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David Kuo's Book "Tempting Faith": The Author's Agenda, the Authoritarian Behavior He Reports, And the White House's Response


Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

David Kuo, the former deputy-director of the Bush White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, recently published a book, Tempting Faith. The book's most controversial claim is that members of the Bush administration have been privately trashing some of the very Religious Right leaders who helped put them in power.

For example, Kuo told "60 Minutes" that he had heard people in the White House political affairs office, Karl Rove's operation, refer to Pat Robertson as "insane," call Jerry Falwell "ridiculous," and say that James Dobson "had to be controlled."

In this column, I'll consider claims that Kuo must have a hidden political agenda, analyze the implication of the badmouthing of the religious right by Rove's team, and consider the Administration's responses to Kuo.

What Is David Kuo's Hidden Political Agenda -- If He Has One?

First, let's consider the question of what Kuo's hidden agenda, if any, might be.

It's a question that's being asked by countless Republicans who want to know what prompted a former White House insider (in an administration that is highly intolerant of dissent, and adverse to giving outsiders an inside look) to write (and speak out) about the hypocrisy of Bush's political operatives -- especially just before the midterm election? In theory, Kuo, a committed Christian and a Republican, ought to seek to keep the Republicans in Congress, not to torpedo their chances come November.

When CBS News asked Kuo about his motives, he said he had been greatly disappointed with what he saw as the gap, recurring time and again, between what Bush promised his Evangelical Christian supporters and what he actually delivered. This disparity, Kuo said, had "been gnawing at both him and his wife since 2003, when [Kuo] learned he had a malignant brain tumor, and left politics for good."

When asked by "60 Minutes" about whether he anticipated his colleagues would attack him, Kuo responded, "Of course they will. I can hear the attacks, right? 'Oh, he's really a liberal.' or, 'Oh, maybe that brain tumor really messed up his head.' Or, you know, 'He's an idealist.'" Regardless, Kuo says, "I'm fine with it."

There's really no reason, then, to think Kuo has any hidden political agenda. He's admitted his disappointment in the Bush Administration. And he's sought out the best forum possible -- a book where he can set forth the details of how he believes Bush and his aides are politically manipulating Christians -- at the best time, to call attention to his inside knowledge to those who share his beliefs. His agenda seems to be the simple one he claims: To convey to his fellow Christians how much he feels the Bush White House has let them down.

Kuo notes that -- unlike the Bush White House, and the Republican National Committee -- he does not believe that Jesus should be reduced "to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy." But that, however, Kuo says, is exactly the Republicans' belief: "This message that has been sent out to Christians for a long time now: that Jesus came primarily for a political agenda, and recently primarily a right-wing political agenda -- as if this culture war is a war for God. And it's not a war for God, it's a war for politics. And that's a huge difference," says Kuo.

As these revelations by David Kuo were surfacing, I was exchanging emails with Bob Altemeyer, a social scientist who brings four decades of research to bear on understanding the behavior both of the Bush White House, as well as with Evangelicals who are being manipulated by Bush and his aides. Altemeyer was too unique a source to not probe him about these activities.

The Behavior Kuo Has Reported In the White House Is Typical of Authoritarians

Altemeyer is a Yale-trained social psychologist who teaches and pursues his research at the University of Manitoba. Altemeyer has studied authoritarianism for the past 40 years, and is considered by his peers to be a leading authority on the subject, not to mention a cutting-edge researcher in the field.

Those who have read my latest book, Conservatives Without Conscience, will be familiar with his work, and the fact that I have been encouraging him to write about his research for the general reader. (I also discussed the theory of authoritarian leadership, in conjunction with the Bush Administration, in a prior column.) Happily, Altemeyer has recently completed a book-length work, The Authoritarians, which provides a non-technical account of his findings, suitable for the general reader.

Based on my exchanges with Altemeyer, I have assembled the following Q & A:

Q: The Bush White House gave religious leaders smiles and hugs up front, but then called them "nuts," "ridiculous," "goofy," "out of control," and so on behind their backs. Does this surprise you?

A: No, not at all. In fact, I wrote about just such behavior in my manuscript for The Authoritarians. So it must be true.

Q: You predicted this very thing would happen?

A: Well, no. But one can reasonably predict that Bush Administration officials will have a low opinion of the people they so successfully manipulated into supporting them. Adolf Hitler -- a worst-case but textbook example -- showed the disdain of all authoritarian leaders for their supporters when he said, "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think."

Q: You're not saying the Bush administration is full of Nazis, so I am not sure I get the point?

A: I'm saying, as you have discovered, that it has a lot of people with authoritarian personalities. Let me explain for your readers, or those who have not read your new book. There are two kinds of authoritarians, whom researchers can identify by their answers to certain personality tests. There are people who become leaders in authoritarian movements, and there are their followers. The leaders have stronger drives for personal power and they are also pretty amoral. Compared with most folks, they admit, when answering surveys anonymously, that manipulating others, exploiting the gullible, intimidating, cheating, and being a hypocrite are all justified if they get you what you want. They say one of the best skills a person can develop is the ability to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly. They say the world is full of suckers who deserve to be "taken" because they are so stupid. All in all it sounds like the game plan for how Bush won Ohio in the last election.

Q: Democrats, of course, do these things too. Republicans don't have a monopoly on lying, cheating, and playing people for suckers.

A: Good point. No, they certainly don't. These power-hungry dominators will join anything and say they believe in anything to get what they want. But studies find that conservative politicians are much more likely to have this kind of personality than liberals are. Why? Because they usually have conservative economic and political beliefs. But more importantly, they head for the right because that's where the great majority of
authoritarian followers are concentrated, looking for a leader.

Q: Why on the right?

A: The followers have a great desire to submit to established authority. They're also highly conventional, and they have a lot of aggression in them, which studies show comes primarily from being fearful. One of the classic reactions to fear is to fight, and the followers will attack when their authorities tell them to. They love to feel part of a "great movement" in solidarity with others on the move. They are very zealous. They usually are also highly religious, in a fundamentalist sense at least, and studies show they lead the league in self-righteousness. As we have discussed in the past, while there may be such people on the left, they are pretty rare compared with the number we find on the right.

Q: Why do these authoritarians follow amoral, hypocritical, deceitful liars?

A: Because of one of their great vulnerabilities, which the manipulative dominators exploit. Authoritarian followers have basically copied the ideas of the authorities in their lives. They haven't thought about things to any great degree and then decided what they believe in. To maintain their beliefs in a world of challenging discoveries and conflicting beliefs, they associate as much as possible with others who agree with them. They travel in small circles, getting booster shots of faith from one another. They rely upon social support, rather than evidence or logic, to keep on believing what in many cases they've simply memorized. But this makes them quite vulnerable to manipulators who tell them what they want to hear. Experiments show that they're so glad to find another person who will tell them that they are right, that they don't consider that the newcomer might have ulterior motives. All you have to do to get into their "in-group" is tell them they are right, even if you don't believe a word of it. Since the in-group is made up of followers clinging to each other and looking for a leader, it's pretty easy for an unscrupulous person to take over-- provided he can outmaneuver the other dominators trying the same thing.

Q: So the followers are "suckers" -- so to speak?

A: Well, faith-healers and various enterprising evangelists have been playing them for suckers for a long time. Lately political strategists have seen how rich the takings are, and jumped in. They mobilized the Religious Right, which has become the most potent force in American politics. Its rank and file is very organized, very energetic, very devoted, and earnestly does what it is told by its authoritarian leaders.

Q: You're saying then that, ironically, if the Religious Right has its way, the White House and Congress will be filled with amoral people.

A: Yes, I am, although of course there would be exceptions. And I'd say the proof is already right in front of us. When did we ever have a president who insisted on having the "right" to torture people, or a Congress that voted for it? How often have we had an administration deciding it could suspend habeas corpus and other constitutional guarantees, and Congress going along? And you can see this amorality on the individual level. Look at the members of the House of Representatives who have been convicted of crimes lately. Or look at the list of the 20 most corrupt members of the House compiled by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. Every one of these lawmakers got high marks for his voting record from the James Dobson/Tony Perkins Family Research Council. That's not a coincidence. There's this remarkable, actually weird but understandable, connection between being corrupt and being elected by the Religious Right. The crooks head for the Religious Right. The gullible rank and file don't realize this. But they send far more than their fair share of bribe-taking, influence peddling, money laundering, lying scoundrels to executive mansions and legislatures election after election."

Q: Do you think that may change?

A: Maybe it will. Maybe books such as Mr. Kuo's will turn on the lights. But who comprises the bulk of that third of the American population who still think President Bush is doing a good job? We know from studies that authoritarian followers are incredibly dogmatic and quite capable of ignoring facts they don't like. So maybe someone can fool some of the people all of the time.

Reactions of the Authoritarians In the Bush White House To Kuo's Disclosures

Q: Based on our prior discussions, and your extensive research, I have a multi-part question: the Religious Right, and the various evangelical movements, are highly authoritarian. So (1) how are they likely to respond to being called nuts, insane, etc. by people in the White House they were working to help? And (2) what will they do to David Kuo -- thank him, or join the White House effort to discredit him?

A: Most authoritarian followers are not likely to find out that people in the White House talk about their religious leaders this way, unless the particular leaders make a big deal out of it. They're not likely to read Kuo's book, nor follow the news relating to his revelations. If they saw the segment on "60 Minutes," they might be troubled; but when followers get troubled, they don't typically investigate further, but instead look for reassurance from their authorities. It comes from being a follower.

The answer to the second question follows pretty directly. They're not going to thank David Kuo for his revelations, if they do hear about them. These are unpleasant revelations, and besides, Kuo has broken one of the basic norms of an authoritarian movement: group solidarity. As well, authoritarian followers are highly ethnocentric, and they would handle Kuo the same way they handled Tom DeLay, "Duke" Cunningham, Bob Ney, Thomas Foley, and so on. They will simply chip them off from their in-group: "They weren't really Us." If that seems impossible to you, remember that authoritarian followers are still likely to believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and helped organize the 9/11 attacks.

Q: Finally, explain why your answers are not your opinions, but rather conclusions you draw from empirical research?

A: It's probably more accurate to say my answers are based on scientific studies that dealt with these issues in general. But yes, I and others have conducted many, many surveys and run lots of experiments to see how authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers think and act in various situations. There really is a lot of agreement in all these studies, and they lead to some scary insights. What is coming to light in books such as Mr. Kuo's, and Mr. Woodward's State of Denial, and especially in your book, Conservatives Without Conscience, is a documentation of how relevant and "on the mark" these studies are. If the Democrats take control of the House after November, we're probably going to have a lot more confirmations from the investigations that will be undertaken.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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