The Rise of Authoritarians Like Trump

This is a really long read by Robert Kagan, writing for the Washington Post. But since it’s Sunday, maybe you’ll make time. The thesis is that authoritarianism is on the rise, and those of us who value liberal democracy have no good strategies yet for opposing authoritarian rulers — including Trump. Even after almost two years, and the time campaigning before that, I get the sense that politicians and pundits are still in shell shock as Trump bursts through one constraint after another. They keep saying “normal presidents in the U.S. don’t do this. ” Yes, we get that. And yet Trump’s brute authoritarian behavior grows more bold — now even including banana republic style threats of violence by his supporters if he is crossed — and we continue to shake our heads, aghast. But nothing much changes, and our disgust at Trump’s behavior is no real deterrent.

Countering authoritarianism is liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is based on exalting the rights of the individual, raising up the individual’s inherent claim on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But there are downsides to the focus on individualism, and they come at a cost to our identification — sometimes submission — to family, tribe, group, religion, race, cultural norms.

The premise underlying these convictions was that all humans, at all times, sought, above all, the recognition of their intrinsic worth as individuals and protection against all the traditional threats to their freedom, their lives and their dignity that came from state, church or community.

This idea has generally been most popular in relatively good times. It flourished during the late 19th and early 20th century before being dashed by World War I, the rise of communism and fascism, and the decline of democracy during the 1920s and 1930s. It flourished again after the end of the Cold War. But it has always been an incomplete description of human nature. Humans do not yearn only for freedom. They also seek security — not only physical security against attack but also the security that comes from family, tribe, race and culture. Often, people welcome a strong, charismatic leader who can provide that kind of protection.”

I don’t see Trump as a strong charismatic leader. I see him as a bully, a narcissist, a grifter. But look at the way he enthralls his base at one of the rallies. They look at him adoringly.  They swoon at his attention. They laugh and chant and clap on cue. They are mesmerized. That, not in a good way, is charisma. He is offering them identity, affiliation as part of a group of MAGA hat wearers, and a perverse kind of meaning — that which comes from tearing people and things down.

I quoted a previous article that suggested about a third of the population has inherent authoritarian tendencies, just like people are born with depressive or other tendencies. Add to that the people whose lives revolve around reality TV, the tiki torch bearing white nationalists, and the privileged resentful white men like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, and there you have Trump’s base.

The goal in 2020 is not just to defeat Trump, but to defeat Trumpism — the slide toward authoritarianism in our own country. Biden and Bernie are too old. Beto is too flaky. None of the others has yet broken out from the pack. Someone needs to, and soon.

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