We can’t fight authoritarianism without understanding populism’s allure

Populists across the globe have had a rough couple of years.

Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom are no longer in power. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines respected his country’s constitutional term limit and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador is stepping down at the end of his presidency too.

Even Canada’s Pierre Poilievre chastised his MPs for meeting with a German far-right politician.

But is populism over? Hardly.

Populist politicians of the most recent wave were lucky. Their rule was based on oversized personalities with lots of charisma.

Read more:
Why populism has an enduring and ominous appeal

The leaders of the current phase, however, are smarter and their Machiavellian ambitions grander. In the U.S., a dozen or more newly elected congressional ultra-rightists are angling to replace Trump at the head of the Republican Party at the first opportunity.

Protesters stand in front of Trump Tower in New York in August 2022 demanding his indictment for various alleged misdeeds.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Populism 2.0

The focused populism of 2023 is light years away from the unexpected successes of 2016. The newest class of right-wing populists aims not only to dismantle the guardrails of democracy, but also the most fundamental principles of the rule of law.

This attack is happening in many countries. Populists are moving fast and using targeted strategies to subordinate the legal order to authoritarian rule.

The attack on judicial independence in Israel, the violent occupation of the Supreme Court and Houses of Parliament in Brazil, the arrest and intimidation of journalists in India and the imprisonment of thousands of Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine all happened in the past year.

Recent surveys have shown that citizens in democracies around the world increasingly believe that both government and the media are “divisive forces in society.”

Policy experts don’t yet know if populism is a cause or a symptom of polarization. Regardless, trust in the democratic process is eroding.

A row of women dressed in red robes and white bonnets stand in a row in front of skyscrapers at dusk.
Israeli women’s rights activists in Tel Aviv dressed as characters in the popular television series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the judicial system.
(AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The ‘fascistic individual’

In his 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, German sociologist Theodor Adorno argues there’s an inherent desire for dominance deep in the human psyche. Adorno was ahead of his time in exploring the psychology of the “potentially fascistic individual” lying dormant within us.

More than 70 years later, social scientists still haven’t explained the magnetism of the abyss — a term describing some people’s willingness to embrace reckless policies regardless of the explosive consequences for their societies.

To come to terms with this capacity for delusion, contemporary psychologists have returned to the idea that there are certain ways of thinking that create a warped world view.

Research into Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, the so-called Dark Triad of anti-social personality traits, draws upon Adorno’s important insights. Social scientists are now identifying the link between a vindictive world view and political extremism, online abuse and hate speech.

The masks of command

Each authoritarian leader is different, bound only by their anti-liberalism, Dark Triad traits and their celebration as the ringleader of a populist circus.

In our recent book, Has Populism Won?, we show how charismatic leaders encourage a form of totalitarianism in which blind allegiance creates a feeling of partisan belonging. To carry it off, leaders wear what we call “masks of command” to rally their followers.

In our assessment, leaders who spin webs of lies wear the mask of “conspirator-in-chief.” The conspirator uses favours, relationships and money to destabilize institutions and erode the norms that stand in the way of autocracy.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu relies upon the commander’s mask of “first citizen of the empire” when he argues that the solution to societal polarization is more personalized power.

The first citizen always desires fewer checks and balances. For example, Netanyahu wants to politicize judicial appointments and reduce the oversight of Israel’s Supreme Court. It’s all aimed at undermining the autonomy of judges who have the responsibility to protect Israel’s constitution.

A woman holds up a sign depicting two men kissing.
An anti-Boris Johnson protester holds up a placard with artwork of him and Donald Trump in London in 2022.
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Johnson and Trump frequently wore the aggressive mask of “national defender.” As false tribunes of the people, they weaponized immigration to their own advantage.

For Trump, America was beset by armies of refugees from Latin America. For Johnson, the U.K. needed to raise the drawbridge on migrants from eastern Europe. The zealot national defender always exaggerates external threats.

The “holy crusader” is even more ambitious because he believes he can change the entire international order to return his nation to greatness.

A balding man sit in a carved wooden chair.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via videoconference outside Moscow on March 3, 2023.
(Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For example, Putin is a warmonger who uses imperialistic belligerence to disguise his nation’s decline. He aggressively sells the delusion of a Eurasian century.

Backed by China, he shadow-boxes with Russia’s old foe, western capitalism, to restore Moscow’s superpower status.

Read more:
Russia’s imperial mindset dates back centuries – and it is here to stay

The spectacle of authoritarianism

These politicians play to jaded electorates and captive audiences who reward grandiosity and xenophobia because partisanship fills the void left by an absence of genuine national community.

These shamanistic masks have long been a mainstay of populists.

To many contemporary observers, the idea of an authoritarian personality is antiquated. We disagree. What Adorno and his contemporaries did was ground-breaking. They clarified why some people prefer authoritarianism even when it runs counter to their interests.

So how to oppose extremism?

As political scientists, we believe democracy only works when it is safeguarded by a robust system of checks and balances, masses of engaged citizens and an independent judiciary. Every populist who promises to destroy the government to save it is lying for personal gain. It’s as simple as that.

Read more:
Rallying cry: Youth must stand up to defend democracy

In his book The Spirit of Democracy, political scientist Larry Diamond of Stanford University argues that the fate of democracy depends on the passion of the people to defend it from its enemies. But today, the people’s passion is in the grips of hard-right populists.

Canada is still experiencing the shock waves of the so-called freedom convoy.

Yet we shouldn’t be complacent to the immediate reality that more radioactive fallout from American politics is heading our way. It demands an urgent response.

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