Segerstrom: The Authoritarian Handbook, chapter two
Chapter Two: Pick a Target, any Target
Step 1: Define the others and tell people how bad they are.
There’s something in the air, you can almost feel it. It’s anger, fear or some combination of both. People have lost jobs that might not be coming back. Reports of violence in cities and abroad are dominating the news. This is a great time to find someone to blame.
Scapegoating is one of the all-time classics and is a linchpin of any authoritarian regime. As despotic leaders, we are only at our strongest when we have something to push against. It always helps to pick on marginalized people. People fleeing oppression and wars are always good targets because, well, let’s face it: they’re too poor and beleaguered to fight back.
Whichever people you choose, tell your people that they (the others) are coming for us and are hell bent on destroying us and our way of life. After all, It’s only natural to kill before being killed.
“They’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and their sending those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some I assume are good people.”
Good work, you picked identifiable targets who can be found throughout the country. No need to shut off certain groups from potential future demonization.
Step 2: Keep the others out.
In step two, you should start excluding certain groups of people. Pick easy targets like poor people and those fleeing oppression. You can even include some sort of religious element; dividing people by religion almost always works! If you’re feeling ambitious you can even take on two different groups.
“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Whoa, that’s a little ambitious, but it’s good to see that kind of enthusiasm. It’s great messaging to give people a tangible object. Giving people a construction project to cast their insecurities, fears and doubts on is excellent messaging. (Not quite sure about the how they’ll pay for it part, but why split hairs.)
After you’ve set up this scene of strife and conflict on the frontier, you can always set your sights abroad. It helps to start small here. You don’t want to alienate potential allies and you can’t set your sights too high. Pick some countries and people with little political capital, declare them enemies and stop them from coming to your country. Consider banning people from destabilized countries that have little in common culturally with you, especially countries that you don’t have any financial interest in.
Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 1, 2017
This is a great example of proving your claims by making statements that don’t rely on evidence but still evoke emotion. Forget the fact that the people you are keeping out are incredibly unlikely to pursue violence; instead, focus on an unprovable assertion based on emotion. Remember, what you lack in facts you can make up in fear.
Step 3: Promote destabilization and radicalization.
An important aspect of creating and maintaining an atmosphere of fear is cultivating your enemies. A two-fold strategy works best here: continue with any conflicts you have abroad and make sure your enemies know that you oppose them.
Use absolute language to convey your message, but make sure not to be too specific or offer any evidence.
We must keep "evil" out of our country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
If you say something like this (on the heels of a ban of a certain set of people) you send a clear message to your enemies. They know that we are against them, we think they are medieval and barbaric, and that we agree with them that we are enemies.
The best way to maintain fear is by creating the circumstances that enliven your opposition. By making overtly religious statements that feed the propaganda machines of your radicalized foes, you have ensured that the enemy you desperately need to justify your concentration of power will persist.
Step 4: Normalize violence.
Since your regime has established that other people are out to get us, we need to separate specific groups of people to ensure we have a real and absolutely evil enemy. One of the final and most essential means to achieving an authoritarian regime is normalizing the use of violence. Let’s close ranks with other despotic leaders and agree that war and civilian deaths are understandable and necessary.
If someone criticizes a fellow authoritarian leader, here’s one way you can respond to them about the inevitability of violence: “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent? Do you think our country is so innocent?”
While war and violence are not unique to authoritarian regimes, they serve them well. Fear and violence cause society to seek a strong, war ready figure, and the authoritarian never backs down from a fight.