The Appeal of Authoritarians to Malcontents and Militants

     During times of intense social confusion, dissatisfaction and unrest – not unlike the world we now inhabit – many people are drawn to passionate authoritarian leaders who promise security and stability, relief from worries and fears, and punitive actions against dangerous “others.” 

    Some of their supporters are respectable citizens and armchair acolytes, politically conservative voters, politicians and pundits. But there are also those who see the vitriol as an opportunity to express rage and hate, or a mandate for militancy and even taking up arms.

     In times of uncertainty and fear, autocratic and demagogic leaders are better able to gain the reins of power either through elections or via coups. In the last century, such strongmen (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Hirohito, Franco, Batista, Amin, Chavez, Mugabe, Sukarno, Samosa, Pinochet) attracted zealous followers, exerted remarkable influence and often imposed brutality and bloodshed.  

     Already in this century, other totalitarian rulers are wielding autocratic powers (Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, Orban, Erdogan, Lukashenko, Maduro and others).

     The United States has been spared demagogic Presidents but there have certainly been American historical figures with outspoken authoritarian leanings: Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, George Wallace, Charles Coughlin and others left deep imprints.  (I will not comment on the current President, leaving that judgement to your wisdom.)     

     Authoritarian political movements are often cult-like in nature, in that they are spearheaded by charismatic leaders, attract fervent followers (“True Believers”), and generate intense emotions and anger at some reviled “others.”      

     I use the word “cult” advisedly because years ago I studied hundreds of members of religious cults, novel ‘intense belief systems’ in different countries. These groups had self-styled messianic leaders whose fervent devotees worshipped them as quasi-deities. 

    Prior to joining, however, those most attracted to these groups had been dissatisfied with their personal lives and with society. They were drifting, unhappy with themselves, wondering if they would ever feel content and confident.

    They felt Alienation from family and society (discomfort in social situations, perfunctory participation, not fitting in); Demoralization (melancholy, frustration, pessimism, resentment); Low Self-Esteem (dissatisfaction with themselves, their directions and future).

     When they were exposed to true-believing groups and charismatic leaders, they were captivated by the excitement. Many joined and in their first few months of membership they felt as if they had been “rescued” from their unfulfilled lives. They felt transformed by discovering energy and meaning which had been lacking in their lives, and many became zealous. (These feelings would inevitably dissipate.) 

      They had achieved “The Four B’s” we (all) strive for: Senses of Being (feeling grounded, authentic, optimistic); Belonging (integral part of an accepting, like-minded group); Believing (commitment to values and ideology); and Benevolence (feeling of helping others).  

      But even in those avowedly peace-loving religious groups, there were some members (and leaders) who were particularly angry and aggressive, and who wanted to ‘push the envelope’ into confrontation and conflict, and sometimes violence.

      Fast-forward to the present when we are living in a tumultuous surreal period with simultaneous threats: Covid-19 pandemic; racism and other hateful “isms;” intense political polarization; gaping economic disparities; devastating effects of global warming; civilians with guns and automatic weapons.

      This “perfect storm” of roiling social unrest affects all ages and races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities. Some have it much worse than others, but nobody is unscathed. People are uncertain and fearful about their health, families, schooling, jobs, income and survival.

     They feel insecure about their personal odysseys and their future. Existential questions abound: Why are we in this situation? Where are we headed? Who is leading us? What will become of all of us?

      Many dissatisfied and fearful people seek solace from these stressors, and some get reassured by authoritarian leaders who excite their imaginations, galvanize their energies, and promise relief from unrelenting pressures. They inspire followers with their intensity and focus their rage at sinister forces. In this heated atmosphere zealotry, hateful “isms” and conspiracy theories abound, and can easily become breeding grounds for militancy.

    Malcontents and militants are captivated by fiery speeches which promise to rid the country of subversive elements and provide solutions to their miseries. They believe the leader’s rhetoric and are moved by his forcefulness, and their own passions are kindled and inflamed. They feel empowered, confident they will finally get overdue political or other actions on their behalf. The leaders are often seen as a veritable ‘saviors’ who will render their enemies harmless, and they can return to hallowed traditions and values. 

   The aroused members thrive on their vehement hostility. They are energized, their personal unhappiness is reduced, having been channeled into plans for corrective actions.

    In that state of mind, the zealots actualize the Four B’s: They feel better about their moods and their personal worlds (Being). Their alienation and demoralization dissipate, especially in the company of similarly aroused like-minded people (Belonging). Their biases and strengthened convictions are vital to them, feeding their fervency (Believing). They are convinced that what they are doing will make the world a better place (Benevolence). 

      We have too often witnessed on television and social media, this familiar scenario: During a peaceful demonstration against a legitimate grievance (racism, brutality, shootings), there appear men (usually), often from outside that metropolitan area, sometimes dressed in military combat gear and heavily armed, often repeating racist slogans and threats, bullying and provoking frays, using physical violence and even on occasion firing weapons. 

      Their pattern is to intimidate, instigate and inflame, and many of them seem to take perverse pleasure in violent confrontations. Whatever their motivations, the most dangerous are primarily “spoiling for a fight,” irrespective of politics or grievances. 

      But others in society see these militants as frightening malefactors, bullies and louts, especially when confrontations occur after civic leaders have pleaded for peaceful demonstrations. Police (national guard, Federal emissaries) may respond in large numbers, sometimes effectively, at other times with dire consequences. But they are often at a loss for staving off violence and peacefully handling of these self-styled militias. They know that they are themselves under public scrutiny and criticism, and they don’t wish to get into a shoot-out with armed militants.

      The First Amendment enshrines the hallowed right to Free Speech, which we rightfully cherish. Frustrated citizens have always exercised that inalienable right by conveying their deeply-held concerns, openly demonstrating, marching and expressing themselves vocally and vociferously. Zealous true believers are difficult to reason with, and yet dialogue and cooperation has been accomplished on many occasions.

     But violent malefactors, paramilitary militants and military wannabe’s in self-styled militias – whether spurred by their own impassioned goals, personal malevolence, psychological disturbance or fueled by drugs or alcohol – cannot, must not, be tolerated in a democratic society. Surely their control are the responsibilities of the elected civic leaders and the police.

     Societies torn by intense citizen frustration and polarized political conflict are often confronted by threats of demagogic individuals who mobilize unhappy malcontents and belligerent militants. We are thus left with a major challenge and conundrum: How do we mitigate or prevent the vitriol spewed by demagogic strongmen who incite feelings of hate and violent actions in susceptible young men? 

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