Authoritarian populism and democracy

An endless list of saviours of the imagined community (the Volk) waits for their chance to use and abuse people’s power

One of the key activities of authoritarian populism is to present the democratic system as, a system of lies incapable of representing the true will of the people. In the world of the authoritarian populists, democracy divides people. These “people” are not just a collection of individuals as the English term might suggest.

Instead, “the people” reflect what the Anglo-Irish political scientist and historian Anderson called as an Imagined Community. Such an imagined community can be defined as the “Volk” [German]. In right-wing mythology, this is the infamous Volksgemeinschaft – which is a unified mythical community bound together as a nation through a spiritual unity. Hence, “the people” can only ever be truthfully represented by a natural leader. Today, we see many such self-appointed right-wing populist leaders.

Perhaps the most known remains to be Donald Trump who was in-charged of one of the most powerful countries (USA: 2016-2020). But, there is also Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in The Philippines, Victor Orban in Hungary, Salvini in Italy, Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, Erdogan in Turkey, Strake in Austria, Babis in The Czech Republic, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK, Pauline Hanson in Australia, etc. The list appears to be endless. In short, the issue of right-wing populism and its threat to democracy remains and sadly, very much alive.

Authoritarian populism lives and thrives and is even rooted in the myth of a unified nation. All an authoritarian populist has to do is to translate the will of the nation into a political reality. He – mostly “he, rather than “she” – truly believes to act on behalf of his people: the American people, the Hungarian people, the German people, etc. This allows the authoritarian populist to define the truth as something that conforms to the ideological aims of his movement. This is the mythical dimension of authoritarian populism.

As such, the key task of authoritarian populism is to attack, deny and if possible circumvent democracy by framing democracy as a lie committed to betray “the people”. Instead of democracy, reality can only ever be understood through mythical imperatives such as, for example, the white race and the myth of the nation. Authoritarian populism is always nationalistic. Moreover, nationalistic populism always presents itself as a truth that is only possible through an authoritarian leader.

The authoritarian truth permits the leader and his followers to dominate others because authoritarian populism works for some sort of a greater good, i.e. the nation, the white race, etc. so that, as a final goal – people will triumph over evil, i.e. democracy, liberalism, modernity, science, etc.

To achieve that, working against democracy as much as lying has to be a part of an organised fight by authoritarian populism against the forces of darkness. In the end, only the facts prescribed by authoritarian populism itself – meaning its ideology – and by the authoritarian leader can be accepted as truth. Some of these truths even form something authoritarian populism calls the eternal truth.

Much of this also means that authoritarian populism has an extreme contempt for facts that are not coherent with authoritarian populism. These can be scientific facts, as well as, facts that simply do not fit the ideology of authoritarian populism. In all this, authoritarian populism seeks to eliminate the difference between fact and fiction. It seeks to do what became known as “gaslighting”. Today, the psychological manipulation of people under Gaslighting has become a propaganda term.

This plays an essential part in authoritarian populism. Although gaslighting was originally a medical/psychological term, gaslighting has entered politics some time ago. Gaslighting can be seen as a specific type of manipulation where a manipulator is successful in having his target – a person or a group of people – question their own reality and perception of what reality is.

In politics, gaslighting is malicious, deceptive and intentional. The term gaslighting is derived from the title of the 1938 British play called Gas Light. In the play, a vulnerable woman is manipulated into believing in a harmful and false reality. This benefits the self-serving antagonist.

The idea of gaslighting is that – fiction and reality become one and the same – just as authoritarian and democracy should become the same, so that authoritarian populism can rule. Authoritarian populism links this to the illusion of a pre-ration inner-self, as the source of an unchallengeable but spiritual truth. This is not just an ultra-reactionary position but, it furnishes authoritarian populism’s quest to destroy democracy from within, to create a modern version of a crypto-dictatorship from above with democracy being merely a façade.

This is an authoritarian state in which democratic plurality, civil society, human rights and liberalism are silenced or made to serve the authoritarian populist leader. In such an authoritarian state, the independent press is mostly shut down or curtailed. At the same time, the rule of law is re-fashioned and reshaped so, that it represents the will of the authoritarian leader. In such a system, pluralism, the open society and democracy have deteriorated into a state of affairs known as illiberalism.

Illiberalism is a semi-democratic governing system in which elections still take place. Authoritarian populism that tends to run illiberal systems makes sure that its citizens are cut-off from accessing independent and critical knowledge about the political activities of the authoritarian populist. Instead, those who hold real power evade civil liberties. Illiberalism is not an open society.

The authoritarian ruler of an illiberal democracy ignores, diminishes or bypasses most, if not all, constitutional limits of their power. Authoritarian populists tend to set up authoritarian system that guarantees election outcomes in their favour. In authoritarian populism, election does take place. However, authoritarian populism is not the same as fascism or Nazism.

Yet, the authoritarian populist likes to ignore the will of the minority. All of this makes such democracy under authoritarian populism illiberal. Elections in illiberal democracies are pre-engineered, manipulated and rigged to assure the authoritarian populist leader’s win is confirmed and supported.

The sole function of democratic elections is to legitimize and cement the rule of authoritarian populism. For the authoritarian populist, the function of a democratic election is not to choose a governing political party or a new leader. Authoritarian-illiberal democracies are fundamentally undemocratic. As a consequence, terms such as authoritarian populism, electoral authoritarianism, non-competitive authoritarianism, soft authoritarianism and perhaps even Friendly Fascism might describe it.

Ideas like the divine destiny, the white race, the people (understood as carrying elements of a crypto-fascist Volksgemeinschaft), the new empire and a mythical past are still prevalent in authoritarian populism. Yet, these are constantly adjusted to the particularities of a country-specific situation. In any case, authoritarian populism equates these with power, truth and its very own understanding of democracy.

At the centre of all this remains a deep distaste and even rejection of democracy. Yet, the authoritarian populist will never grow tired to announce that he is a democrat, that his party is a democratic party and that his party was elected in an open and fair election. All this serves the populist’s goals of reducing democracy, the conversion of democracy into a façade to legitimize the authoritarian populist and, if possible, the elimination of democracy. One of the true masterminds on the issue of how to destroy democracy was Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. He once said,

it will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.

Today, many democrats have forgotten just how precarious the thing called democracy can be. Nowadays, many democrats no longer fall into the trap laid out by German super-Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Yet, some rather easily fall into the trap laid out by contemporary authoritarian populists. Then (Nazism) as today (right-wing populism), the extreme right is defined by rejecting all exiting forms of democracy. This still is at the centre of authoritarian politics. This is not a mere Nietzsche-like resentment but, rather a deeply felt hate of democratic institutions.

Of course, this comes with an equally intense rejection of modernity, enlightenment, cosmopolitanism and universalism (e.g. human rights). In the mythology of authoritarian populism, there is a myth of a shared belief in a common destiny. It is all but one defining element that determines what truth is and what is not. In that, the task of the authoritarian populist leader is found in the “education” of its followers in all matters of truth. This is found in the belief that his power gives him unique access to truth. As Donald Trump once said, I alone can fix it!

Only authoritarian populism and the authoritarian populist leader represent the true nature of truth and nationalism, defining it through their ability to be a truth-teller. This truth-teller can tell people that liberal democracy is merely a falsehood. For authoritarian populism, liberalism is an artificial form of government that lies to people and holds them in contempt. The authentic truth can only be understood as part of an ideology – the ideology of right-wing populism.

The authoritarian populist is the sole leader because he – and he alone – has conquered and succeeded in the political battle and, has therefore, won his rightful position as the unchallenged leader.

Some authoritarian populists truly believe that they are where they are because they are acting in accordance with the Almighty Creator. They truly believe that they are fighting for the work of the Lord. They fight to preserve their God-given nation from an – always illusive, always invented and never real – enemy who is (supposedly) setting out to destroy the Christian civilisation.

In many cases, the invented misbelieve and the self-serving ideology of acting for the greater good, for the divine destiny, for the Lord himself has led to persecution, violence, brutality, beatings, round-ups, imprisonment, maltreatment, torture, mass executions and even extermination of the so-called enemy.

The enemy plays a crucial role in the mythology of authoritarian populism because it serves several useful functions. One of the true mastermind of enemy-creation, German top-Nazi Hermann Goering once said,

Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

The invention of the enemy offers roughly eight advantages for authoritarian populism as such, and for authoritarian populist leaders more specifically:

    1. It allows the authoritarian populist to rally his troops behind him
    2. It make it possible to unify a nation and its people (the mythical Volksgemeinschaft)
    3. It can eliminate and (if outright elimination is impossible, at least to) silence the opposition
    4. It allows the authoritarian populists to present himself as a truth-teller and defender of the Christian civilisation
    5. the authoritarian populist becomes the owner of truth – mythical or otherwise
    6. meanwhile, an invented enemy can easily be framed as the liar that undermines the natural will of the people; and finally,
    7. the invention of the enemy allows the authoritarian populists to create a relatively clear cut “us-vs.-them” dichotomy, in which the “us” is framed as a natural, national and spiritual entity while the “them” is to be destroyed.

Those to be annihilated include many of those who do not share the authoritarian populism’s une idée fixe of a sacred truth. This is a truth that does not need an empirical or scientific validation. Worse, scientific methods are defamed by right-wing populism as fakes, as pure ideology, as being invented to destroy the authentic truth of authoritarian, as created to undermine the spiritual link between leader and people.

In that, authoritarian populism is always messianic. This means that authoritarian populism is out to convert people to its belief system, its worldview and its ideology. Unlike elitism, right-wing populism thrives on the mass even though it despises people. Paradoxically, many authoritarian populists loathe people yet, it remains highly successful in pretending otherwise.

The truth of authoritarian populism transcends empirical proof. It even transcends history. The truth of the authoritarian populist leader is eternal. It is based on an inextricable link between the leader and the people. The natural leader will save his people – with the support of his people. This forces everyone into line.

Much of this is, of course, spiced up with a hefty dose of anti-intellectualism that has traditionally always been part of right-wing populism – not only to camouflage its own stupidity but also to attract the unsuspecting. The catch phrase is, Don’t listen to the university intellectuals!

It is enough to believe in your leader, your nation, your race and the divine destiny of your people. This sort of truth has to be accepted without discussion. Thinking of pros-and-cons is already too demanding for the simple-minded follower of authoritarian populism. Perhaps, it is possible to adjust what the great philosopher Mill once said about conservatives to authoritarian populists: Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives… I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid.

Authoritarian populists are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are authoritarian populists. I never meant to say that the authoritarian populists are generally stupid.

The authoritarian populist leader will tell everyone that they should not believe in any way, in the information given to them by the officials because such information come from what authoritarian populists call the deep state. Right-wing leaders also tell their followers that they should not believe in the news. They should not read newspapers, should not listen to the TV channels and should not read websites and should not believe what they see on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages. Beyond that, authoritarian populism also works by engineering misinformation silos and echo chambers.

Inside right-wing echo chambers, the victims of authoritarian populism feel secure being shielded from cognitive dissonance. Inside the online chamber, people experience a relatively closed and even plausible belief system that is made to sound reasonable and convincing. In the propaganda endeavours of authoritarian populism, the heroism of authoritarian populist leader is set against alien forces that come from the outside. What is engineered is a patriotic rebellion against democracy and liberalism motorised by sentiment, hype, shock-and-horror and emotions. This is spiced up with resentment against science, the open society and democracy.

In the end, authoritarian populism identifies parliamentarian democracy as a lie. Set against the messiness of democracy is the belief in the authoritarian populist leader who can re-establish order. For that, the authoritarian populist leader needs a repressive form of democracy in which democratic elections serve one function: the mass confirmation of the leader.

Ultimately, authoritarian populism seeks a third way between open, free and liberal democracy on the one hand and outright fascism and Nazism with no democracy at all, on the other hand. Authoritarian populism seeks democracy. But this is a very specific form of democracy. It is authoritarian democracy.

Instead of “one person – one vote”, under authoritarian populism it is one person – one leader. The real danger of authoritarian populism is to see it either as democratic which it is not, or as fascist which it isn’t either. Authoritarian populism is anti-democratic while at the same time, mutilating democracy into an institution that serves authoritarian populism.

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