Right-wing Authoritarian Populism

Right-wing authoritarian populism is centred on a strong leader who offers to overthrow the establishment to satisfy discontented voters

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 who offer strong confident leadership in what has been described as “Trumpism and Authoritarian Populism”.  It is an aggressive form of nationalism, which is sometimes referred to as ‘right-wing populism’.

Boris Johnson became Britain’s Trump: “Johnson came to office as an insurgent, shattering convention and breaking the political mould. Winning the Brexit vote and then promising to deliver it, he had no truck with diplomatic niceties or the Westminster establishment”; he “was the first British prime minister to break the law in office”; his MPs “feared he was endangering both his party and democracy more widely.”

Authoritarian populism is effective because of the simplicity and directness of its message.  Pippa Norris, in her article It’s not just Trump.  Authoritarian populism is rising across the West.  Here’s why, explained it 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”.  This form of nationalism offers a forceful independent foreign policy, anti-immigrant policies, and a disregard for ‘political correctness’.

It has become widespreadThe Independent reported on the ‘Authoritarian populism’ behind Donald Trump’s victory and Brexit becoming driving force in European politics; it referred to a YouGov survey, Trump, Brexit, Front National, AfD: branches of the same tree, which found a high incidence of authoritarian populist attitudes in 8 out of the 12 European countries surveyed.  Other example articles are: I’ve been visiting Russia for nearly 30 years.  I’ve never seen Russians prouder than under Putin (February 2017); In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power (December 2016); and a Prospect Magazine article on France: Thirty year march of the Front National (April 2017).

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 practice.  Donald Trump’s slogan in the 2016 US presidential election was an offer to “make America great again”.  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’.  Both these campaigns relied on promoting nationalist sentiments in the population.

Anti-immigration messages appeal to many voters, but overt racism is unpopular.  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”.

Leaders make themselves appear stronger by breaking the rules.  They can undermine a democracy if they try to sweep aside its checks and balances and if they suppress or overly dominate political opposition.  Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, described some characteristics that are recognisably similar to Trump’s approach – as pointed out by Courtney Tenz in his article: Trump could destroy public discourse and lead to someone worse, according to Hannah Arendt’s philosophy.

Trump’s false claims about the election having been stolen have been comprehensively debunked but, as Max Boot noted in his article, Trump saved the worst for last, “Trump’s singular focus since the election has been on overturning the results even at the cost of destroying U.S. democracy”.  In trying to destroy Biden’s democratic legitimacy, he undermined trust in the entire political system.

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.  Matthew d’Ancona’s article in The Guardian on 19 December 2016, Putin and Trump could be on the same side in this troubling new world order, identified Alexander Dugin and his philosophy of ‘Eurasianism’ as influencing both President Putin and the Russian military.  Dugin had expressed approval of Donald Trump and had identified him and some European far right parties as being potential allies.

Authoritarian populism can become a route to undermining democracy to the point where it is no longer a meaningful description of the political system, as has arguably happened in Russia and Turkey (  It can be a gradual process, as in Poland and Hungary – eliminating opposition, silencing press criticism, and undermining the rule of law – and it depends on the continued popularity of the politicians concerned.  Constitutional mechanisms have prevented democracies from being completely undermined in other cases, though, as described in the next sub-section (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6326b.htm