Nathan Steinle
Contributor

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 war.

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 tyrant.

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 minorities.

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 differences.