Authoritarian Leaders, Political & Otherwise

Authoritarian Leaders, Political & Otherwise

In our current political/cultural/domestic environments worldwide, we can better understand leaders and dominant partners through the lens of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian personality types. Most often, such leaders of groups or movements use coercive control and influence tactics for their own gains -- money and control.  These leaders have observable narcissistic personality traits and anti-social (psychopathic/sociopathic) traits, and through a process of disinformation and group influence, they draw others into their dysfunctional, harmful system, changing basic beliefs (or thought reform) without the majority aware of what is happening.  They usually develop a hierarchy with leaders and those higher up having more control and money.  Lower in the hierarchy are members who maintain the goals of the leader(s) and are kept unaware of the reality of the situation -- the foot soldiers.

Many critical thinkers and scholars observe that the US is rapidly becoming more influenced by authoritarian leaders and that our democracy is in danger. Many write about the cult of personality that has infiltrated our democratic institutions.

  A review of a seminal book on dictators , The Authoritarian Personality (Levinson, 1951) states:

"Bringing together the findings of psychoanalysis and social science, this book grew out of an urgent commitment to study the origins of anti-Semitism in the aftermath of Hitler's Germany. First published in 1951, it was greeted as a monumental study blazing new trails in the investigation of prejudice. As offshoots of ethnocentrism, anti-semitism and fascism cast new and dark shadows on the world, the topic again demands study and social action. ' The Authoritarian Personality' remains an important document for our time." (Retrieved on Amazon, 9/28/2016).

The concept of the "authoritarian personality" was based on writings by Erich Fromm and included studies focusing on prejudice within a psychoanalytic/psychosocial framework (Freudian and Frommian).

Levinson wrote, "Since compliance depends on whether the leader is perceived as being both powerful and knowing, the ever-watchful and all-powerful leader and his invisible but observant and powerful instruments, such as secret police, can be invoked in the same way as an unobservable but omniscient God....Similarly, the pomp and ceremony surrounding such an individual make him more admirable and less like the common..., increasing both his self-confidence and the confidence of his subjects. The phenomenon is found not only with individual leaders, but with entire movements."

Timothy Snyder's New York Times bestseller On Tyranny (2017, 2021) offers a guide for surviving and resisting America's turn towards authoritarianism.  "The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience." -- Timothy Snyder, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Yale University.  On Tyranny  elaborates on 20 ways to survive and resist that include:  1)Do not obey in advance; 2)Defend institutions; 3)Beware the one-party state; 4)Remember professional ethics; 6)Be wary of paramilitaries; 7)Be kind to our language; 8) Believe in truth; 9)Investigate; 10)Make eye contact and small talk; 11)Contribute to good causes; 12) Learn from peers in other countries; 13)Listen for dangerous words; 14)Be as courageous as you can.

Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, American historian , political commentator and author of her latest book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present  states "“Any society can be susceptible to an authoritarian strongman figure if it’s the right time.”  She cites the rising authoritarianism around the world, the link between masculinity and authoritarianism. 

“There are many types of masculinity in the world, but the strongman is an authoritarian leader who not only damages or destroys democracy but uses this kind of toxic, arrogant masculinity as a tool of rule. Their strength is threatening. This is a kind of masculinity that’s about domination, possession of others, and it connects to a worldview where these leaders have a proprietary conception of power and the state so that they seize businesses, as Erdoğan does in Turkey and Putin in Russia. So this is a kind of masculinity, and the reason I use arrogance is that there is nothing that shouldn’t be theirs.

“One of the ways these leaders find popular appeal is that they correspond to ancient archetypes of male figures, such as the protector or the father figure and also the savior. One common theme is that they all say they are going to save the nation. Only they have unique qualities, and this is where their charisma can come in or their personality cult. Only they can save the nation. On the one hand, they project themselves forward in time, where they say, “I’m going to make things great in the future.” They often pose as modernizers where they’re building highways and airports. They attract people by playing into fantasies of grandeur and power.”

“They all have paranoia, narcissism, they all are very aggressive, and they like to humiliate others. This leads to certain styles of governance that are very dysfunctional and full of turmoil. So they create inner sanctums around themselves with family members — like Erdoğan — because they’re corrupt and need people to keep their secrets. But everybody else is humiliated and fired and re-hired. So their governments are not stable at all. Their personalities are impulsive and they think they are God sometimes and that they’re infallible. They make snap decisions which are not good for policy making. Ultimately, their governments are very destructive and unstable, even though the myth of authoritarians is that these are take-charge men who will bring peace and stability

"At a broader level, authoritarians are always threatened by fact-based knowledge. The facts are their enemy. Propaganda means that you have to create an alternate reality that your believers will follow, and research based on science and scientific method becomes the enemy".

According to child development theories, the "authoritarian personality" shares traits with the narcissistic, anti-social personalities and has it's development within the first few years of the person's life, strongly shaped by the parents and family structure. Dominating, status-conscious parents who demand obedience with harsh threats and rigid rules foster the characteristics of these personalities.  The child  suffers from suppressed feelings of resentment and aggression towards the parents who are idealized.

Alfred Adler provided another perspective, linking the 'will to power over others' as a central neurotic trait, usually emerging as aggressive over-compensation for felt and dreaded feelings of inferiority and insignificance. Adler hypothesized that the authoritarian's need to maintain control and prove superiority over others is rooted in a worldview populated by enemies and empty of equality, empathy, and mutual benefit.

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