but mostly relying on Freudian psychology. And they did conclude that there is clearly an authoritarian personality. They issued their report in a book by Adorno and others that was called The Authoritarian Personality.
This research has really never been totally refuted. But other social scientists were critical of it because of its Freudian basis. So they quickly began studying to see if this personality type held up based on pure empirical study, by which I mean anonymously asking people questions that would reveal their personality types, their attitudes, their dispositions, and what have you. The work on authoritarian followers showed a personality that is easily submissive to authority, be it political, religious or even parental. They submit quickly, and once they do, they become very aggressive in pushing that world view of that authority. They become submissive because they find great comfort psychologically in submitting. It helps them remove the ambiguities of life. And if they’re frightened by events, then this gives them a sense of security. And they’re typically very conventional in their lifestyle.
There are also, however, a lot of very negative traits which I’ve outlined in the book. They are very self-righteous. They are not self-critical. They have very little critical thinking about their own behavior. They are often nasty and mean-spirited. They are bullies. They are prejudiced. And the higher they test on these questionnaires and scales, the more conservative they are. You don’t find people on the left testing the same way. It’s very interesting. You cannot get even statistically significant numbers of people on the left that fall in this category of followers.
On the other side are the leaders. They are typically men whose desire in life is to dominate others and to be in charge. They are very aggressive when they do so. They are highly manipulative. They are also people who have absolutely no appreciation of equality of others. They see themselves as superior, and they are amoral in their thinking. They, too, have a host of other negative traits that are in many regards similar to the followers. It’s not a very pleasant personality type, but it is certainly there. And it has certainly been established scientifically and corroborated and confirmed, time and time again. And this is clearly the core of the conservative movement.
BuzzFlash: We'll return to our discussion of this type of personality embodying authoritarianism. But first let's take a closer look at the title of your book, Conservatives Without Conscience. You use the word "conservative." In the book, you are careful to distinguish between a modern, self-described conservative, which we would call radical right-winger, versus an old-time conservative like Barry Goldwater, or perhaps even going back further to the early part of the century, to conservatives in the Republican party like William Howard Taft. Do you want to draw on those distinctions a little?
John Dean: I have talked to many conservatives over a protracted period of time, asking them the basis of their thinking, where did they draw from, what defined them, what did they think conservatism was. I found remarkable ignorance by most I spoke with. They really are more likely to spout policy -- to say, "Well, I’m against abortion. Therefore, I’m a conservative." Well, that particular policy has really no relationship with traditional conservatism at all. So I thought it important to quickly, and engagingly, track conservatism from its roots to its present status, pausing along the way to note things like Goldwater conservatism.
To this day, I feel myself to be in many areas a Goldwater conservative. But I put an “R-I-P” behind that, because it is dead. Then I try to explain how conservatism has evolved, with a core of the movement being picked up by the social conservatives and the neo-conservatives, which are both highly authoritarian in their nature. They have really captured and controlled the conservative movement and the Republican party. So I have seen conservatism evolve during my association with it, and not for the better. And I have changed my views in the last forty years, and find myself well left of center today on most all issues.
Let me just pause to say that, ironically, some of the leading neo-conservative figures may or may not be authoritarian personalities, although they push clearly authoritarian policies. The social scientist who guided me through this indicated you can have a non-authoritarian pushing an authoritarian policy. But as to the followers, having that authoritarian follower disposition is essential.
BuzzFlash: If we look back at the '64 presidential campaign, certainly Goldwater was someone who was not dear to progressives' or liberals' hearts.
John Dean: I think that when people look back on the ’64 campaign, especially today, they realize how effective Lyndon Johnson was in portraying Goldwater as somebody he wasn’t. In fact, Goldwater said during that campaign, "I wouldn’t vote for the man who is being portrayed as myself." He was not a racist. He was not anti-civil rights. He was not a crazed war monger. In fact, Lyndon Johnson later adopted even more aggressive policies in Vietnam than Goldwater would have ever considered. And his vote on the ’64 Civil Rights Act has been grossly distorted.
C.C. Goldwater, his granddaughter, recently completed a documentary for HBO which will be aired in September. She has some great old footage and some great old material. At one point in the ’64 campaign, the Senator said, “People will look back on this campaign in years that follow, and they’re going to call me a liberal.” And I think that’s true.
BuzzFlash: The Democrats defined Goldwater in terms of the Cold War. There was a famous commercial by Lyndon Johnson's campaign showing a girl with a daisy, and a nuclear bomb going off -- so Goldwater was portrayed as trigger-happy against the Soviet Union at the time. But Goldwater was a true conservative, and someone who believed in upholding the Constitution, in individual rights, in the old-time conservatism of keeping the government out of your bedroom, out of your religion, and out of your morality.
John Dean: He told me repeatedly that what he saw as conservatism was drawing from the best of the past, and certainly not from the worst. When Lyndon Johnson did run those highly negative campaign tactics against him, he refused to go negative himself. Although he had negative campaigns against him in several of his races, he never went negative.
BuzzFlash: Also, in his later years, he became a proponent of allowing gays their own rights, and not discriminating against them.
John Dean: A couple of the obituaries when he passed away claimed that his second wife had influenced him on issues like abortion -- but that is absolutely not true. I’ve gone through his correspondence. Even before Roe v. Wade, he was saying that a woman should have a choice. No government should ever tell a woman what she can do with her body. So a lot of this gets confused. I think there’s a purity to his conservatism that is so nuanced and so, in a sense, very difficult to separate from liberalism. In other words, he’s a classic liberal.
BuzzFlash: Well, we’ve gone full circle to the point that sites like BuzzFlash are adamantly pro-democracy, adamantly pro-Constitution, adamantly pro- supporting our military and our troops, adamantly pro-security and effectively protecting our country. The right wing, which calls itself conservative, seems to either be against those things.
John Dean: I agree. In the book, I call them exactly what first the foreign press called them, and the mainstream press is recognizing slowly -- that they’re radicals. They’re truly right-wing radicals.
BuzzFlash: Let's get back to the authoritarian prototype that the survey and others have revealed. If we put aside political ideology for a moment, could it be said that those who are authoritarians and seek absolute power are more similar in their ways, regardless of the system of government they’re supporting? To give a concrete example, is there similarity in the authoritarian personality of a Pinochet, a Castro, a Franco, a Dick Cheney, a Stalin, superceding whatever ideology they’re imposing upon their country?
John Dean: No question. When the social scientists have taken their surveys and applied them in communist countries -- when you test people in these contexts, what we would consider left is, in fact, in those countries, very right, because that’s the existing established authority, if you will. And the authoritarians there will seek to preserve that communist regime and keep it in power. So it sounds like a mirror image, if you will, on left and right, when you go to these countries and apply these tests. It’s showing the personality goes for this dominating type of government structure. There is no question every government has an authoritarian element to it. But it’s the extremes or how far you go in that authoritarian government that is the issue.
BuzzFlash: What do you mean -- quoting from page 59 in your book -- by the "double high" authoritarians?
John Dean: That’s the most troubling personality. One very unique type that has emerged is people who test high as both followers and leaders. Those who are testing high as dominators sometimes test high as followers, because they see themselves running the world. They respond to the follower questions as if they were in charge, or how they would want to have the world react to them being in charge. These are the ones that are among the "double highs." And these people can be very dangerous. For example, a Hitler would test as a double high. We don’t have any Hitlers, thank God, but we do have a lot of double highs. In the book, I certainly point to several examples of this type of personality. It ranges from a Dick Cheney, to a Newt Gingrich, to a Tom DeLay, to a Jack Abramoff. I’ve taken both their actions and their own words to show how they fit within the criteria of the double high. It’s the most aggressive and the most troublesome of these personalities.
BuzzFlash: One final question about Tom DeLay -- now a little bit out of the picture, but who knows? He may have his day of rehabilitation.
John Dean: He may have to stand in the election in Texas.
BuzzFlash: We saw a documentary about him, put out by Robert Greenwald’s studios. One of the interesting things about him over the years is that Tom DeLay has claimed that he’s on a mission from God, and has given some over-the-top speeches that he is divinely inspired. He is doing God’s work and restoring moral authority to earth. He gave some tremendously "divinely inspired" speeches during the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, and always has viewed and portrayed himself as a religious man. He attends church at one of the megachurches. And yet, side by side, we saw this driven, merciless, hateful, spiteful, cut-you-off-at-the-knees personality. I recall one of his aides said basically that our philosophy in Tom DeLay’s office is you don’t just beat the guy and have him down to the ground. You then put him in a rug, roll up the rug, and throw him over the cliff. Within a personality that’s authoritarian, how can these two sides exist -- that someone like Tom DeLay believes he’s carrying out the will of God to restore moral order to the earth, yet act so evil?
John Dean: This is a very typical authoritarian personality. They are blinded by their own self-righteousness. And this explains their over-the-top aggressive rages. They have very little capability of being self-critical or self-analytical in any fashion. They are zealous and aggressive in pursuing the policies of the authorities to which they’ve committed, whether it be religious or political, or the compilation of the two. And that’s why I used DeLay as a perfect example of a double high personality.
Often these people adopt religion. I’m not questioning anybody’s belief, but I’m just saying it’s a very typical pattern of the double high to adopt religion for manipulative purposes. It is also, I learned, of a very interesting phenomena that these authoritarian personalities who are highly religious employ, and it’s called cheap grace. Once they accept Jesus, or once they go to confession, if they’re highly conservative Catholics, for example, they can absolve themselves of their behavior by their religious cleansing, if you will. This probably eases any moral qualms they may or may not have. It’s a very troubling phenomena, because, as I say, they can do wrong and then forgive themselves by adopting some of the tenets of their belief system, and go on and do it again. It’s quite remarkable.
BuzzFlash: Well, thank you very much, John Dean. Wonderful book. We highly recommend it -- Conservatives Without Conscience. You’re a lucid, insightful writer.
John Dean: Thank you.
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Conservatives Without Conscience (AUTOGRAPHED, hardcover) by John Dean, a BuzzFlash premium.
John Dean - bio and columns, Findlaw.com
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW