The Rise of Authoritarianism: Vigilance is Required

The Rise of Authoritarianism: Vigilance is Required

By: C. Kenneth Meyer, M.A, M.P.A., Ph.D.

Thomas F. Sheehan Distinguished Professor of Public Administration

As a youthful graduate student, I recall how interested I became in utopian literature and reading the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, some of the communalists, and even those who espoused one or another societal design that was anarchistic, socialistic or even that of primitive communism. The book that left a lasting effect was the dystopian society imagined by George Orwell’s 1984, (1949), a democratic socialism essay, and his strident opposition to anything totalitarian. I also remember the duality of oppositional values that were emblazed in my memory: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Also, the notion of “Big brother” and “doublethink”—having two contradictory beliefs and accepting them both, simultaneously, and that of “Newspeak”—euphemistic, “babblefab,” and the popular propaganda associated with pseudo-evaluation and obfuscation.

Anecdotally, the lyrics in Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” served as an anthem for civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s are instructive as they were then, to the political elite now—don’t block progress; to parents and elders alike—get with the times or get out of the way; and a paraphrase of the biblical injunction—“So the last shall be first, and first last.” However, the political idiom of authoritarianism that obfuscates the meaning of language and understanding is now commonly found in the new language of doublespeak: “Just is Unjust, White is Black, Good is Bad, Noble is Ignoble, Desirable is Undesirable, Equal is Unequal, Fair is Unfair, Legal is Illegal, Normalcy is Chaos, Facts become Alternative Facts, Virtue is Vice, Night is Day, Truth is Lie, Unity is Division, Truth is Irrelevant, Civility is Incivility, Honesty is Dishonesty, Trustworthiness is Deceit, Special Interest is Public Interest,” and other aphorisms too numerous to mention.

A casual walk through the garden of authoritarian literature reveals a nearly unexhausted listing of traits, trends, tendencies and characteristics when studied overtime. The lists of countries that have or had authoritarian regimes is instructive at this point of the discussion: Angola, Bahrain, Belarus, Vietnam, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, People’s Republic of China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Qatar, Russian Federation and many additional nation states. To the casual observer of present societal and political change, these contradictions may not be obvious especially as society begins to embrace, perhaps unconsciously so, some of the anti-democratic tenets embedded in authoritarianism and totalitarianism. A tentative list includes some of the following characteristics:

  1. Hampering of free and fair elections
  2. Engagement in or encouragement of electoral fraud
  3. Interference with opposition campaigning
  4. Lack of an independent third party
  5. Manipulation of information as a control mechanism
  6. Tendency to create the appearance of a good and effective government performance
  7. Threatening the rule of law
  8. Minority rights become jeopardized
  9. Separation of powers comes under attack between independent branches of government
  10. Judiciary becomes packed with illiberal judges and the uneven administration of justice
  11. Freedom and independence of the press is thwarted
  12. In conflict, tendency to increase the use of social control rather than use diplomacy, mediation, dialogue or compromise
  13. Regime uses lies and fear and reward of economic prosperity
  14. Threat to the actual use of libel judgments against opposition
  15. Mobilization of citizens through political party organization or other forms of mass organizations
  16. The powers of executive branch become distorted and blurred
  17. The legitimacy of the (regime) government is based on emotional appeal
  18. The gradual erosion of civil liberties and protections
  19. Dominance of personal power over traditional instructional norms of behavior and the appearance of a cult of personality
  20. Manipulation of electoral districts and voting laws to accomplish personal political goals

This tentative list is illustrative of the many factors and tendencies that undergird the formation of authoritarian regimes or governments. Some of these attributes are apparent in the following examples of how powerful administrators in the national government of the United States, especially at the presidential level, behave, the statements they utter, and the values they embrace which give way to citizen anger, deception, and destruction of integrity, truthfulness and trustworthiness. These attitudes, actions, and behavior, if they remain unchecked, thwart the legitimacy of our basic governmental institutions and are epitomized by these following statements and actions. An interesting exercise is to place one or more the twenty tenets of authoritarianism, by number, next to each bulleted statement.

  • Justice is undermined as citizens are told that the system is rigged and corrupt; that absentee balloting corrupts the electoral systems and is rifled with fraud
  • Abuse of power and retaliation against those who are loyal to the Constitution rather than giving loyalty to the presidency
  • Abuse of the oath to protect and defend the Constitution is routinely violated
  • Seeds of discord and polarization between races are intentionally sown
  • Transparency gives way to lying, assault, intimidation, and harassment of political opponents
  • De-legitimization of credible news and media as the enemy of the people
  • Suppression of vote and popular electoral participation through voter registration laws
  • Gerrymandering, and manipulation of election information (robo calls)
  • Discrediting scientists, journalists, the 4th Estate, intelligence, etc., as dangerous to democracy and the enemy of the people (hints of Franco and Mussolini)
  • Loss of ethical and moral way and the belief that personal interest is national interest
  • Degeneration of democratic processes, norms, and implicit support of patriarchy and white supremacy
  • Lawlessness of officials who hold positions of public trust
  • Erecting a wall on the Mexican border with funds diverted from authorized programs and activities—several hundred miles of existing wall were refurbished, but only a few miles of new walls were actually built (Supreme Court ruled that the diversion of appropriated dollars from defense budget was unconstitutional)
  • Executive and congressional attacks on the CIA, FBI, DOJ, DOS, and the CDCP, and EPA as constituting the “deep state”
  • Attack on the “rule of law” and the regular obstruction of justice
  • Violation of the “separate but equal” standard of the Constitution as applied to three branches of government and refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas and oversight—see Article I, Section 8, U.S. Constitution
  • Corruption in the Whitehouse, among the aids, staff members, and campaign workers
  • Placing an immigration ban on all Muslims from selected countries
  • Practice of presidential and congressional staff supporting and perpetuating the lie, thereby serving as collaborators, accomplices, and co-conspirators
  • Twitting neo-Nazi and extreme information that was fabricated
  • Attack of a federal judge on basis of ethnicity
  • Illegally requesting voter information and violating rights to privacy
  • Fabrication of story (lie) that presidential candidate was born in foreign country
  • Violation of federal emolument clause
  • Countenance of Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese meddling in U.S. national and other elections and foreign government use of Facebook and other social media to spread propaganda and undermine democratic politics
  • The use of foreign powers to disrupt national electoral politics by providing misinformation on opposition candidate for president, leading to impeachment of the president
  • Violence directed toward journalists, grant of approval to build concentration camp in China for dissident Muslim sect, and placing human rights protection in jeopardy
  • Granting presidential favors to dictators that are liked in return for self-interest request
  • Disruption of long established mechanisms for transatlantic peace with strong European allies, and the withdrawal from WHO, Climate Change Treaty, and the general weakening of alliance with Canada, Japan, South Korea, Japan, and countries in Oceania
  • Use of nepotism to fill high leadership positions in national government, counsel and diplomacy
  • Dismissal of diplomats, diversion of national diplomatic relations and interests to self-interest and self-aggrandizement; termination of U.S. district attorneys (NYSD), inspector generals (DOD, HHS, DOS, etc.), for political reasons, rather than on a record of performance, subverting the independence of the judiciary, and politicization of the Department of Justice
  • Use of nearly 20,000 lies, deceitful and deceptive practices to misinform the citizenry, resulting in the unravelling of democracy. Examples of lies include, Veteran’s Choice was signed into law by Obama—not Trump; National energy policy that spurned development was initiated by Obama—not Trump; supporting the medical coverage for pre-existing conditions, while attempting to rescind the Affordability and Protections Act (Obama Care); and that China was paying massive billions for imposed tariffs when U.S. consumers paid the tariffs
  • Use of anti-Semitic slogans and symbols to characterize political opponents and parties, and the tweeting of fascist symbols in political messages
  • Prolific anti-scientific expressions and behavior and attacks against scientific authority, specialized, expert knowledge in relation to climate change, vital statistics, health care and pandemic facts, and by the politicization of government reported scientific studies and reports (NIH, CDCP, EPA, and USDA). The altering of meteorological maps during a hurricane to the denial of scientific and vital facts related to employment, trade, and the pandemic
  • Use of special government force comprised of Bureau of Federal Prison, Secret Service, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, and TSA personnel to squash legitimate protestation and demonstration by using the threat of violence and employing non-lethal projectiles and various gases to control and move legitimate speech and assembly
  • Solicitation of a foreign hostile power to interfere in national election and jeopardize national security through “dirty oppositional research” and trade relations that were not in the nation’s interest
  • Use of scapegoating practices to cover-up fraud, waste, abuse of authority and mismanagement (China, WHO, UN, WTO, to multilateral alliances)
  • Ineffective cyber security policy, unrepresentativeness of representative democracy (gerrymandering, and many, different strategies to undermine universal suffrage—the New Jim Crow laws)
  • Widespread self-dealing and other corruption, conflicts of interest, and undermining of the Constitution, and weakening democracy at home and around the world
  • Use of white supremacy, nativism, Nazism, neo-protectionism, xenophobic and jingoistic, totalitarian etc., language and memes that diminish democratic mores, norms, customs, and other standards of behavior
  • Personalization of foreign policy “…it is what I say it is” rather than what is in the national and public interest
  • Placing asylum seekers and their children in detainment “shelters,” “cages,” etc., in violation of national and international law, and basic human rights

 In summation, the nation’s presidential leadership lacks basic leadership and management policy- making and competency, is ill-informed, amoral and unethical, and is a demonstrable narcissistic, pathological liar, whose public decisions are moored in self-dealing and personal interest, rather than the national interest. Also, the president’s political inability to inspire and unite a citizenry, who governs by divide and conquer strategies, and has placed many cronies in public trust positions who, like their head of government, have limited understanding of the basic organs and instruments of governance and the Constitution that they took an oath to support and defend. Widely understood that Trump has presided over an economic collapse, maladministration of Covid-19 pandemic, and the corresponding death toll that is greater than all soldiers lost in WW I. As Senator Moynihan observed years ago, the president epitomizes the maxim of “…defining deviance down.”

C. Kenneth Meyer is the Thomas F. Sheehan Distinguished Professor of Public Administration, College of Business and Public Administration, Drake University.

C. Kenneth Meyer is an author of numerous books on public personnel management, public management practice, violence in American society, public administration and public policy. He has published nearly 100 scholarly articles on a range of topics including: effective and efficient government, program evaluation, workplace violence, organizational training and development, policy evaluation, and public participation strategies.

During C. Kenneth Meyer’s 50 years of teaching at the university level, he has taught more than 45 diverse courses for the public administration field including public administration, public policy, research methods and statistics, empirical theory, international policy, American government, politics and public participation. Among these courses is an international award-winning comparative public management and public policy class incorporating a European study abroad component. The class is focused specifically on identifying the best worldwide practices in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. The information learned and resources gathered from these identified best models and best practices are incorporated in many of the cases presented in texts authored by Dr. Meyer and available at

As an invited speaker, presenter and host for more than 50 presentations around the world, C. Kenneth Meyer keeps an active schedule speaking and consulting throughout North America, Europe and Asia.