Trump, Clinton, Chavez: How Authoritarian Leaders Exploit Fake Vulnerability
In my recent interview with Andy Crouch, author of Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, we discussed ways in which authoritarian leaders feign vulnerability. Crouch’s framework for understanding leaders relies on four quadrants which come from the combination of two dimensions. Leaders occupy a place along a line which spans from powerlessness to authority. But they also occupy a different, perpendicular line between vulnerability and safety.
This means that leaders can be vulnerable and influential; his example is Jesus of Nazareth. Leaders can also be vulnerable and powerless (well, at least ex-leaders or future leaders can be powerless). Leaders can be invulnerable and low in authority. Think of a wealthy retiree in a high end retirement community. Or leaders can have authority and invulnerability. Think of the North Korean ruling dynasty.
One of the fascinating elements of the authoritarian, upper left hand, leaders is that they often feign vulnerability. They re-write their own stories in such a way as to make themselves the victims. They become the ‘suffering servant’ who must endure the slings and arrows of the saboteurs who keep ruining the wheat harvest, or the alleged CIA operatives who plot against them. They are always in grave danger of the assassin’s bullet, the fifth column, the financial speculators, the spy, the traitor, the enemy amongst us.
This phenomenon may or may not be psychological paranoia, but whatever it is, it tends to work, at least among a paranoid population. An invulnerable leader fails to completely exploit people emotionally, because real people know that real people are vulnerable. So to become one of us, he or she must also be vulnerable, or at least appear to be.
In the interview I pointed to Hitler as the premier example of the authoritarian victim. Crouch pointed to two other examples: One on the left — Hugo Chavez; one on the right — Donald Trump. I would add Mr. Trump’s General Election opponent, Hillary Clinton, to the list as well. A well-known political paranoid, she painted a picture of her and her husband opposed by a “vast right wing conspiracy” funded by conservative philanthropists, such as the late Dick Scaife (whose role as funder of the right-wing conspiracy is now being played by the Koch brothers). This is the myth of Hillary as ‘survivor’, despite what ‘they’ have done to her over her decades in public life.
By talking about this collection of leaders together, neither of us mean to equate those leaders in terms of intensity of authoritarian qualities. We see in the ‘celebrity’ political monsters — the Maos, Pots, Hitlers, etc. — a highly-distilled version of what we see in more ordinary dysfunctional leaders: A feigning of victimhood in order to fuel the drive for power. You can find it outside of politics, as well: In board rooms and in pulpits, in families and in mass media personalities.
Read the transcript below in which we talk about that type of leader, and I’m afraid you will find the description all too familiar.
Jerry: You’re distinguishing between the public persona and the reality, right? And this is something you do in the book. It’s more the second half of the book. And I think the idea is that the authoritarian leader is low vulnerability, and high authority.
Mr. Crouch: Yes.
Jerry: They’re you’re upper-left quadrant, right?
Mr. Crouch: Yes.
Jerry: But the authoritarian leader almost always projects an image of vulnerability.
Mr. Crouch: Yes. Oh, yes, this is such an important point. I’m so glad you picked up on it. And in a sense, that’s the essence of manipulation. And the people who do this most dramatically are dictators.
I think about Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, during the many years he was dictator of Venezuela — whatever his official title was, that’s what he really was — and how he would spend hours on Venezuelan television talking about his enemies. Now, this is the most powerful man in the country, an authoritarian leader par excellence, and yet his public rehearsal is of all the people who are out to get him and, of course, including the gringos in the United States.
And this is actually a very powerful manipulative weapon that leaders use to justify their authoritarian plan, and that is to convince their people that actually the leader’s under great threat, and indeed the whole community is under great threat. But really, they’re operating with very little real vulnerability.
And I do think we see this, I’m afraid to say, in our current president, who on Twitter we get sort of his unfiltered mind in a kind of extraordinary way, and so much of it is about who’s out to get him when, in fact, he occupies the position that has been called the most powerful office in the world. And yet, even in that place he draws his followers’ attention, his supporters’ attention, to the threats to his power. That’s a very classic authoritarian move.
Jerry: Years ago, my family and I did an experiment in leadership development; we did something called reading circle. Reading circle is when we took a book of speeches, influential speeches in history, and different ones of us, the kids particularly, would stand up in front of the family, and they would read out loud a great speech, right.
Mr. Crouch: That’s so great.
Jerry: For example, Abraham Lincoln. It was really cool.
One day, we’re going through the book, and we come to Adolph Hitler. And who wants to read the Adolph Hitler speech? I said all right, I’ll do it. And it surprised me because I had read so little Hitler that it was a long litany of ways in which he and Germany had been victims of the French Empire and the British. I expected triumph talk.
Mr. Crouch: Yes. Wow.
Jerry: But you know, what’s his autobiography? “My Struggle”, right? So he’s always just in the midst of being assassinated by Jewish agents provocateur — or Russian ‑‑ Soviets, or whatever; it’s a constant ‑‑ the authoritarian dictator is a professional victim.
Mr. Crouch: That is so incredible. I believe every bit of it.
Article originally published on Forbes.com.