In his rise to power Donald Trump articulated the grievances of much of middle America and harnessed those grievances by successfully persuading voters that he alone understood the causes and so possessed the remedies. Meanwhile, in the UK a successful Brexit campaign has greatly strengthened the power of authoritarianism and promoted isolationist tendencies.
Messiahs and Avarice
Historically, a vital factor in the rise of demagogic leaders has been the ability to convince large numbers of people that they, and they alone, knew what was best for them. In some cases they presented a solution to an injustice or oppression which was not perceived by the mass of the people. On attaining power, the execution of a resulting ‘liberation’ plan has been the cause of some of the greatest human tragedies. The holocaust, the liquidation of the Russian Kulaks and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are but three of the best known examples.
This form of populism stems from two main sources. The first is a messianic attempt to extend liberty. A despot may genuinely believe that they are ‘freeing’ the people; that it is his or her unique destiny to enlighten them and lead the way out of oppression. If this is successful, enormous power is available to the despot to pursue that goal, eliminating dissenting ‘erroneous’ views along the way, while executing the ‘will of the people’. The great thinker Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty stated it this way:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals -justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted goodman, there is a final solution.
The second source, which may be related to the first, is a naked attempt to grab status and wealth with no underlying ideological drive. It remains to be seen to which of the two Donald Trump actually conforms, but it is likely that viewing his governing team as a whole, all possibilities are represented.
At the present time the core of this narrative on both sides of the Atlantic is ‘greatness’; ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Make Britain Great Again’. In both cases the leader, Trump or May is tacitly claiming knowledge of what made America or Britain ‘great’ in the first place and can be trusted to enact the policies to restore that greatness. Note that the timing and nature of the greatness is left deliberately vague so the individual can fill in his or her own answer, the Victorian Age and the 1950s, for example, are popular in Britain.
The retreat to the Citadel
But there is another way that Trump is restricting liberty in the guise of extending it. Note the rhetoric, now becoming enacted policy, of withdrawal. The talk is of building walls, banning people and ending international agreements. This has been termed the retreat to the citadel where an individual or a whole society may shelter safety away from a turbulent world free to rebuild their greatness. But the fact that this tactic is a mistaken path to liberty as exemplified by the prisoner metaphor. The prevailing libertarian view of freedom says that you are free as long as no-one has influence over you to prevent you making free choices. But suppose you are imprisoned against your will. In this theory it is perfectly possible to conclude that you could ‘free’ yourself by changing your mental state, by persuading yourself that your situation is not so bad and is even one which you may have chosen for yourself. In such an instance your freedom is not restricted because you have chosen the situation. But, of course, the real test only occurs if your captor unlocks the prison door…. Again, Berlin sums up the position:
All political isolationism, all economic autarky, every form of autonomy, has in it some element of this attitude. I eliminate the obstacles in my path by abandoning the path; I retreat into my own sect, my own planned economy, my own deliberately insulated territory, where no voices from outside need be listened to, and no external forces can have effect.
This retreat to the citadel can be seen to take a number of forms. For example in the United States, apart from the well-publicized attempts to end refugee resettlement, it manifests itself in climate change denial and suspicion of international bodies such as the United Nations and NATO. Similarly in the UK there is a growing hostility towards anyone from outside the UK along with a similar suspicion of international bodies such as the European Convention on Hyman Rights (ECHR) fostered by the Prime minister herself.
The Paradox of Elites
Finally, there is an intriguing paradox in Trump’s actions. In his wide ranging attacks on various US bodies such as the security agencies, the judiciary and various political opponents, one group has been largely spared. These have been the large multinational tech companies such as Facebook or Google, amongst the prime drivers of globalization and funders of some of the judicial opposition to Trump’s immigration bans. These companies form an elite of their own and it is the actions of such elites that can provide the biggest threat to authoritarianism. In his review What Do We Know About Authoritarianism After Ten Years?, David Art points to Dan Slaters work on the crucial part played by elites in propping up or bringing down autocratic institutions:
‘Elites will only act collectively to maintain an authoritarian, extractive state if they view it as less threatening than the alternative. To get a sense of that alternative, elites gauge the extent of the threat to their lives and livelihoods by analyzing current and past forms of contentious politics.’
It is a strange paradox of libertarian ideology that freedom can apparently be obtained by being imprisoned and changing your mindset, a counter-intuitive conclusion. Yet this ‘retreat to the citadel’ driven by a messianic zeal is just the approach being advocated by Trump and, in a disguised form, by many UK Conservatives. Within this citadel it may well be possible to ‘make America great’ whatever that means. But it will be an illusion and at best an ephemeral greatness. We must continue to make the argument against demagogues whether they are driven by messianic, sectarian or purely selfish interests. The price of failure will at best be an isolated, fearful and cold world, at worst the complete destruction of our way of life.