August 4, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
People who desire a leader to save them from the humiliations of democracy are people who will do what they’re told
No, you're wrong. The authoritarians among us do not want freedom.
Some among us, liberals mostly, appear to believe that a federally enforced vaccine mandate would backfire. This is not unreasonable. After all, the authoritarian holdouts who are prolonging the covid pandemic in this country tell us time and again they will resist getting vaccinated because their individual rights and freedom demand it.
But a national mandate, or a patchwork of state and local mandates, as is usually the case in the United States, will have the opposite effect. I have no doubt about it. The authoritarians among us certainly seem exceptionally strong. After all, they are willing to die before “giving in.” In fact, they are exceptionally frail and weak. They will cave almost instantly under the weight of the authority of government and civil society.
Authoritarians tell each other staggering, howling lies about their imagined enemies, obviously, but more importantly about themselves. In every story about American history, they are the original victims and they are the ultimate heroes.
Liberals of the kind I consort with here on the east coast very rarely understand this, because liberals of the kind I consort with tend to give authoritarians the benefit of the doubt. It’s very much to their credit that they believe authoritarians, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when they go on Fox, as Gingrich did, to say the anti-American left would love to “drown” “traditional Americans” in a sea of “illegal immigrants.” When authoritarians like Gingrich say “they want to get rid of us,” the liberal response is to recognize fear and try easing it. We don’t want to get rid of anyone, we liberals say. We want to make a country where everyone feels at home.
Authoritarians like Gingrich, however, do not fear illegal immigrants. They do not fear “demographic change.” They do not fear the historic moment some time this century when the United States will become a minority-majority country. These are not primary fears. These are secondary fears that justify taking actions that they already want to pursue, but have not, until recent years, had the opportunity to pursue. If authoritarians do not fear these primarily, then what do they fear? It’s so simple, so one dimensional as to be stupid. You’re going to laugh. They fear they aren’t great.
What on earth are you talking about, John? These are the same people who sacked and looted the United States Capitol in a bid to overturn a free, fair and full election. Too true, but consider this. Authoritarians tell each other staggering, howling lies about their imagined enemies, obviously, but more importantly about themselves. In every story about American history, they are the original victims and they are the ultimate heroes. This has always been the case. The authoritarians have always been with us. Social media has magnified the lies such that the lies now grow massive. Eventually, you don’t know what’s true. You don’t care either. The lies, however, feel real good.
This is where yesterday’s column comes in. I said authoritarians don’t mind hurting themselves to gain political advantage because they are already hurting. Why? Because the lies they inhabit—about their enemies, about America as a white man’s country and about themselves as the rightful inheritors of “democracy”—shatter every time the lies come in contact with what I call normal people. Normal people act as if the sky is blue! Normal people are extraordinarily dangerous to the integrity of your identity if you inhabit lies telling you all day every day the sky is mint green. Just walking around in the same space and time that normal people are walking around in risks humiliation—of being wrong, because, you know, you believe lies. You won’t stop lying, though. Lies feel too good. What you will do is try forcing normal people to believe your lies.
So when Newt Gingrich goes on Fox to accuse “the anti-American left” of wanting to “drown” “traditional Americans” in a sea of “illegal immigrants,” it’s tempting, if you’re a liberal, to respond in a couple of ways. One, by easing the authoritarian’s fear in some fashion, usually by saying immigration should be lawful and regulated but immigrants themselves are welcome. Or, two, by trying to dismiss fire-breathing racists like Gingrich on account of their being fire-breathing racists. While both approaches have merit, I think they are missing something huge, because, if you’re a liberal, you might still be taking these authoritarians at their word. Don’t do that.
The authoritarians among us don’t care about “lawlessness.” They don’t care about “illegal immigration.” They don’t care about “border security.” They don’t care about being replaced. These are not their primary fears. These are secondary fears that justify taking actions they already want to pursue, but have not, until recent years, had the opportunity to pursue, which is this: ending the pain that comes with walking around in the same space and time that normal people are walking around in—ending the constant threat of humiliation that comes inevitably with sharing a republic with Americans who do not or will not believe the authoritarians’ lies about themselves.
How can they end the pain? They can’t on their own, because they live in a democracy where normal people outnumber them. What they need is a hero. What they need is a savior. What they need is a fuhrer-king. You see where I’m going. The lies Donald Trump tells about himself are a perfect match for the lies authoritarians among us tell about themselves. To Trump, he can’t lose. When he did, he tried forcing normal people to believe lies. When a former House speaker accuses immigrants of replacing “traditional Americans,” what he’s really doing is projecting. The point of the authoritarian project is replacing democracy. When the former president sent his paramilitaries to the Capitol to overturn the election, what he was doing, from the point of view of the authoritarians among us, was ending the source of their pain.
Again, it’s so simple and stupid. All this because they fear they aren’t great. Well, they aren’t. People who desire a fuhrer-king to protect them from the daily humiliations of democracy are people who will do what they’re told. Liberals keep taking them at their word. They keep believing the authoritarian’s cry for freedom! Don’t do that. Their resistance will shatter in the presence of government authority as quickly as their lies about themselves shatter in the presence of normal people. Their pain is and always has been of their own making. There’s nothing we liberals can do to ease that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.