Authoritarianism and The Strict Father Metaphor

By Stephen Cataldo, 7 March, 2016

Two article-variants (here and here) I'm working on. Feedback welcome. Should they be combined? Any points really catch your attention? Have metaphors to add to my lists?


In Why Trump, George Lakoff divides the Republican party into White Evangelicals, Pragmatic Conservatives, and Laissez-faire free-market proponents. All three flavors of conservatism think about government using a strict father metaphor.

Trump is oozing across these traditional Republican boundaries. In each demographic, he is pulling people who feel angry and want a strong man to make things right. If the best conservative "strict fathers" challenge their constituents and demand discipline -- "keep calm and carry on" -- then Trump is something else. He is ripping apart the Republican Party, at the metaphor level as well as electorally. He doesn't tell you it is your duty to serve your country. Trump doesn't use discipline as a growth tool -- "you're fired" -- he only punishes. If you follow him you won't face challenges, he will provide the solution. He doesn't claim to be strict, only strong. Lakoff says that liberals tend to think about government using a nurturing parent metaphor. If Trump wins the primary, he will likely seek out those who want a soft government that nurtures and provides for them personally, who feel betrayed by their government.

Trump's rise is not explained with strict father vs nurturing parent metaphors, but by responsibility vs taking. This election cycle, liberals who want the government to help other people and conservatives who want a model of personal responsibility are both up against the politics of anger.

Lakoff argues that repetition of the strict father metaphor reinforces conservative pathways, and using nurturing parent stories over and over will pull moderates towards the left. What are the metaphors and stories that pull along the axis between responsibility and strong-man politics? Here is my start, I would love to hear more metaphors in the comments:

Parents who spoil their kids or challenge them. The tough teacher who helps you learn vs the lazy teacher who gives easy 'A's. Duty, responsibility, challenge. For liberals, it means listening rather than shouting. For conservatives, the difference between an army or a mob.

Visually I picture healthy politicians facing their constituents, challenging them. Trump has his back to us, and is asking us to be the mob behind him. We don't have to do anything, just follow him.

If conversations about nurturing reinforce liberal pathways, then to deflate Trump we need movies and conversations about responsibility and empowerment. It might help might to talk about World War II and the draft, and how people stepped up. Many conservatives have read "Dare to Discipline" and believe in something close to Lakoff's strict father metaphor of discipline and structure. But much of Trump's support is derived from raw anger and a sense of failure; his base will not admit to the emotions driving them. Politicians who shout back might resist Trump for a debate, but it is a losing game, he will outshout anyone. To take on Trumps politics, we need politicians who are true to their word, whatever it is, and come across as honest and willing to work with other honest politicians. If the Democrats and Republicans each had a candidate who knew how to cross lines, Trump would probably evaporate; the longer we are locked in combat the deeper the anger will run. Conservatives should realize that what they hate most about liberalism is at the core of Trump: refusing to take responsibility for yourself. From the liberal toolkit, I think the key is active listening and other efforts to help Trump supporters feel heard and connected to their community. We're not struggling over issues, but isolation and anger. Reduce the isolation and Trump will evaporate.