“A dictator is in general a man who comes from below and then throws himself in an even deeper hole…the world watches him…and jumps into the void after him,” said Charlie Chaplin in 1939, commenting on the destructiveness of the leader-follower dynamic. To understand how those leaders convince people to take that leap, and what needs such leader worship fill, we can look at authoritarian cults - when and why they hold particular appeal, and how they operate. For although illiberal leaders may share with celebrities a certain magnetism and charisma, their particular power and fame lies in their ability to get people to do their bidding, no matter what that entails.
Authoritarian cults find favor at moments of transition, when existing political parties and politicians seem unresponsive to the needs of the moment and there is mass anxiety and anger about progress in racial, gender, and labor emancipation. This disaffection stimulates yearnings for a different kind of leader, creating a space in the political marketplace that ambitious and ruthless individuals exploit.
The cults that rose up around Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in the early 1920s provided a foundation. In the wake of a ruinous war, they answered anxieties about the decline of male status, the waning of class privilege, and the loss of moral clarity. Those who saw these men speak in person, like Heinrich Class, Chair of the Pan-German League, and the critic Ugo Ojetti, felt they were witnessing “something entirely new in the political life of our nation“: the comfort of “the world reduced to black and white,” presented by someone with “absolute faith in himself and in his own powers of persuasion.”
This relief among followers in finding an anchoring figure who provides a solution to current problems (often by identifying scapegoats), and reveals a dogma that makes the universe legible, remains unchanged a century later. Such feelings can be all the more potent if the aspiring leader presents those truths as forbidden by the "establishment" and poses as someone who is risking everything to make the real facts known.
This was an important part of Hitler's persona in the 1920s, when his hate speech got him banned by several German states, as this 1926 Nazi Party poster shows. It has been equally effective in selling Donald Trump to his devotees as the source of an alternate knowledge base hidden from the public by "fake news."
It's significant that Weimar Germany and 2016 America both had dynamic and diversified media and advertising landscapes. As delivery mechanisms of alternate knowledge bases, cults flourish when media systems, too, are in flux. Authoritarians have often modernized messaging, using state of the art communications technologies (from newsreels to television to Twitter) to cultivate followers who may be looking for new forms of connection.
Language and performance are key to the creation of cult-worlds that immerse adherents in a special community with its own rules and rewards. To convert individuals into believers and restructure their identity, the cult leader speaks a highly resonant emotional language. He or she love-bombs followers, making them feel they are personally valued and heard. All the better if communications are delivered through catchy slogans and buzzwords that become a kind of currency, something adherents can make their own - the verbal equivalent of a uniform or MAGA hat.
Creating collective experiences of awe and moments of "high fervor" is also part of the formula. Traditionally, proximity to the special body and words of the leader at rallies or in-person gatherings provided the immersion needed to convert people and sustain belief. Yet relatively few people, even in the days of classic dictatorship, had direct access to the leader, so media and rallies led by surrogates compensated. Today's cults that live more on-line than off, like QAnon, must be creative in setting the stage for "awe experiences" to happen.
Gaslighting --convincing followers to doubt their own eyes, ears, and critical faculties, and accept an alternate reality-- is essential to the cultivation process. Gaslighting is key to achieving the most devastating part of authoritarianism: the suppression of the autonomous self and any sense of self-regard and self-love. When this is accomplished, it is not hard to get people to act against their own self-interest, engaging in behaviors that harm themselves, their loved ones, and their country. Hearing crowds cheering America's low vaccination rates at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference is a good example.
Mr. Trump has been a highly effective cult leader, especially on Jan. 6, which was a cult leader rescue operation. The video he tweeted (and later removed) to call off the rioters, hours into the assault, sums up how the authoritarian manipulates his followers, professing care for them to keep their loyalty. "I know your pain, I know you're hurt," he told them. "This was a fraudulent election, but we can't play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home, we love you, you're very special." If the history of authoritarian cults is any measure, his followers won't be satisfied until he is back in the White House, no matter the cost to America.
Charlie Chaplin, in Voilà, 1939, quoted in Alain Joubert, Le moustache d’Adolf Hitler, et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard, 2016), 16-17.
Heinrich Class, 1920, in Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler, trans. John Brownjohn (New York, 2001), 122-123; Ugo Ojetti, 1921, in Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices. An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy (London, 2012), 48.
Jerrold Post, Leaders and their Followers in a Dangerous World (Ithaca, 2004).
Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy,” American Sociological Review 83, 1 (2018).
Alberto Carracciolo, in Duggan, Fascist Voices, 201.