Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of narcissistic authoritarian leaders. A surge of toxic misinformation online helps of course to promote their cause.

For authoritarian-minded leaders, the Corona crisis — and now the murder of George Floyd– offer convenient pretexts to silence critics and consolidate power. Yes. Authoritarianism is about power: power over people.

Over the years I have had a number of encounters — and a few conflicts — with authoritarian leaders, in ecclesiastical settings but in academia as well. What I learned, early on, is that authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era, as long as it makes them feel safe and comfortable….In fact their actions often result in chaos more than tranquility. Today we know chaos for sure…..

What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, but quite often tyrannical and often brutal. Cynical authoritarians today exploit white racism to sell their policies and advance their influence…Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name and texts of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian virus.

As the authoritarian viral infection takes over one’s system, authoritarian thinking becomes sloppy; and a ferocious dogmatism blinds people to evidence and logic. I recall the example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, all sharks are fish.”

People need to make distinctions, as they think and speak about reality. Authoritarians thrive on thoughtless generalities that inflame rather than inform.

One of the most dangerous generalities, advocated in current Washington DC rhetoric, links criticism of authoritarianism with support for the dangerously anarchist far-left movement Antifa. To use the faulty-logic example of my college professor, again, the destructive generality would be: “Antifa opposes authoritarianism. Jack’s friends opposes authoritarianism. Therefore Jack’s friends belong to Antifa.” [Another faulty logic example of course would be: “Disinfecting helps against the Corona virus. Clorox is an effective disinfectant. Therefore one should ingest Clorox to safeguard against the Corona virus.”]

Yes. We do need to think clearly. And….we do need to confront authoritarianism in leaders and followers…. It is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes our society. And right now — we need to work together to bring a wounded, divided country together. There is no justification for destructive violence from the right or from the left….Difficult as it may be, we must build bridges.

One builds bridges by constructive words and actions. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. We need to speak-out now or forever remain silent. And we cannot do it alone. Even if it appears that you are the only person who grasps what’s happening, you have to take courageous leadership to inform and organize others.

Today we need well-informed and critical-thinking observers who are willing to courageously collaborate with others, as they become effective but non-violent change agents.

Five points for effective change:

(1) We need to have a clear and accurate vision of reality. Dialogue is important here because it has to be a shared vision. We listen, we observe, and we explore together. And we build and re-build together.

(2) We need to be courageous and persistent but patient as well….Change does not happen overnight. Many people get frustrated when change doesn’t happen fast enough. The danger is that they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal.

(3) We need to demonstrate that we are about more than just nice-sounding rhetoric. Effective change agents have character and credibility. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others.

(4) We must build strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with collaborators. People will not want to grow and change if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change.

(5) And finally…..We must not allow ourselves to become and act like the authoritarians: nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful in creating broad-based change than violent campaigns. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but hatred and denigration of other people are tokens of the anti-Christ.

Together we move forward….


8 thoughts on “New Virus Alert: Authoritarian Leaders and Followers….

  1. Thank you so much, Jack, for both helping us to recognize and identify the problem and guiding us to the solution. Much appreciated!

  2. Dear Jack,
    You have given us a lot to think about! What touched me in your words is how much fear of change plays into authoritarianism and how non-critical thinking allows one to let others control your life. To avoid getting involved may work for the moment but in the long one, it may not get you what you really want. The hard part in all this is that dialogue comes when both sides sincerely share ideas/beliefs with openness and a desire to communicate. If one believes that compromise is actually losing, then one doesn’t listen with sincerity but as a means to find a weakness in the other position. As long as perception is that the other person is the “enemy,” then communication is used as non-physical combat and about winning and losing instead of finding common ground. It surely is a challenging time. But, fortunately, there are reasonable voices out there, if they can be heard.

  3. Thank you so much, Jack. Your words could not have come at a more necessary time, even for me personally. We must be watchful and participate if we want to maintain our democracy. Your essay helps us understand one of the basic enemies of our form of government — authoritarianism. It’s not always easy to walk the line, however, between democracy and authoritarianism. I think it takes quite a bit of maturity to figure out how to live successfully and peacefully in a republic or democratic society. In 1787 Ben Franklin said the Framers had “produced a republic, if you can keep it.” And last year Chief Justice Roberts asked all Americans “to invest themselves in the preservation of constitutional democracy.” Wow! To invest ourselves in preserving our democracy!

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