An authoritarian movement is happening now in our country and taking firm root despite our attempts to shoulder shrug the evidence away. Its progression augers for increasingly dangerous times as the nation shifts from its democratic foundation toward one with autocratic leanings. Pertinent questions arise: How might violence potentially manifest? Are there specific elements in such movements that might be fueling the potential for violence? To ponder such questions, we might look upon the intriguing combination of historical patterns and our neurobiological infrastructure.
It is generally common knowledge that authoritarian movements follow similar patterns and share identifiable characteristics. Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor and expert on authoritarianism, states that authoritarian movements in history inform us and give us the opportunity to make consequential decisions. “For example, one pattern we can see in interwar Germany is that political violence, if it's not substantially punished, will tend to repeat itself. Another is that if paramilitary organizations get out of control, they end up shaping the political atmosphere and playing an intimidating part in elections.”
Another feature of authoritarian patterns is that they don’t just spontaneously arise. Typically, a period of social unrest precedes such movements. In America, increased economic inequality and insecurity coupled with demographic and cultural shifts over the last four decades underlie much public discontent. Resentment seethes and festers, particularly in those who see themselves as having lost previously held status. Fear and anxiety course through the public body.
In such contexts, demagogues arise, also known nowadays as strongmen or ethnic entrepreneurs, armed with a language of hate used to sway the emotions of the discontented. Sodden with the quest for power, they manipulate a public that feels forgotten and abandoned. The demagogue shapes himself into the so-called charismatic leader who gives the discontented simple explanations and solutions to the causes of their hardships. Of course, these causes are usually in the form of a scapegoat (an enemy)—immigrants who have taken their jobs, the governing elites who have abandoned them. The complexities of such issues are cast aside. The sparks of violence flick into the air.
Lashing Out at a Scapegoat Feels Good
As the pattern continues to unfold the discontent transforms into anger directed at a perceived enemy, or enemies, presented by the demagogue. Scapegoating is in full swing. Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist and author of Behave, said of scapegoating, “It’s an incredibly mammalian thing to do…because it makes you feel better! …a horrifyingly effective stress reduction mechanism.”
In a darker sense, scapegoating creates an atmosphere for all to feel good together. In this regard, political rallies are a favored venue of demagogues. Such events provide the opportunity to amplify “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters. Elesa Zehndorfer in her study of the role of physiology and political behavior, aptly describes a typical Trump rally: “the sea of MAGA hats, the chants, the ‘in-jokes’ are all designed to spike oxytocin, a socially-bonding hormone, whilst blistering attacks on opponents ‘lock her up’, etc., are designed to spike fear & anger.”
Through ritualized group participation, bonding is facilitated by a contagion effect. Group identity intensifies and coincides with a deepening sense of purpose and meaning among followers. At this point in the pattern, the rational functioning of the brain’s frontal lobes is diminished by the powerful “fight or flight” circuity of the limbic system activated by the demagogue’s fear rhetoric. We often underestimate the power of these forces in politics or basic human behavior. Let it be said: The pattern’s fuse has been lit.
Toxic Polarization and Extremism
Toxic polarization and extremism come to embed the country’s political structure. The nation that once grasped a shared collective reality shifts to an Us vs Them view of the world. At this stage, the ability to compromise has been reduced to the size of a pea. Such a loss forebodes the unravelling of democracy which can only endure through a treasured rule of compromise, a shared sense of the truth. Reality loses its common grounding. The brain’s “fight or flight” circuitry engendered by hate rhetoric has essentially “switched off” the frontal lobes capacity for adaptive reasoning.
Disinformation and outrage spewing through our social media and cable channels maintain the dysfunction. An ever-present enemy must be continually fed to the movement’s discontented participants to keep toxic passions high. Once inculcated into the tribal identity, facts don’t matter. Information that doesn’t conform to the values and goals of the movement and its charismatic cult-like leader is demeaned and paradoxically makes one more resistant to contradictory evidence.
Here in Lies the Rub
At this point violence is likely to take on a greater role. As the hate rhetoric heightens and metastasizes throughout media outlets, the demagogue and his cohorts associate the enemy (the Other) to that which is vile, malodorous, immoral—here come your roaches, rats, snakes, disease. Sapolsky notes, "If you get to the point where citing 'thems' causes your followers to activate neurons in the insular cortex—the part of the brain that responds to viscerally disgusting things—you've finished most of your to-do list for your genocide."
At this point, the dehumanization of Them becomes deeply ingrained in the brain’s neurobiological infrastructure. Along with the brain’s reasoning centers, empathy centers that might have once activated in relation to the Other’s pain or distress are suppressed. Dehumanization of the Other is accomplished.
And this is where in the unfolding of authoritarian movements, it’s essential to take the hard look. The manifestations of dehumanization through hate rhetoric lay strewn throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide equated the Tutsis to cockroaches. 491,000–800,000 Tutsis died. Estimates range from 60 million to 150 million innocent victims of genocide and mass slaughter in the 20th century alone.
Other factors such as peer pressure and a sense of obedience to authority may contribute to mass violence, but dehumanization snaps open the door to such horrific episodes. And, of course, hate rhetoric does not necessarily predict mass violence. Thankfully, we can insult or demean someone without killing them. But as Anne Applebaum stated in her timely Atlantic article Ukraine and the Words That Lead to Mass Murder, “while not every use of genocidal hate speech leads to genocide, all genocides have been preceded by genocidal hate speech.” History informs but does not etch in stone the happenings of tomorrow. It does tell us this: When hate speech triggers the brain to think that the Other is subhuman and coming to destroy you, the potential for unimaginable violence approaches the very edge of possibility.
What has happened before in history is happening now. Authoritarianism is now accelerating, feeding its followers the frightening specter of vile and immoral enemies—Jews, elites, immigrants, BLM, gays, the press, the “woke” (whatever that is), the poor, the opposing political party, ad infinitum. The underlying message: They are coming to destroy your way of life. The bane of existential threat is in place. History informs that acts of unimaginable violence become possible as the rhetoric of dehumanization flames through social media and cable channels.
In the scope of current events, we can look upon the words of Putin preceding his genocidal actions against Ukraine. In speaking of the West he states: “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.” In this televised message to the Russian people, the existential threat factor is put in place and coupled with the disgust factor that comes from labelling all Ukrainians as nazis. Thousands of innocent people now lay dead in the aftermath of his language.
We cannot slip behind the thin curtain of American exceptionalism and say the unimaginable could not happen here. The fear messaging of right-wing ideologues in America is striking. One of the most prominent sources is Tucker Carlson’s show. A New York Times analysis of 1,150 episodes revealed the extensive push of extremist ideas and conspiracy theories. Mr. Carlson’s primary narrative: “They want to control and then destroy you.” The They, of course, are Democratic officials and members of the, so called, ruling class such as media members, academics or Hollywood stars. The enemy. The Other. And, of course, when Mr. Carlson is challenged, he neatly frames himself as being victimized by a liberal media. You know, the enemy.
In the case of Mr. Carlson’s rhetoric, it does no good to convey to his listeners, that no one can believe what he says. This was a legal opinion made by a federal judge in the Southern District of New York and by Fox News's own lawyers in defending Carlson against accusations of slander. Warning labels should at least be considered.
To be informed by history is to state that violence can take horrific, unimaginable forms as authoritarianism unfolds and hate language escalates. Our country is not exempt. If in a moment of quiet, we could pause, engage willfully the beautiful symmetry of our brain’s frontal lobes and question who might be the true enemy, we might answer thus—Those who manipulate us and play upon the vulnerabilities of our neurobiological infrastructure.
Alas, as Aldous Huxley stated, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” In this sense, the existential threat does not lie within the vile Other, but Ourselves.
The ultimate question becomes: What can I do to help circumvent the authoritarian movement? Against the wave of voter restrictions and gerrymandering, it is still conceivable to vote and vote like your life depended on it. To take an action, as small as it may seem to be. Voting and advocating for representatives who will strive to eliminate inequality, address poverty, invest in infrastructure, educate our citizenry, to make people less susceptible to fear and anxiety. The November 8, 2022 mid-term elections will, with great probability, be a point in history that determines democracy’s survival in America.