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Beware of authoritarianism and conspiratorialism, twin threats to our democracy

Two experts discuss disquieting impulses in the electorate.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

Anyone who values a healthy democracy should be concerned about two trends distressingly evident in the last half-decade here in America: an affinity for authoritarianism and a penchant for conspiracy theories. Both are swirling currents that erode democratic norms.

Neither is new. Neither is confined to one side of the political spectrum. But in modern American history, we had not seen a pronounced and unapologetic authoritarian succeed in a national campaign until Donald Trump. Further, it’s hard to recall a period in modern memory when conspiracy theories held such sway in America.

An authoritarian inclination is in considerable part an inherited aspect of personality, according to behavioral economist and political psychologist Karen Stenner, author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic,” a groundbreaking exploration of the way a predisposition toward authoritarianism interacts with changing perceptions of societal threat. It’s expressed as a desire for order through strong authority and shared values and norms that reinforce unity and conformity and minimizes differences, diversity, and discord.

Authoritarian voters, said Stenner in an interview, are highly sensitive to perceived threats to what she calls “oneness and sameness.”


“That ends up being threats to authorities, institutions, and core values,” she said. “So the things that most upset them are loss of confidence in, and loss of shared respect for, leaders and institutions, and secondly, loss of a sense of shared values and norms.” That impulse often manifests itself in a sense that “we have lost the things that made us great, we have lost our way of life, the things that make us real Americans, the things that make us one and the same.”

She estimates that about one-third of any population, across nations, has this inclination to some degree — and that they are activated in times that are complex, chaotic, or stressful, periods that see challenges to authority, protests, dissent, and efforts to increase individual freedom.


“The more tolerant a modern liberal democracy becomes, the more it emphasizes individual freedom and diversity, then the more complex political and social life becomes, the more chaotic and disorderly things feel, and the more distressing it is to authoritarians,” Stenner explained.

That’s why societies that appear to be growing steadily more inclusive, tolerant, and pluralistic sometimes see sudden eruptions of intolerance or bigotry. “The very complexity inherent to liberal democracy trips the authoritarian impulse that has until then lain dormant in the population, resulting in their increased demand for leaders and policies that shore up ‘oneness and sameness,’ ” she said.

Trump clearly attracted those voters, said Matthew MacWilliams, author of “On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History,” his cogent new book exploring the tension between democratic ideals and authoritarian impulses in American history. MacWilliams, who previously ran a political consultancy, was finishing a late-career PhD thesis on authoritarianism in 2015 when Trump jumped into the presidential race.

“Trump comes down the escalator and I start listening to him, and during the first few months of his campaign, everything he was doing is what the strongman would do to activate authoritarians,” he said in an interview.

That is, singling out an “other” different from, and a supposed threat to, mainstream America and its values, often as part of a broader conspiracy, and portraying himself as the only one willing to confront that problem.


Trump’s “others” were illegal immigrants and Muslims, whose entry to the country he promised to stop by building a border wall and enacting a Muslim ban.

Fascinated, MacWilliams put a poll in the field — and came away with this conclusion: The best single predictor of support for Trump wasn’t a voter’s race or income or education level, but whether he or she had strong authoritarian tendencies.

Now consider conspiratorialism, the belief in and promotion of groundless and often wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Trump is not the first national leader prone to conspiracy theories. But we have never had a president so invested in alternative realities. Further, if polls are accurate in saying that one-third to one-half of Trump supporters credit some aspect of the QAnon whirl of absurdity — in a nutshell, that Trump is heroically battling deep state pedophiles who run a child-trafficking ring — this is a particularly fertile period for fever-swamp foolishness.

Another barometer of that propensity for the preposterous: Despite a lack of any credible evidence of widespread fraud, upward of 60 percent of Republicans at least profess to believe the recent presidential election was somehow rigged.

Conspiracy theories have long been a tool of authoritarian demagogues. Stenner also sees extensive overlap between authoritarian and conspiratorialist mindsets among voters, saying the “closed” personalities and cognitive limitations that underlie authoritarianism also render one susceptible to conspiratorialism. MacWilliams says it makes intuitive sense that there would be considerable convergence, given that authoritarians tend to be driven by fears and thus are more prone to perceive possible threats on the political horizon.


These are two areas I plan to explore further. But readers, I need your help. Have you seen a friend or relative surrender to authoritarian impulses or slide into conspiratorialism? Why do you think it happened? Have you had any luck in changing their perspective or disabusing them of factually unfettered fantasies, and if so, how? Do you see a way for political leaders to reduce the anxieties that activate the authoritarian impulse while also protecting rights and opportunities for all members of our pluralistic society?

Please e-mail your stories and thoughts to me at scot.lehigh@globe.com.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.