Nathan Steinle

Why we must stop populist leaders

Authoritarianism is simply the abuse of authority at the
expense of liberty. America certainly has had authoritarian tendencies — from
the brutal subjugation of native peoples, the legacy of anti-immigration
ideologies, the reluctance in accepting refugees, the heinous system of mass
incarceration, to our ever-expanding imperial presidency.

Still, over the past 200 years, the civil liberties of the
average American have improved greatly because historically repressed groups
have fought for social and political equalities, from ethnic minorities
fighting racism and discrimination to labor unions fighting industrial and
corporate tycoons.

Nevertheless, over the last 20 years, it seems we have begun
to move backwards. This is perhaps most vividly demonstrated by the resurgence
of far-right political ideologies into mainstream politics, collectively known
as the “alt-right,” for whom President Trump is a demagogue.

As discussed in an article published in ***The Mercury*** in
2016, “Democracy Threatened by Authoritarian Ideas,” Americans are increasingly
prone to follow despotic leaders who use ideologies such as nationalism and
extreme populism as conduits to gain power.

A bait-and-switch is when a seemingly reasonable proposition
is given, but after the proposition is accepted, it is replaced with an
unreasonable assertion (hence the switch). Sometimes it’s done in reverse — a
motte-and-bailey — where something absurd is said before a politican retreats
to something more sensible. These tactics are ubiquitously used by
authoritarians, and we need not look far to find examples.

After the tragic events of 9/11, Americans fell for an
ultimate bait-and-switch. Under the guise of better protection against
terrorism — the bait — our Congress passed the Patriot Act. The legislation
allows the government to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone they label as an
imminent threat to national security, opening the doors to the abuse of our
liberties by groups such as the Department of Defense and the FBI — the switch.
President Obama further baited us with campaign promises that he would revisit
the Patriot Act to increase oversight of government surveillance, but he barely
made a dent and instead used it to justify his expansion of America’s drone

Trump’s regime stoops deeper into the authoritarian abyss,
since it baits-and-switches with vociferous rhetoric and abhorrent actions that
ought to disqualify him from leading free people.

For instance, while Trump denounces climate change as a hoax
and climate scientists as frauds, he builds walls to protect his golf courses
in Scotland from the sea level rise due to climate change. Such hypocrisy is
glaringly blatant.

He repeatedly calls the press the “enemy of the people,”
while he sat at a table with one of the world’s most cruel authoritarians, Kim
Jong-un, and admitted jealousy of how well the dictator is treated by his
state-run press. This should deeply worry you. Trump set the bait that he’s a
victim of unfair criticisms and then switched to cozying up with a legitimate

As another example, Trump assured the “return of law and
order.” However, he clearly has the opposite in mind since he didn’t speak out
sufficiently after one of his supporters sent bombs to his self-declared
enemies — Democrats and the mainstream media — and since his rhetoric directly
coincides with the increase of crimes against Jews, Muslims and other

Although he would have us think differently, the danger of
the regressive-left pales in comparison to the danger of Trump’s
authoritarianism. To discredit anything the left wing does, he associates the
regressive-left’s faults with the entire political left-wing. This president’s
deceit is not only fallacious. It’s grievous, since the anti-fascist movement
is rooted in left-wing liberalism, and fascism emerges from right-wing populism
such as what he symbolizes.

We should not fear Trump, nor what his followers are capable
of. Rather, we should be wary of falling for authoritarian tricks. If we cannot
identify and overcome low-level authoritarians that run our government without
sacrificing our liberties, then we have no shot against the high-level
authoritarians elsewhere in the world.

As Voltaire said, anyone who can make you believe
absurdities can make you commit injustices. His words are as relevant as ever,
and each of us has a role to play here. Don’t take the authoritarian bait,
don’t be overwhelmed by fear and don’t hate your opposition. Voting is a great
start, but take the step to get to know those with whom you disagree — you’ll
be surprised to find that there’s an ocean of similarities around the pond of