Global Rise of Authoritarianism

Global Rise of Authoritarianism

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“We don’t know who we are until we know whom we hate.”

-from Carl Schmitt 1996, paraphrased in Hervik 2011

If you want to understand the global rise of authoritarianism, start elsewhere. If you think social media is the cause of the rise of authoritarianism, again, start elsewhere. Where does this rise come from, with vast numbers of people willing to submit to powerful persons, mostly men, who promise simple solutions to the most complex problems, including military threat and intervention?

Try starting with the so-called post-1989 world, the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, and the final collapse of the Soviet Union. American Orientalists were quick to realize that the Western world needed a new enemy, since it had earlier defined itself in relation to the totalitarianism of the Communist enemies, Soviet Union, and China. In “Roots of Muslims Rage” and “Clash of Civilization,” Bernard Lewis (1990) and Samuel Huntington (1993) argued from an ideological point of view for “identity” and “culture” of certain others to be the new enemy. Judging on the success of their ideology, the message was a slam dunk. In addition, its success also came through as a deflection of attention to Bernard Lewis’ political role as architect of the huge military support to militant Muslim groups along the southern border of the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of preventing Russians from moving south and taking control of the oil-production. One of these groups was the Mujahedeen, who later re-emerged as the Taliban. When the Soviet Union collapsed for internal reasons, the two Orientalists knew the heavily weaponized Muslim fighters would be a future danger – especially if they teamed up with China against the United States (Hervik 2011).

Beginning in the early 1990s and peaking at the end of the decade, a new nationalism began within small, established, affluent Western states, and grew strong by presenting an image of Russians escaping in large numbers and hungry Africans swarming Europe with alien bodies and strange cultures. The politics of fear built up these cultural threats as foreign attempts to undermine the Western welfare states, which came to dominate the political conversations. Studies showed how voters’ fear of new refugees and migrants grew drastically in a short time due to the media coverage.

Portrayals of fear were accompanied by a securitization of language, for instance, through countries being framed as “invaded” by foreigners, the risk of a permanent occupation, calls for resistance and defense of “our” rights to our territory and culture. The key issue was identity. In light of rapid global changes and the securitization discourse, the question citizens asked in small “threatened” countries, like Denmark, was: “Who are we, as a nation?” Danes could give no answer but instead claimed: “We don’t know, but we know what we are not.” Constructing identity through a negative, simplified, stereotyped rendering of a person, group, culture, modernity, or religion is a common psychological and sociological phenomenon, but constructing an identity through nationalism comes with the particular risk of being uncontrollable. It leads directly to fierce, confrontational identity politics and disaster.

Now to authoritarianism. With a discourse of “cultural threat” followed by a securitization of language and a politics of fear, political entrepreneurs with friends in the media explained their solution. They claimed an authoritarian “strong man” was the only solution. In light of their fear, people need strong leaders with tough language and a willingness to act without compromising to soft humanitarianism and conventions. After all, the nation needs protection at any price.

Marcus Banks and Andre Gingrich (2006) showed almost 15 years ago that the authoritarianism rested on pillars of national, familial, and masculine values. In a world filled with fear, these values needed to be strengthened. This is the solution offered in response to the threating cultural others in the world after the cold war ended. National values are, in fact, nationalist values, and in my technical language, they are “neo-nationalist” values since they emerged from within the established states. In the Danish case, key strategies of neo-nationalism are: “restrictive foreigner policy” and “integration policy.” Public speakers are advised by communication experts to avoid talking about words such as “nationalism” and “racism,” since they are associated with negativity. Yet, compelling research by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians show that “nationalism” and “racism” are the key concepts underlying the separation of alien ”cultures” and bodies in political policies and public discourse. Concepts of nationalism and racisim underly public discourse about which people rightfully belong to the state and which do not. Those who belong should have full rights, including human rights. Those who do not belong also have full citizen rights and human rights – but not in the nation-state of Denmark. In the 1990s, politicians discussed passing laws preventing refugees from coming into Denmark, and once in Denmark, that their temporary residence could be upheld while also not allowed to integrate. Gradually, the political emphasis shifted to laws regulating the identity of people moving to Denmark as refugees being granted residential permits: Denial of voting rights, whom to fall in love with, what to eat, what clothes to wear (in public and private), how to greet people, where they are allowed to live, how many children they should have, choice of education, choice of jobs, where to bury their dead, how many social benefits they should have relative to “native” Danish citizens, how to live where they live, how to assemble or not, what television channels to watch, what language to speak and where, how to monitor them broadly, where to spend their vacation, if they should even have a vacation, and how much salary they should receive. Sound familiar? The Danish case is both unique and contains mechanisms of constructing Others negatively in order to boost its own entitlement and enable the passage of laws that would not have been possible without a threatening “other.” This Othering does not come from an analysis of the actions and discourse of certain actual groups; it is a figment of social imagination that political and media activists exploit for political and economic gains.

The point of this essay is not to look at the consequences of enhanced authoritarianism and identity politics. Instead, I want to draw attention to how they function to build a community– to build social cohesion in an increasingly nihilist modernist world. In this world of high-octane modernity, devoid of any meaningfulness in the existentialist sense of the term, everyday life is guided by the quest to maximize pleasures and the enforcement of the nation-state and national values under authoritative leaders who take on a sacred-like importance. Nationalists offer an identity that is non-negotiable and promotes dedication and a willingness to make sacrifices. Constructing migrants, and especially Muslims, as the enemy, national identity is built up under aggressive authoritarian rule that, through the discourse of a threat, has left people and their politicians in a constant state of alertness. Nationalist identity has become a predatory identity, as well as a pleasure and excitement.

Strengthening family and masculine values are nothing but fractal repetitions of each other and the national values. The family and nation are mapped onto each other, sharing a need for a strong “father-figure.” In his brilliant book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff has boiled down family values to two prototypes according to which Americans can be divided, to varying degrees and combinations. Basically, the Conservatives (Republicans) have cultivated the figure of the “strict father” (the authoritarian father). In an “evil world,” the father is to protect his children in a game of winners and losers. He teaches them right from wrong, using punishment as an incentive to reach the “right” way of thinking and acting. The strict father knows what is best for his children (and the country) and uses physical discipline more than dialogue as a guideline for bringing up children in his image. Discipline and punishment merge in the “strict father” model family and the strict leader of the nation. On the other side, Progressives follow the “nurturant parent” model, raising children to be nurtured into caring, loving, and empathic children and citizens. Children are taught through setting limits and providing explanations. If children do something wrong, they are taught to make up for it. Embedded in the “strict father” model and not in the “nurturant parent” model is the traditional masculine value. In the “nurturant parent” model, the father and mother take up the same parent role.

In Donald Trump’s campaign, the strengthening of masculine values has been explained as coming from “‘aggrieved masculinity,’ and male (re)entitlement, as men feel they’ve lost power.” “White” is the taken-for-granted and unmarked racial category. Morality is viewed as obedience to authority, and authority is threatened in the hyper-modern world leading to a moral outrage that calls for men to bond and regain lost power, which feminists have taken from them. In one version, this has created the “manosphere,” where men are in authority and allowed to be themselves.

By now the fear is no longer “constructed,” but people say that they “fear” cultural others. Because fear is internalized, people make claims about cultural incompatibility, which further naturalizes legal measures to expel or restrict the identities of minorities. The fearing public seems to accumulate moral outrage that automatically leads to endless calls for stricter policies to the extent that a parking ticket or speeding ticket, or a missing handshake, or a handshake wearing a glove, will delay the path to citizenship by years. Media scholars have for a long time known that anytime the media covers topics about migration, ethnic minorities, or calls for humanitarian responses, it favors the right- and radical right engaged in nationalism and anti-migration schemes. The more fear that can be generated, the more appeals of solidarity and genuine dialogue will be inhibited. One of the reasons is the very structure and logic of Western news journalism. A good story is a story of conflict, drama, strong visualization, clear consequences, and demands for quick solutions, which will always favor the “discipline and punishment” act-first, think-later “strict father.” Those who can take advantage of the media structure and build on the immediate fear of anger within ‘talking issues to death’ will win the media and popular and populist support.

One of the values generating support for a racialized authoritarianism that does not come directly from neo-nationalism comes from North American East Coast neoconservatism. A core value of neo-conservativism’s founding scholars, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, and captured by Samuel Huntington, is: “We don’t know who we are until we know whom we hate.” The success of this mantra is obvious as it seems to lie underneath the global rise of authoritarianism. This includes the Danish media coverage of the Muhammad Cartoon Controversy of 2005-06 that originated in Denmark and ended up claiming many lives around the world. Research showed the strong network links, as well as sharing of core values, between Danish journalists and pundits with American neo-conservatives.

The call for the return of authoritarian values works as a Carl Schmitt-type of friend vs. foe approach to domestic adversaries. ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the enemies’ is a friend-foe scheme that seeks to eliminate the grey zone and enter the black-white duality so popular in the news media and politics.

A true authoritarian way of trying to solve conflict is a “culture in danger” that must also be protected against people inside the border who do not ‘get it,’ who are ‘traitors,’ or ‘cowards,’ ‘naïve,’ ‘unmanly’ and so on. If you argue against nationalism, you are accused of being a traitor. If you argue for better treatment of migrants and refugees, you are accused of being in alliance with Muslims in their effort to take over Europe with their intrusions and demands.

Nationalist belief is one of the ultimate weapons of political organizing. Once you buy into it, your emotions, along with the anti-elite betraying your emotion, is nearly impossible to transgress, since it contains the sacred elements you are willing to die for. Schmitt would be happy with this development.

However, to end on a more cheerful note, younger generations in Europe, and not least in Denmark, have successfully evoked a strong emotional and rational call for attention to climate change challenges deflecting some voter attention away from elder-based, radical right parties, with a neo-nationalist, neo-racist agenda.


Banks, Marcus, and Andre Gingrich, (ed.). 2006. Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Hervik, Peter. 2011. The Annoying Difference. The Emergence of Danish Neonationalism, Neoracism, and Populism in the Post-1989 World. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Huntington, Samuel. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3: 22–49.

Kimball, Gayle. 2017.  Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution, Volume 1. Chico, CA.; Equality Press.

Lakoff, George. 2004. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing. The%20Essential%20Guide%20for%20Progressives%202004.pdf

Lewis, Bernard. 1990. “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” Atlantic Monthly 266, no. 3: 47–60.

Peter Hervik, Danish Social Anthropologist, Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark. Hervik has conducted research among the Yucatec Maya of Mexico and in Denmark on issues of identity, categorization, racialization, neo-racism, neo-nationalism, populism, ethnicity, multiculturalism, tolerance, and news media particularly the coverage of ethnic and religious issues.

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