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Evidence of Tom DeLay's Authoritarianism:
A Question-and-Answer Session with Dr. Bob Altemeyer About DeLay's New Autobiography


Friday, Apr. 06, 2007

Former Republican Majority Leader of Congress Tom DeLay has written a new autobiography entitled No Retreat, No Surrender. It is a brief work, written in collaboration with writer Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of George W. Bush. I've read several unauthorized biographies of DeLay, and observed his conduct for over a decade, so as I began reading his autobiography, it occurred to me to talk with Dr. Bob Altemeyer, a leading expert on the psychology of authoritarianism -- for I believe DeLay is a textbook example of an authoritarian personality.

Altemeyer has conducted extensive research regarding the psychology of authoritarianism, which played a key role in my last book, Conservatives Without Conscience. In response to my plea that he write a book making his academic research more accessible to general readers, Altemeyer has published a new e-book, The Authoritarians, presented without charge online. In the short time it has been available, the work has been already been downloaded by thousands. I encourage readers to download it, too.

Below is a Q&A exchange I recently had with Altemeyer regarding DeLay. I found his responses very enlightening:

QUESTION: Why were you interested in DeLay's autobiography?

ANSWER: Because research in North America indicates that the people who become leaders of right-wing authoritarian movements tend to have strong religious beliefs serving as co-pilots to dominating, aggressive, amoral tendencies. It seems this arrangement would lead to a plane crash. But often these people do quite well in life. You and I both see Tom DeLay as such a leader, and I wanted to study his account of his career.

Q: Can you learn that much from an autobiography, especially in this case when DeLay told Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" that he doesn't agree with parts of it, which he never wrote--nor apparently read?

A: You're right. It's not the way we scientifically figure things out, using experiments and so on. But we can see how many of the research findings actually turn up in a particular person's life. Beyond that, the way a person explains the facts of his life can tell you a lot.

Q: What did you find in the book, then? For example, did you find the typical prejudice that is found in many authoritarians?

A: No. So, let's start with a disconfirmation. Authoritarian leaders are usually very prejudiced against racial minorities, other religions, and so on. There's no evidence of this in DeLay's book, however. In fact he says that, while he morally condemns homosexuality, when the voters have sent a homosexual to the Congress, he works with this person just as he would with anyone else.

Q: How about other authoritarian characteristics?

A: Many. There is forceful, unmistakable evidence that DeLay is incredibly ethnocentric. He divides the world into an in-group (conservatives) and a despised out-group (liberals). He really does hate liberals, and often associates them with communism, going so far as to say. "They are much like communists," and "Like good communists, they..." He also says Clinton's "brand of liberalism had an almost anti-American feel to it." This struck me as Born-Again McCarthyism. His view is so intensely focused on the battle he sees constantly raging between good conservatives and evil liberals that those are apparently the only actors he sees on the political scene. I don't recall him talking about "moderates" once in the whole book.

Q: Authoritarian leaders crave power, and DeLay certainly sought power as a member of Congress. What did you think of his explanation of that?

A: He aggressively pursued power and he argues, quite reasonably, that if you're in Congress you have to attain power to serve your principles. That's what drove him, he says, not some base grab for personal power, such as he thinks existed in former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Armey was "a gifted man, but a man so blinded by ambition as to be useless to the cause." True, DeLay also was ambitious, and he describes how he maneuvered and positioned himself to rise rapidly within the Republican ranks. But only because he wanted to serve his ideals and Jesus, he says. I'm not sure it was all that selfless and noble.

Q: There are many members of Congress who go to Washington and never seek leadership positions. Some leaders gain their position by being loyal followers and they are sought out for their leadership skills. DeLay was a power grabber. Does that come out in his book?

A: Research shows that authoritarian leaders are very hostile folks, and DeLay acknowledges that he is aggressive. "We all have flaws, and my flaw" (note the singular noun) "is that I can sometimes be aggressive, even mean" he wrote. "Even in an all-Republican race I can get so geared up for war that I speak of my allies as enemies." He agrees that his face got flushed and veins stuck out in his neck when he was describing the Clintons. His wife has to remind him that "stupid liberals" isn't one word. He was called "The Hammer" and "The Exterminator" in the House, and not just because he owned a pest control business before entering politics.

Q: What other authoritarian characteristics did DeLay reveal about himself in his book?

A: Quite a number. Here are a few examples. Authoritarian leaders believe strongly in intimidation as a means to power. After DeLay was elected the Republican Whip in the House in 1994, he was asked why Newt Gingrich, who favored another candidate, did not oppose him more forcefully. DeLay replied, "He knew I'd make a terrible enemy." Later, when the Republican Congress locked horns with President Clinton so fiercely over the budget that the government shut down, Gingrich blinked first-to the disgust of DeLay. "I believe that Clinton was essentially spineless and would capitulate under political pressure if we just stuck to our guns." But Gingrich was not tough enough, in DeLay's view, to face down the president.

Research also shows that authoritarian leaders have exploitive, manipulative, amoral approaches to life. They have little commitment to the truth, and say it's really important to know how to lie convincingly. In this light, one can cite many instances in DeLay's book in which he is misleading, not so much in what he says, but in what he does not. Believing him to be a very intelligent person well acquainted with the facts in these cases, I find it hard to believe "the rest of the story" just slipped his mind.

Q: That answer seems to suggest that like many authoritarian leader-type personalities, DeLay may be "truth-challenged?"

A: Well, one can find outright deception in his past. DeLay promoted and signed the election-winning Contract With America in 1994. As he puts it, "We were making a covenant with the American people that guaranteed" ten things. Number 10 on the list was term limits for senators and congressmen. But DeLay helped defeat the bill when it reached the floor. His explanation: the contract was just to bring specific legislation to be voted upon, not to make it law. Some covenant; some guarantee.

Q: Other examples?

A: DeLay writes that he's been investigated by the House Ethics Committee "perhaps half a dozen times." These investigations have occurred because liberals are out to get him, he maintains. He describes one launched by Democratic Congressman Chris Bell, who alleged DeLay had raised money from a Kansas power company by promising a legislative favor in return. What did the Ethics Committee find? DeLay tells his readers that not only did the committee not impose any sanctions on him; it rebuked Bell for using innuendo in his complaint. Sounds like DeLay was totally exonerated and his accuser sent home with his tail between his legs, right?

Q: What, in fact, actually happened?

A: The committee did rebuke Bell, but it still found enough merit in his allegation to consider the case, and it ended up admonishing DeLay. True, admonishment is not as serious a punishment as a sanction, but it's a finding of fault and a fairly stiff one when congressmen are investigating each other. DeLay acknowledges that the Ethics Committee has admonished him "upon occasion." He was in fact admonished four times-perhaps a record for a member of Congress. He says this was largely the work of Joel Hefley, a Republican representative from Colorado who had a grudge against him. But actually all four of the admonishments were unanimously passed by the Ethics Committee, which means all the Republicans agreed DeLay had done something wrong. It's pretty hard to see this as a strictly liberal, or personal, vendetta. But DeLay tells his readers nothing about this.

Q: What does DeLay say about his indictment in Texas, for money laundering, which is still hanging over him?

A: "Let's set the record straight," DeLay says. In 2001, he says, he founded Texans for a Republican Majority, a PAC to support Republican candidates in Texas and elsewhere. In August of 2002 this committee sent $190,000, raised among various Texas corporations, to the Republican National Committee "for use in states where corporate contributions are legal." Corporate contributions are illegal in Texas state elections. "In a completely separate action," DeLay continues, the Republican National Committee sent more than $3 million-raised from individuals in other states-into Republican campaigns in Texas." The district attorney in Austin indicted DeLay and two associates for violating the Texas law. This attorney is a Democrat, DeLay points out, and part of a conspiracy to get him. DeLay's guilt or innocence has not been decided in court. But DeLay did not give his readers a very informed version of the facts. For example, that $190,000 contribution came with a list of suggested donations to various Texas House candidates that totaled $190,000--which the Republican National Committee made a few weeks later to the tune of precisely $190,000.

Q: Is this characteristic of authoritarians, to open themselves up to being easily discredited by what they say? Or something pathological about DeLay?

A: I try hard not to call people pathological. Why has he let himself be so easily discredited in this and the other cases? I think it's because he knows his audience, which will be mainly authoritarian followers, who would never doubt what he says, nor check his stories against other accounts. Studies show that authoritarian leaders can say almost anything, and their followers will believe them.

Q: But isn't DeLay deluding himself too?

A: Authoritarian leaders who have a fundamentalist religious outlook, as Tom DeLay does, show many of the same traits that their followers do, including having highly compartmentalized minds. That means many of their ideas remain largely unconnected, as though they were stored in separate boxes. Beliefs and attitudes and behaviors that contradict each other coexist because they're never "in play" at the same time. This leads authoritarians to inconsistency, self-blindness, double standards, and hypocrisy--as research has uncovered time after time.

Q: Does evidence of hypocrisy appear in DeLay's book?

A: No Retreat, No Surrender packs a lot of compartmentalized thinking in its pages, including hypocrisy. Take DeLay's reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. He wrote, "Even before Clinton's perjury came to light I believed his conduct was so beneath his office that he should resign." DeLay accordingly organized the Republican leadership to demand Clinton's resignation. But DeLay had many adulterous affairs while he held high public office, and he never resigned. He also says he was disgusted by the sordid details of Clinton's behavior that filled the news. Would a description of his many acts of infidelity make wholesome reading? The interesting thing here, beyond the inconsistency, is that DeLay apparently did not realize he was being a hypocrite when he wrote these parts of his book. That's the compartmentalization at work.

Q: You mentioned DeLay's fundamentalist religious beliefs. I know you have studied and written about religious beliefs. Did religious transform DeLay's life?

A: DeLay's path to Jesus will sound familiar to many. He was a successful man with hidden, soul-wrenching problems: a growing alcoholism and lots of adulterous sex. Shortly after he was elected to congress in 1984 a colleague preached the Gospel to him, and eventually he quietly accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. The commitment enabled him to curb his drinking and give up other women. But it did not seem to produce a large scale transformation in his life. Other problems remained: the hatred, the aggression, the meanness, the dominance, the artful deception, the things for which he was admonished by the Ethics Committee. Conversion often leads to some specific changes, but it can bring with it a self-righteousness that necessarily sweeps all the other faults under the rug, and can even contribute to more aggression.

Q: Did you find other examples of compartmentalized thinking in DeLay's book?

A: Yes, just as we can find them in my life, in everybody's life. It's a pretty common feature of human beings. But authoritarians wall up their ideas way more than most people do. So in DeLay's case he says the Republicans lost the 2006 election because of Bush and Iraq. But he ignores the fact that the number one issue on the minds of voters last November, according to the exit polls, was political corruption--with which he was definitely associated. He says it's the liberals who have made Congress a meaner place, but he was once called the "Meanest man in Congress." He also piously writes, "I am slow to pass judgment on any man. I have learned only to pray that God grants mercy to us all." But if he and I met, and he thought I was a liberal, he'd probably immediately dislike me. He says he realized that lobbyists represent issues and people he had sworn to serve. But only some of the people. He forced lobbyist firms to hire Republicans, because he wouldn't talk to any liberals on their staffs. And yes, he raised lots of money from people who believed in his values. And yes, he sometimes let lobbyists write the laws that he pushed through Congress, especially if the laws led to deregulation of industries they represented. He doesn't think there's anything wrong with that. For a final "disconnect," consider the title of the book: No Retreat, No Surrender. The plain fact is DeLay has retreated. He no longer sits in Congress. He resigned his seat. There's actually a bit of pathos in the defiance of his title, isn't there.

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

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