How Authoritarians Erode Democracy Under The Guise Of Defending It

From the fascists of the early 20th Century to the modern Republican Party, those who seek to undermine democracy usually do so in the name of democracy.
Former President Trump at his June 5, 2021 speech: “I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy. I’m the one who is trying to save it.” (C-SPAN)

Former President Trump at his June 5, 2021 speech: “I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy. I’m the one who is trying to save it.” (C-SPAN)

Co-written by Greta Jasser and Dominik Hammer

Greta Jasser is a research associate at the University of Hildesheim, and PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. She is a doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), and a founding member of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism (IRMS). She researches far-right and misogynist online networks, with an interest in technology, platforms, affordances and ideologies.

Dominik Hammer is a research manager at the German office of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where he analyses far-right fringe platforms in the German context. He is currently writing his PhD in political science from the Technische Universität Dresden, with a thesis on the ideational and legal history of eugenics in liberal democracies.

The last decade has brought about both new conspiracy theories as well as the revival of older conspiracy myths on the far-right. Some far-right figureheads propagate the fear of a “Great Replacement” (an imagined genocide against white people). Some warn of the “Great Reset” and fear that this World Economic Forum (WEF) plan to strengthen the economy after the coronavirus-pandemic is really a code for establishing a totalitarian system. Others peddle a synthesis of these two myths. One of the unifying factors of the different far-right narratives and movements is the fear of being overpowered by dark forces – one of the core features of conspiracy theories.

Especially in the context of the coronavirus-pandemic, these fear narratives are expressed through rhetoric about individual liberties and political rights. Anti-lockdown protesters, among them the far-right activists seeking to dominate this political movement, claim the rise of a dictatorship. The narratives vary, and range from an engineered crisis – i.e. that the pandemic has been caused to install this imagined dictatorship, and/or isn’t real – or that the current health-crisis is used to seize control. Narratives regarding a “medical deep state” take hold. The protesters then present themselves as defenders of freedom and democracy. This is especially easy in a situation where states have taken the necessary precautions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, including curbing civil liberties and democratic rights.

This self-presentation as defenders of democracy, however, is not confined to the current situation. It is consistent both with far-right strategy and ideology.

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Strategically, the long-lasting success of democracy as a form of government and the approval of democracy by a majority in most democratic states make it difficult for democracy’s enemies to attack it outright. Instead, rhetoric that pins the “true” democracy of their own movement against the alleged perversion of democracy by the ruling elites has proven to be successful – both as a far-right and a populist strategy. This rhetorical device of using a “democratic cloak” has been used by far-right agitators for decades, including in the US, where a democratic tradition prevented open attacks on democracy, as Theodor Adorno notes. In his analysis of the “democratic cloak” device, he points out:

“The American attack on democracy usually takes place in the name of democracy. Very often the progressive Roosevelt administration is blamed for being that very dictatorship at which the fascist aims”.

A similar observation is made by Leo Löwenthal in “Prophets of Deceit”, his study on fascist agitators. Löwenthal describes how the fascist agitator on the one hand presents himself as a champion of democracy, and on the other hand attacks, with drastic words, democracy as it exists in the US. The aim, Löwenthal points out, is blurring the distinction between fascism and democracy, a goal that is further served by accusing democratic leaders like FDR of totalitarian aims:

“To further muddy the waters, he hurls the accusation of fascism against those who have come to symbolize opposition to fascism. He consistently denounces the New Deal as an effort to introduce totalitarianism in America, and declares that ‘Roosevelt got his technique from Hitler and the Jews.’”

Instead of the existing pluralist democracy, in which different social and political minority groups form majority coalitions to govern, the fascist agitator offers a majoritarian and identitarian vision, that is democratic in name only. Löwnthal continues:

“The agitator transforms democracy from a system that guarantees minority rights into one that merely affirms the privileged status of the majority. Persecution of minorities is thus within the rights of the majority and any attempt to limit the exercise of this ‘right’ is interpreted as persecution of the majority by the minority. Such an interpretation of democracy results in its negation.”

The authors of the Study on the Authoritarian Personality describe the projective accusation of dictatorship as a “Usurpation Complex”. They find that it is rooted in a desire to “establish a dictatorship of the economically strongest group”. To justify their own dictatorial means, the authoritarians accuse others of undermining democracy and frame their desire for establishing a dictatorship as an act of self-defense. With regards to the authoritarians in 1940s USA and their hostility towards the Roosevelt administration, the researchers note:

“To them, progressives in the government are real usurpers, not so much because they have acquired by shrewd and illegal manipulation rights incompatible with American democracy, but rather because they assume a power position which should be reserved for the ‘right people.’”

Jordan McSwiney finds a similar strategy in his article “Why were the Capitol rioters so angry? Because they’re scared of losing grip on their perverse idea of democracy”, when Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, claiming to be doing it to defend the US-American democracy:

“Behind their anger is almost a perverse democratic sentiment. Many no doubt genuinely believe their democratic rights have been subverted by liberal elites and ‘traitor Republicans’ who don’t buy into Trump’s messages. And so along with anger, there is also a sense of fear: fear that American democracy has been overturned at the hands of their ‘opponents’, even as they themselves actively undermine liberal democratic values and institutions.”

This phenomenon can also be seen in the hundreds of voter suppression bills the Republican Party is pushing across the US. They pursue this legislation in the name of “election integrity.” Former President Trump explicitly highlighted this tactic of appropriating democratic language in his latest speech:

Fears and narratives of usurpation by what the right perceived as the ‘wrong people’ – meaning not their in-group – ran high in the build-up to the attempted insurrection. During a period of multiple crisis, including the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiratorial narratives flourish.

In Germany, we can observe this line of thinking and the phenomenon in some anti-lockdown protesters and ‘Querdenker’ (a self-denominated conglomerate of people protesting the Covid-measures, literally translating to ‘lateral thinkers’ and loosely translating to ‘contrarians’), who are accusing Angela Merkel of authoritarianism and are claiming to live in a ‘Corona-Dictatorship’, while praising leaders like Vladimir Putin and calling for the reinstatement of the German Empire. At the same time, they are proclaiming themselves defenders of democratic rights and freedoms.

It is necessary time and again, to question, what exactly these activists mean when they talk about democracy, and whose freedoms are at stake, as their vision of democracy often has nothing to do with self-rule.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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