The Rise of New Authoritarian Leaders: Democracies in Peril

In her compelling book, "Democracy Awakening," Heather Cox Richardson delves into the unsettling reality that democracies often face a greater threat from the ballot box than from overt coercion, argues Gurnam Singh


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

In her compelling book, “Democracy Awakening,” Heather Cox Richardson delves into the unsettling reality that democracies often face a greater threat from the ballot box than from overt coercion. Through a meticulous analysis of contemporary political landscapes, Richardson highlights the emergence and appeal of Donald Trump in the US, though her basic analysis offers a general theory of how new authoritarian leaders such as Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro, have emerged to undermine peace and democracy. She outlines how authoritarian leaders manipulate existing power structures, undermine truth, and exploit the aspirations and insecurities of their followers.

A distinctive feature of these leaders, as Richardson notes, is their ability to transform themselves into heroic figures reclaiming a nation, rather than persuading citizens with practical solutions. The distinction between these “warriors” and lifelong activists lies in the former’s focus on reinforcing followers’ fantasy self-image, organizing them into a mass movement that transcends traditional political engagement.

This transformation of the leader into a rock star or messiah, reminiscent of a religious cult, plays a pivotal role. The narrative becomes simplistic—‘good’ versus ‘evil’—defining the identity of the followers. Truth becomes secondary to a rhetoric of victimhood, decline, national renewal and the loss of an imagined past greatness. The leader’s propaganda is internalized by the followers, creating a loyal army that values loyalty to the leader over objective reality.

As the leader’s actions become more destructive, a paradoxical phenomenon unfolds: the followers’ loyalty deepens. This loyalty, borne out of a need to justify the mistreatment of perceived enemies, solidifies into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The followers become entangled in a psychological web where turning against the leader means acknowledging their own complicity in acts they may have once deemed unthinkable.

The leader, having forged an unshakeable following, embarks on a distortion of history to galvanize their base into an authoritarian movement. This distortion is achieved by framing policies, often contentious, as adhering to established natural or religious rules threatened or abandoned by their enemies, or long-lost imaginary identities and traditions seemingly destroyed by perceived enemies, both external and internal. Reminiscent of Benedict Anderson’s conception of nationalism and imagined communities, this appeal to lost/stolen ‘traditional’ rules offers a solution in the shape of a hierarchical mono-cultural society rather than one that reflects diversity and equality, which casts the strongman’s followers as inherently superior to their opponents.

The narrative then unfolds, suggesting that following these “traditional” rules is the only path to a positive outcome, while deviating from them would lead to dire consequences. These very same narratives of victimhood of an imaginary indigenous population under siege from ‘others’ distort the wider social, economic and historical dimensions to the real material problems that the followers of authoritarian leaders. Here, in a state of alienation, red rag single issues, manufactured moral panics, such as immigration and multiculturalism, become seen as more important than the actual problems and needs of the vast majority of the foot soldiers of the authoritarian leaders.

Richardson’s analysis serves as a stark warning about the vulnerability of democracies in the face of charismatic leaders who exploit grievances, manufacture narratives, and foster a distorted sense of identity among their followers. The rise of new authoritarian leaders is not just a challenge for individual nations but a collective threat to the very essence of democracy, which should concern us all.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)

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