February 21, 2024

The personality of autocrats

In Other Words

Members of the media frequently call Donald Trump an autocrat. So naturally, it was time to go online and learn exactly what that means. One of the references found was an article, “The Peculiar Personality of Strongmen, Comparing Traits of Autocrats and Non- autocrats.” After reading the article and other information describing autocrats, it’s pretty clear why Trump is branded with that label.

The article describes autocrats as political strongmen who like to rule in an autocratic manner in order to exercise power. They don’t like to share power, or rely on anyone else for power.

Autocrats have a constant need to humiliate and control others and they use these tactics to retain power. The article says autocrats score significantly lower than non-autocrats on agreeableness and emotional stability, and significantly higher on narcissism, lack of empathy and poor behavioral control.

Apparently, there aren’t a lot of studies of the personalities of political leaders, but the available data shows there is a rise in tendencies for autocratic governing. Even in countries described as democracies.

Discussed in the article were current and former leaders identified as autocrats on the world stage. They included Turkey’s Recep Erdogan; Trump’s favorite autocrat, Hungary’s Viktor Orban; his other favorite autocrat, Russia’s Vladimir Putin; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro; Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu; the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte; and Trump. All of these countries hold elections, most even calling them democratic elections, but compared to the United States, they don’t begin to resemble a fair vote of the people.

Presidents such as Putin don’t really allow voters to choose their leaders. In Russia, Putin gets more than 90% of the vote for unlimited terms, but his political opponents either disappear, fall out of windows or are mysteriously poisoned. Most opponents who survive are behind bars. Countries like Russia have total concentration of executive powers in one person whose political actions cannot be challenged by the opposition, judicial review or public opinion. Countries like North Korea and China don’t even pretend to be democracies.

Unfortunately, there’s been a surge in autocratic tendencies and a push toward “illiberalism” as Orban of Hungary calls it. It’s puzzling that Trump, Tucker Carlson and other far-right extremists have such a fascination with Orban and openly admire his autocratic policies. Trump praises Orban profusely at every rally. Republican politicians have even visited Orban in Hungary.

According to the article, the traits of 157 political leaders worldwide were studied and common personality traits of autocrats were identified: Sociability, conflict avoidance, charisma, low emotional distress, and openness to new experiences.

They also list the dark traits of autocrats:

1) Narcissism and grandiosity, constantly seeking attention and admiration.

2) Subclinical psychopathy - lack of remorse, insensitivity, impulsivity.

3) Machiavellianism – using manipulation and strategic behavior to get what they want.

Those leaning towards autocracy also tend to use coarse political vocabulary, to be more vulgar and prone to making outrageous statements. Duterte of the Philippines was known worldwide for his offensive language and abusive behavior during his reign. Autocrats are also more likely to tolerate unethical behavior, and they value political success more than genuine accomplishments.

Autocracy, then, is the total concentration of executive power in one person whose political actions cannot be challenged by anyone. Autocrats often employ muscular - sometimes brutal - treatment of opponents, and sometimes the media. They also strongly promote nationalism at every turn.

Autocrats insist on obedience to their ideas, rules and beliefs, and they use a pattern of continuous dominant behavior to consolidate power.

After reading all this stuff, one can only think, “Wow!” No wonder there’s rising concern about the autocratic rhetoric coming out of Trump’s mouth. His words, his actions, his behavior during this campaign, all express his autocratic views. Every time he steps out of a courtroom and rages at the judges and prosecutors, he’s demonstrating exactly how autocrats behave.

We’ve never experienced being ruled by a dictator, and we’ve never before felt there was a such a threat. It’s all very unsettling. No wonder the concept of immunity for this president strikes fear in the hearts of American citizens.

No wonder wise elders from both parties are warning us, “Listen to Trump. Listen to what he’s saying. He’s telling us exactly what he intends to do next time he’s elected president.