Matthew C. MacWilliams

Jan 29, 2024

On Authoritarianism

A Discussion with Author and Political Scientist Matthew C. MacWilliams

New Books Network 2020

Nearly half of Americans “are inconsistent supporters of democracy and democratic institutions,” Matthew C. MacWilliams writes at the start of his book, On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History (St. Martin’s Griffen, 2020). In the podcast, we explore MacWilliams’ thesis that “authoritarian attitudes,” typically formed in childhood, explain the ascendance of illiberal politics in the United States as well as Europe. Such attitudes, he posits, are formed prior to political dispositions that favor nativist and populist policies. We discuss his new survey research on this topic, which finds that “younger Americans are much less likely to support democracy consistently than older Americans.” 

The conversation then turns to Donald J. Trump, as a figure who has proved adept in the tapping into of authoritarian sentiments. Yet as MacWilliams reminds in his timely book, the authoritarian urge is a recurrent strain in American history, as seen in episodes like the fervent embrace of Father Coughlin’s “hate radio” show during the Great Depression. The civic challenge, as ever, is to abate the “violent passions” that James Madison, at the start of the American experiment, identified as a primal threat to a republic.

Veteran journalist Paul Starobin is a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week and a former contributing editor of The Atlantic. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. His latest book, Putin’s Exiles: Their Fight for a Better Russia (Columbia Global Reports) will be published in January.

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Paul Starobin

Veteran journalist Paul Starobin is a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week and a former contributing editor of The Atlantic. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. His latest book, Putin’s Exiles: Their Fight for a Better Russia (Columbia Global Reports) will be published in January.

Learn More