‘A couple of images on Instagram can have a greater impact than any speech in this assembly.”
“A potentate with an anti-establishment streak …”
“[He] may represent the future, but he talks a lot about the past …”
“[He] came to regard any investigation into his leadership as a personal attack.”
“[He] started building an alternative media landscape …”
“But voters want to see their man win because it means that they’re winning.”
Is there something familiar here? All of these quotes are from the New Yorker magazine, Sept.12, 2022, describing a president. But not the one you may be thinking of.
The person quoted and described here is Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador. The article is titled, “Strongman of the People.” What is familiar is the personality of the man, an autocrat or “strongman,” a giant ego. He holds the conviction that he is the only one who can solve El Salvador’s deep, persistent problems. Sounds even more like former president Trump, and not by accident. “Strongmen” are magnetic; we identify with them. There are at least eight dictatorships around the world; it is a quirk of human nature that people follow them.
We crave stability: predictability, calm, happy times, roots. Stability makes us feel comfortable, a status we prize. We want to know what to expect when we wake up in the morning.
We dislike change: deaths, jobs, family drama, failures. Change is uncomfortable. We will do almost anything to restore stability, including elect doubtful candidates to public office.
In fact, authoritarian leaders appeal to this need and exploit our discomfort, assuring us that they and they alone can resolve our issues.
This is an important election cycle. When times are really tough, as they are now, it is more difficult to reason our way to good election choices. We tend to act on emotion, but in this unprecedented time of compounding, global challenges — war, pandemic, climate crises, racism, gun violence, inflation — we need to be deliberate about who we vote for, and why. A “strongman” candidate may be easier to like than an expert or professional, but is that how to pick a candidate?
What is an autocrat? Authoritarian leadership, aka autocratic leadership, is a style in which an individual has total decision-making power and control over his subordinates.
Although the advantages sound tempting, by concentrating power and authority, autocracy disrupts democratic processes and institutions.
Human Rights Watch says, “As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong.”
The Atlantic says, “If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies — communism, fascism, virulent nationalism — the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.”
Voting for Trumpian candidates may scratch a collective itch, but what is comfortable is not always necessary or right or good for us.
Karen Muriello is a former assistant village clerk for the village of Oak Park.