“Authoritarian” is both a description of a political ideology and a pejorative as it has spawned some of the evilest dictatorships in recorded history. This is unfortunate because it makes discussing someone’s flirtations with authoritarianism akin to accusing them of the vilest acts of hatred imaginable. To say someone is an authoritarian isn’t to say they are the next Mussolini or Hitler; decent people can errantly wonder towards authoritarianism, unaware of the dark latency of the views they are advocating. You probably have a friend or relative who espouses—ahem—dubious political views on social media. The satire site The Onion hilariously illustrated this phenomenon in a brief article entitled “Aunt on Facebook Casually Advocates War Crime.”
Authoritarianism is an ideology; and any ideology, taken to an extreme, devolves into an enemy of free and peaceable people. Radical libertarianism descended into military dictatorship in the bloody French Revolution. Progressivism, in its ugliest form, threatens violence against those who would dare to speak traditional views at universities. Even conservatism—radicalized and misused—leads to theocratic tyranny.
This is why the aim of the conservative is to negate radical ideologies and cults of personality, not embrace them out of momentary convenience because they promise to enact “conservative” policies. And yet the Republican party has increasingly succumbed to cozying up to pragmatic leaders who promise a git r done approach to a litany of empty sentiments from draining swamps to making America great again. Even when that pragmatism bears authoritarian tendencies, many Republican leaders have shown a gleeful willingness to put pragmatism over the principles of limited government. To the extent the Republican party is considered the home of American conservatism, it will become increasingly important for conservatives to articulate the differences between what they and authoritarians believe.
Both conservatism and authoritarianism are worldviews that advocate some sense of order, historical heritage, and national identity. At times they may each echo the sentiments of the other as they speak with fondness of our Founding Fathers or defend Western civilization. The Left is fond of projecting these similarities and concluding authoritarianism is nothing more than conservatism taken to its natural ends. But the difference is not a matter of degree, but on precisely what the conservative and authoritarian advocate and what methods they employ in doing so.
Defining conservatism can be challenging: I gave it my best shot here. At the risk of oversimplifying, conservatives seek to conserve the features of Western civilization they collectively profess to be exceptional, such as the ideas embodied in the Enlightenment; the scientific method; the Church; contributions to the arts; social contract theory; freedom of religion, speech, and thought; equality of human value; sanctity of life; the rule of law; and representative governance, among others. Conservatives view humanity as a link, extending from our ancestors all the way to those who are not yet born, so that care must be taken to not shatter what has been built upon. Western civilization belongs to us in the same sense a precious family heirloom that’s passed from one generation to the next belongs to us.
The authoritarian, in contrast, is more interested in provoking a vision that borrows from the past only to promise a brighter tomorrow. Steeped in emotional appeals and rhetoric of grandeur, this vision tells tales of a golden past and promises a glorious future while denigrating the present. Much like progressivism, authoritarianism is primarily rooted in an appeal to emotions. It is human nature to reminisce over the good ol’ days and, in times of uncertainty, the masses flock towards those promising a return to a time when all was right with the world (or so it seemed.) Modern-day snake oil salesmen still exist in the form of faith healers and get-rich-quick investment advisors because there is still an audience desperate for health or blinded by the prospects of making an easy fortune. And when people begin to believe that their way of life is threatened—e.g. rampant illegal immigration, economic uncertainty, threats of Islamic terrorism, rising tensions between law enforcement and minorities, the disintegration of the nuclear family, rapidly changing demographics—some will gravitate towards leaders promising strong, punitive, and simple solutions. In other words, authoritarians.
It’s important to note that authoritarianism isn’t so much a political philosophy as it is a reaction to threats, or perceived threats, and the demand for political solutions. Authoritarians may lay dormant within society until they are “activated” by fears and uncertainties. Political science researchers Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler published a book on the effects of authoritarianism in American politics. They found that both parties historically had similar minorities with authoritarian tendencies. However, in recent decades authoritarians had been flocking to the Republican party, which positioned itself as the defender of traditional values. Unwittingly, Republican rhetoric has increasingly offered the very thing activated authoritarians living in a changing world crave: the promise to Make America Great Again!–a promise that is not specific, but represents a powerful emotional appeal. Trump’s ingenious slogan represents everything and nothing, making it both challenging to clarify or critique. Again, authoritarianism (motivated by a desire for security) is similar to progressivism (motivated by a desire for equality), which offered its adherents Change You Can Believe In!
We might contrast the conservative and the authoritarian by envisioning a dam: the conservative is concerned with maintaining the dam to prevent the floodwaters it holds at bay from destroying everything we value. The authoritarian is fascinated with the prospects of using the awesome power of the floodwaters to enforce their ideological vision. Conservatives view our civilized world as a fragile film over uninhibited human appetite. Once breached, what lies beneath is the savage and violent reality of our pre-civilized nature. We should never be too quick to assume civilization will just continue indefinitely or that we are somehow inalterably superior to our barbaric ancestors—as history has shown with the rise of Nazism in civilized Germany.
One of the very things the conservative means to conserve—prudent restraints on power and human appetite—the authoritarian means to smash to bring about their vision. To do so enormous power must be vested in a leader promising strong, punitive, and simple solutions. When Donald Trump declared in his acceptance speech at the RNC “I alone can fix” America he was speaking directly to the authoritarian faith. So, are Trump and his followers authoritarians? That is something we’ll explore in Part 2.
This article was originally featured in The Millennial Review