Nationalism: Authoritarian Populism

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6326.htm)

If people are discontented with their government, or if they feel disempowered by the march of modernity and seek to return to the past (, they are vulnerable to being exploited by politicians offering strong confident leadership in what has been described as “Trumpism and Authoritarian Populism”.  This form of nationalism offers a forceful independent foreign policy, anti-immigrant policies, and a disregard for ‘political correctness’.[1]

It has become widespread.  The Independent reported on the ‘Authoritarian populism’ behind Donald Trump’s victory and Brexit, and the Telegraph reported on How the rise of the populist far-Right has swept through Europe in 2017.  Examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia,[2] the Law and Justice Party in Poland,[3] and the Front National in France.[4]

Authoritarian populism is effective because of the simplicity and directness of its message.  People who see themselves as victims, and who are impatient with ‘experts’, are likely to support a leader who offers to cut through the complexities of global economics and international agreements (including human rights).  Helmut K. Anheier reviewed four books on “rage against the elites“, citing that as the reason for increased authoritarian populism.

Donald Trump’s slogan in the 2016 US presidential election was an offer to “make America great again”, and the slogan that was successfully used in persuading the British people to leave the EU was “take back control” in the vote for a ‘Brexit’.  These campaigns were populist in that they offered what people want to hear, regardless of whether the proposed policies would be inclusive or prudent.  A leader who is confrontational can appear strong, and therefore be popular, even though policies of co-operation and alliance-building are much more robust in reality.  Strong leaders can undermine a democracy if they try to sweep aside its checks and balances and if they suppress or overly dominate political opposition.

Some authoritarian populists, including Donald Trump, have offered shelter to racial supremacists in the ‘alt right’ ( – whilst denying being racist.  “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right” has similarly involved denying racism and “stealing the language, causes and voters of the traditional left”.

It has been suggested (but it cannot be proved) that Russia is actively helping authoritarian populism to spread in the West, to weaken democratic governments and their alliances: the US, the EU and NATO.[5]



[1] Pippa Norris explained authoritarian populism as “a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change”, and she highlighted a popular desire for “a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress”, in an article published in the Washington Post on 11 March 2016; it was entitled It’s not just Trump.  Authoritarian populism is rising across the West.  Here’s why, and was available in April 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/11/its-not-just-trump-authoritarian-populism-is-rising-across-the-west-heres-why/.

Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism described some characteristsics that are recognisably similar to Trump’s approach, as pointed out by Courtney Tenz on 15 December 2016 in an article entitled Trump could destroy public discourse and lead to someone worse, according to Hannah Arendt’s philosophy.  It was available in April 2018 at http://www.dw.com/en/trump-could-destroy-public-discourse-and-lead-to-someone-worse-according-to-hannah-arendts-philosophy/a-36766400.

[2] Vladimir Putin’s undoubted popularity bears all the hallmarks of authoritarian populism as defined here; this is borne out by an article entitled I’ve been visiting Russia for nearly 30 years.  I’ve never seen Russians prouder than under Putin – which was published in February 2017 at https://www.vox.com/world/2017/2/14/14549128/vladimir-putin-popular-russia-proud-patriotic-trump-ukraine-crackdown-sanctions-syria-dissident.

[3] On 18 December 2017, the Washington Post published an article entitled In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power; it was available in April 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-poland-a-window-on-what-happens-when-populists-come-to-power/2016/12/18/083577e8-c203-11e6-92e8-c07f4f671da4_story.html.

[4] An article entitled Thirty year march of the Front National appeared in the April 2017 edition of Prospect Magazine, and was available in April 2018 at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/thirty-year-march-of-the-front-national-marine-le-pen-france.

[5] Matthew d’Ancona’s article in The Guardian on 19 December 2016 was entitled Putin and Trump could be on the same side in this troubling new world order.  It identified Alexander Dugin and his philosophy of ‘Eurasianism’ as being influential on both President Putin and the Russian military.  Dugin had expressed approval of Donald Trump and had identified him and a number of European far right parties as being potential allies.  The article was available in April 2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2016/dec/19/trump-putin-same-side-new-world-order.