The allure of the authoritarian leader

by John MacBeath Watkins

Whenever Vladimir Putin acts in an aggressive and authoritarian way, some percentage of our political pundits seem to swoon.

For example, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz in a Sept. 28, 2015 interview, told Newsmax TV that Putin was playing chess while President Barack Obama was playing checkers.

"We're playing checkers against the people who invented chess, and they're beating us at every move," he said.

Chess is believed by historians to have been invented in eastern India about 300 CE, spread to Southern Europe via Muslim traders, and assumed its current form in Europe between 1000 and 1200 CE. So don't look to Dershowitz for accurate history, he's a law professor.

But he was just riffing on a common theme. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in March 2014 that "Putin is playing chess and we're playing marbles."

Bill O'Reilly asked the question, "Is Putin dominating Obama?" (Hint: O'Reilly does not like Obama.)

The right's admiration for authoritarian leaders is nothing new. About 30 years ago, Jean-François Revel wrote How Democracies Perish, which neoconservatives quickly adopted. In it, he asserted that:

“Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt, Soviet leaders' consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.”

The timid, soft democracies of the West could not stand up to them, he asserted in 1983. 

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, and most of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe quickly aligned themselves with the West. The Soviets could not afford to feed their people once the price of oil plunged and they had to borrow money from the West, on terms that made the continuation of empire impossible.

Yet people persist in admiring the strong leader, the man on horseback (with no shirt.) Given how often authoritarian leaders have crashed and burned, and crashed their countries with them, it might seem curious that anyone would still wish to follow them.

But there is something very comforting in handing your fate over to the Fearless Leader. Part of the attraction is that everyone will know their place, and all those who should not be above you might be put down. Part of the attraction is that the leader seems so strong, you feel protected.

There is a whole vision of the world that goes with this outlook. Theodore Adorno described this as the authoritarian personality. The elements of this can be boiled down as follows:

Rigid conventionalism

Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

A tendency to think in rigid categories.

A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.

You can see elements of this in Revel's insistence that the West was too soft, in the rhetoric of those who accuse President Obama of "leading from behind," in the Bush Administration's quick resort to tactics such as torture, in the name of being "tough" even though skilled interrogators knew better methods.

For people who view the world this way, a cerebral, patient politician like President Obama does not project sufficient toughness, therefore must be a loser, regardless of the results he gets, or the disaster created by a more "tough" administration prior to his. Results are not paramount, perception is. Reverence for the leader is not a calculus, it is an emotional commitment.

Putin, for example, leads a country with an economy smaller than Italy's, and shrinking. The price of his military adventures has been high, and his corrupt administration at home has not provided the secure property rights or rule of law generally needed to attract foreign investment.

The situation in the Ukraine also revealed his weakness. Putin attempted to essentially threaten and bribe the administration of Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych to align himself with Russia rather than the European Union, having Russian customs stop all goods coming from Ukraine and offered, if Ukraine aligned itself with Russia, loans and lower natural gas prices. The Ukrainian people rebelled in the Euromaidan movement. Yanukovych ended up fleeing to Russia. Interpol has listed him as wanted for embezzling millions from his nation.

Having failed to win an ally by soft power, Putin sent troops into Crimea and seized it by force, and supported Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons and probably soldiers. Subsequent sanctions are only part of the problem with the Russian economy.

He is a leader without willing allies, whose use of force has impoverished his country. But the American right admires him for his macho posturing and his willingness to use force. It cannot be his results they gauge him by, it must be his style.

And part of that style is rabid nationalism supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nor is it an accident that this goes with suppression of sexual minorities, with Russia's infamous anti-gay laws. All of these things appeal to the authoritarian personality.

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