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Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
George Orwell, 1984
Authoritarian systems and authoritarian leaders always appear solid on the outside — until suddenly, they don’t.
—Jude Blanchette[1]

Authoritarianism refers to political, economic, or social systems in which power in concentrated in a central authority which acts without accountability to the people impacted by its decisions. It is also used to describe the ideology of those who support the continuation or establishment of such a system. In order to maintain this power and control over decision-making, authoritarian systems will typically feature repression of dissenting viewpoints, broad powers given to police and military forces, disregard for human rights and personal liberties, and control over information.

Its adherents don't necessarily want to "tell you what to do" — as long as, if they disagree with you, someone else in power will tell you — persuasively — what to do. Political scientists define authoritarianism as "not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear."[2] Elsewise, the term is used as a smear by people of various political beliefs.

Authoritarian "intellectuals" like Julius Evola, Elizabeth Dilling,Wikipedia and Jordan Peterson all behave much differently from authoritarian politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro, Alfredo Stroessner, and Oswald Mosley. Since Evola, Dilling, and Peterson all push authoritarianism in democratic societies, they tend to compromise for a hierarchical society that honors traditional values.

It is this honoring of power over reason that makes an authoritarian. The authoritarian loves rules and loves to apply them. However, for a true authoritarian, power is more important than rules: the rules themselves aren't the source of power and they don't apply to the powerful. Oceania had no laws — it didn't need them. Crime was simply whatever the authorities said it was.

Usually the first step for any would-be authoritarian leader is to arrange blanket exemptions to civil and to constitutional protections for broad groups of people (people accused of certain crimes, for example) and to give power to armed forces or to the police to act outside of the law.[note 1]

People raised to strictly follow specific writings as unquestionable display a strong tendency towards authoritarianism. As such, they are very dangerous to democracy and to the health of any society in which they live.

In government[edit]

Authoritarian governments seek to perpetuate the power of the rulers. They will often use the fear of disorder to justify their rule, as in Egypt, which was under a continuous state of emergency that started in 1981 and ended in 2011 when Hosni Mubarak was finally deposed from power.[3] Similarly, Syria imposed a State of Emergency in 1964 and ironically lifted it in 2011, which is the same year that the now infamous Syrian Civil War broke out. Full state control over the media is also a common component of authoritarian control, as it allows the government to effectively control the populace's views, particularly of foreign events. Religious policies vary, ranging from theocracy (for instance, Iran) to complete suppression (for instance, North Korea); the common thread is the suppression of the potential threat posed by independent religious leaders.[note 2] Heavy-handed policing and arbitrary detention suppress any dissent that survives the government's other methods of control by placing the regime's opponents in government custody. In Hungary, authoritarian Viktor Orbán recently banned gender studies.

Some, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, have tried to make a distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes. The general idea is that authoritarian regimes still allowed for some (mostly economic) freedom and thus could be reformed, unlike the completely dominating totalitarian ones. Most see this as a desperate attempt to make it O.K. for Ronald Reagan to have supported authoritarian regimes,[4] while he still blasted the Soviet Union on its human rights problems.[5] However, nothing in reality suggests that authoritarian regimes are any better when it comes to human rights. For example, Operation Condor,Wikipedia an US-backed campaign of political repression in Latin America, claimed up to 30,000 lives in Argentina,[6] 3,065 in Chile,[7] and hundreds of others in Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.[8][9][10] Similarly, the "authoritarian" Suharto regime in Indonesia gained power through mass murder of political opponents, and engaged in another genocidal campaign against Timor-Leste, altogether claiming hundreds of thousands of victims.

The authoritarian mindset[edit]

[I]t has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.
Rod Serling, 'The Obsolete Man'Wikipedia

Research shows that authoritarians are far more likely to exhibit "sloppy reasoning, highly-compartmentalized beliefs, double standards or other hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and — to top it all off — a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic".[11]:75

At least in the United States and Canada, authoritarianism correlates clearly with party affiliation, with wingnut politicians and their followers tending to be more authoritarian.

Authoritarianism can also exist in a nominally left-wing situation — cults of personality such as Stalin's or the Kim family's are examples. Other such examples might include the French Reign of Terror, in which egalitarianism was twisted into a chaotic witch hunt that consumed its own leaders (including Maximilien RobespierreWikipedia himself), left-wing purity trolls[note 3] (including the centrist PUMA movement in American politics) and the Judean People's Front.[note 4]

Although many libertarians and anarchists have attempted to equate the two, statism and authoritarianism are not the same thing; although most authoritarians are statists, so are quite a lot of people who believe one of the functions of government is to enforce civil rights.

All of the monotheistic religions provide a model of authoritarianism, which conditions its members to be tolerant at least of authoritarians, if not outright preferential of them.

Many learned too late the rule about cooperating with authoritarian regimes: as with the related world of organized crime, the moment you agree to do one thing, the trap is set for you to do another.
—Ruth Ben-Ghiat[12]:101

Hollywood culture has both inspired authoritarians (e.g., Mussolini's propaganda films and Trump's The Apprentice), and been used by authoritarians to project a aura of normalcy (e.g. Pinochet's broadcasting American sitcoms on TV).[12]:98,108


Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat identified several tactics that have been used by authoritarians in modern times:[12]:66-70,121-124

  • Projection of virility: This takes several forms:
  • Creation of national projects that support the framing of utopia, nostalgia and crisis
  • Irredentism, imperialism
  • Mobilization of expatriates to promote regime propaganda, and targeting expatriates who are critical of the regime
  • Rather than merely representing the nation, the authoritarian claims to embody it, thus creating a cult of personality.
  • Promoting and espousing anti-intellectualism
  • Corruption as a means of rewarding key supporters and punishing opponents[12]:141-164
  • Violence and torture as a means of exercising power and control[12]:165-190


See the main article on this topic: Authoritarianism of Donald Trump
I can't stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision
—Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World"[13]
He is a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented. He is the absolute leader of the presidential race.
Vladimir Putin on Trump.[14][note 5]
As we move towards a society which is optimal from the point of view of the business classes — namely, that each individual is an atom, lacking means to communicate with others so that he or she can’t develop independent thought or action and is just a consumer, not a producer — people become deeply alienated, and they may hate what's going on but have no way to express that hatred constructively. And if a charismatic leader comes along, they may very well follow.
Noam Chomsky[15]

Trump is a novel phenomenon under the American sun, but anyone living in Europe had the same thought. Oh, America is getting its own oligarch now.[16] It's the same mentality that the people have about a lot of Russian oligarchs involved in politics: They can't be bribed, or bought off, and they already have so much that people think they won't try to steal more (Trump makes a lot of anti-corruption noises but doesn't make a case for it which extends beyond trust me). Of course, it's ridiculous to elect billionaires to represent Middle America, but it shows just how out-of-touch part of the country is.

Whenever the economy endures a meltdown, the far-right predictably exploits the hardships. In Europe, they had the Syrian refugee crisis exploding and the various fringe groups latched onto it. They used social media in a (frankly) brilliantly effective manner to get their message across: Europe is under attack, civil war, refugees are raping white women left and right. People were literally asking if it's safe to visit Cologne or will they get raped? Europe's far-right is comical too, their intentions not so much.

Another thing that many Europeans can find familiar: upon a terrorist attack, the right wing instantly calls for more invasive or downright oppressive measures, ostensibly to "protect" the people. Trump would fit right at home with many of them: he advocated for American citizens to report their suspicious neighbors to the authorities, a hallmark of several oppressive regimes in history. He goes even further and says if you don't report your suspicious neighbors, you'll be "brought to justice", which gives him carte blanche to arrest just about anyone.[17][note 6] A major hallmark of authoritarianism is when they employ divide and conquer tactics, both to prevent any rivals from undercutting the leader and to promote a "survival of the fittest" mindset among their lackeys. Hitler famously did this while he was in power, which destroyed the Nazis' chances from winning the war. Meanwhile, Trump did this for his own campaign staffers, who are split between those who think he should go with his gut and those who try to make him more "presidential".[18]

Like most authoritarians, Trump wants to stack the government with his cronies. According to Governor Chris Christie, Trump wants to fire the entire civil service (which is supposed to be apolitical and non-ideological) so it can be replaced with a crop of patronage-driven opportunists or Tea Party style extremists at best. This purging of the civil service would allow, for instance, a Goldman Sachs banker to be Treasury Secretary, which heads the economy and its regulations, while keeping his job as a banker — it's a call back to the patronage years of the Gilded Age.[19][20][21][22]

Beyond just the terrorism, this time around, Americans had:

  • Very bad recession that still isn't totally over
  • Gen-X getting crushed by the housing crisis, millennials crushed under student loan debt, and both suffering from a poor job market
  • Collapse of social conservatism and the religious right[23]
  • Chinese stock bubble happening at the worst moment
  • Use of social media in politics, for the first time in history, especially from the far-right

Take all of that, add the United States' penchant for gun violence, and combine it with yet another trademark of strongmen: threatening political assassination of their opponents, courtesy of Trump yet again.[24] Trump's authoritarianism shouldn't even be controversial in the libertarian sphere, but it is. It's no secret how the libertarian movement is disproportionately filled with white nationalists, but it's still surprising how many immediately abandoned all of their principles to support the guy over Ron Paul's own son. If anything, they should be the ones who hate Trump the most, but their partisanship and tribalism is really showing this year.[25] Yet paleoconservatism has always been a populist movement and Trump knows exactly how to fire those people up, to get the Mussolini juices flowing (which some think the U.S. actually needs as an alternative to the cult of Putin).[26][27] If you listen to any employee of Trump being interviewed about the election it sounds like they are either a member of a Scientology-like cult or have guns pointed at their head.[28] Trump has built a cult of personality around himself, and this 'brand' has unfortunately grown much larger as a result of his candidacy.


Recovery from authoritarian rule can be exceedingly difficult because authoritarians attempt to subvert democratic institutions, even if they continue to hold less-than-fair elections.[29][30] However, democratic institutions are themselves just a freer way of establishing and submitting to authority for most people.


As of 2022, the Democracy Index currently considers 59 countries to be authoritarian, and as of 2021, Freedom House currently rates 54 countries as Not Free. Authoritarian regimes are most common in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Middle East and North Africa. A number of them also exist in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Asia. A few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are also authoritarian.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]


  1. On a site such as this, which is run as a mobocracy, authoritarians find themselves lost, as we care more about the spirit of our "rules" than strict adherence to them.
  2. See China's official Catholic church.
  3. While this is the typical right-wing mental image of social justice warriors, people like this do exist in reality.
  5. If history is any guide, Putin was probably trolling us. He could give master classes in trolling Americans. Putin's endorsement [!] is him thinking that he can play Trump and use him to hurt the USA. He's probably right.
  6. Sound familiar?


  1. Party of One: The CCP Congress and Xi Jinping’s Quest to Control China by Jude Blanchette (October 14, 2022) Foreign Affairs.
  2. The rise of American authoritarianism: A niche group of political scientists may have uncovered what's driving Donald Trump's ascent. What they found has implications that go well beyond 2016. by Amanda Taub (Mar 1, 2016, 6:00 AM PST) Vox.
  3. Egypt's ruling generals to partially lift emergency law (24 January 2012) BBC News.
  4. Did Reagan Finance Genocide in Guatemala? Ronald Reagan Had a Cozy Relationship With Guatemalan Dictator Efrain Rios Montt (May 14, 2013, 3:19 PM) ABC News.
  5. Reagan Assails Soviet on Human Rights (December 11, 1984) The New York Times (archived from May 24, 2015).
  6. Argentina Dirty War: Torture and baby theft trial under way (28 October 2020) BBC.
  7. Chile recognises 9,800 more victims of Pinochet's rule (18 August 2011) BBC.
  8. Comissão Nacional da Verdade: Relatório by José Carlos Dias et al. (2014) Brazil Comissão Nacional da Verdade. ISBN 9788585142643.
  9. Relatório lista crimes de Stroessner (29 de agosto de 2008) Folha de S. Paulo Mundo.
  10. New find in Uruguay 'missing' dig (3 December 2005, 04:47 GMT) BBC News.
  11. The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer (2006) self-published
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat (2021) W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393868419.
  13. Tears For Fears - Everybody Wants To Rule The World YouTube.
  14. Putin calls Trump an 'outstanding, talented' man (17 December 2015) Vanguard News.
  15. Language, Politics, and Composition: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky Noam Chomsky interviewed by Gary A. Olson and Lester Faigley (1991) Journal of Advanced Composition 11(1):1-35.
  16. Lozovsky, Ilya, "A Russian Reporter Goes to a Trump Rally — And Feels at Home", Foreign Policy (2/2/16, 1:12 pm).
  17. Christina Wilkie (6/13/2016) "Donald Trump: Americans Who Don’t Report Their Suspicious Neighbors Should Be ‘Brought To Justice’"
  18. In campaign chaos, Donald Trump shows his management style by Sean Sullivan & Robert Costa (May 28, 2016 at 3:10 p.m. EDT) The Washington Post.
  19. Donald Trump and Chris Christie are reportedly planning to purge the civil service by Dylan Matthews (Jul 20, 2016, 9:30 AM PDT) Vox.
  20. Report: Trump could ask Congress for law to oust "burrowing" Obama appointees by Reena Flores (July 20, 2016 / 11:33 AM EDT) CBS News.
  21. Trump could seek new law to purge government of Obama appointees by Emily Flitter (July 20, 20163:52 PM PDT) Reuters.
  22. Christie Says Trump Will Change Firing Laws to Purge Federal Civil Service of Obama Hires by Elliot Hannon (July 19, 201611:04 PM) Slate.
  23. Donald Trump’s Rise Shows Religion Is Losing Its Political Power by Eduardo Porter (4.5.16) The New York Times.
  24. Donald Trump Suggests Shooting Hillary Clinton, Her Supreme Court Picks, Or Both by S. V. Date (Aug 9, 2016) Huffington Post.
  25. Michael Lind, "The proof is in: the GOP base isn’t small-government libertarian; it’s old-fashioned populist", Politico. Xenophobic, racist, anti-vaxxer, birther, makes up statistics, lies about everything, then denies those lies… Yup, sounds like a pretty standard libertarian candidate! But rest assured, they'll keep chanting about how they Logic™ the most, and how they "hate both sides", etc.
  26. Stephen Collinson, "Donald Trump: Macho Man of 2016", CNN. Trump: "He hates Obama, he doesn't respect Obama. ... If I am president, Putin says (to Snowden), 'Hey, boom, you're gone,'")
  27. David Ignatius, "Is Donald Trump an American Putin?", Washington Post.
  28. Russell Sanders and Betsy Warren, "Trump's Medical Report Is More Insane Than His Campaign Somehow", Daily Beast (12.14.15 3:00 PM ET).
  29. What Comes Next? Lessons for the Recovery of Liberal Democracy By Rachel Kleinfled & David Solimini (2018 October 31st) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Democracy Fund.
  30. Unfixable? Several nations have tried to restore democracy after populist strongmen. It was never the same by Joshua Kurlantzick (November 16, 2018) The Washington Post.