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Why Are Some People Drawn to Autocracy?

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Our country is in grave peril at this time as the forces of freedom and democracy are at odds with the forces of autocracy and fascism. As a patriotic American, this has puzzled me. How did it come to this in the land of the free? How did I become an enemy to some Americans—a terrible leftist radical, Communist, Socialist, and Fascist—when I am none of those things? I am simply a moderate progressive Democrat, but I love my country and want what is best for all of us. So, I have wondered what is the attraction to or acceptance of autocracy and fascism for many people, perhaps some 40% of our brother and sister Americans on the other side of the political spectrum.

First, let us define fascism. It should not be confused with Communism, which is very different, although both lead to autocracies and dictatorships. Fascism is essentially an alliance between wealthy industrialists and political forces that wish to control a society and government for their own benefit. They cloak it in ideology and idealistic premises, but the motives are money, power, and domination. They believe that they need to govern a society without benefit of voting and democratic rules because they know better than the masses. So, it is also about ego. Germany’s Hitler was a fascist. Italy’s Mussolini was a fascist. Spain’s Franco was a fascist. Today, Hungary’s Orban is a fascist. Turkey’s Erdogan is a fascist. The Philippine’s Duterte is a fascist. Venezuela’s Maduro is a fascist. Brazil’s former president Bolsona is a fascist. Even Russia’s Putin, the former Communist, is now a fascist, and there are many more would-be fascist leaders throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Donald Trump is an autocrat and a fascist. If you don’t believe me, listen to him. He tells us all the time what he will do if elected, and it will definitely move the country far from its democratic moorings.

Let us look at the common characteristics of autocratic and fascistic movements.

  • The leader creates a cult of personality and power for himself or herself, so the leader is always all-powerful and the movement's epicenter.

  • The movement disdains and undercuts faith in democratic election processes. It also attempts to limit who is allowed to vote, excluding “undesirable” populations and adversaries. The leader will claim elections are rigged against him, even though his movement is the one rigging elections.

  • The leader and movement no longer follow the rule of law, a bedrock principle of our constitution. They are above the law and can ignore it at will.

  • The leader and members of the movement view themselves as victims of a society out of control, even though its top leadership is often wealthy, powerful, and privileged.

  • In the Western world, fascism is always tied to some concept of “racial purity.” Along with this, the movement targets “undesirable” groups or populations to blame for society’s ills. Currently, the American MAGA right is going after Jews (Antisemitism), Muslims (Islamophobia), non-whites (Blacks and other people of color), indigenous people, Latinos (and the Border), and LGBTQ people. They claim these people are trying to replace, subvert, and eliminate them (The Great Replacement Theory).[1]

  • The leader takes aim at political and media opponents for prosecution and imprisonment. They eradicate opposition.

  • The leader attacks the free press and undermines faith in the press by calling it all “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” while deliberately putting out disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda through the movement’s own “news” outlets.

  • The Movement rewrites history to fit its narrative. Thus, we see the attacks on our racism and slavery history, our genocide history against Native Americans, and the book banning. It also asserts that we have been a Christian America from the country’s founding. (This is not historically accurate).

  • The leader dehumanizes perceived enemies and targeted populations by calling them “vermin,” “rats,” “animals,” and criminals or using racist and antisemitic tropes and phrases.

  • For some strange reason, all these fascist movements oppose women’s reproductive freedom and impose the most draconian laws criminalizing abortion.

  • The movement has an elite at the top who live lavishly, although this is kept from the view of their followers. (For example, Putin is supposed to be one of the richest men in the world with numerous dachas and yachts, even though the Russian people do not share in the wealth and are struggling economically).

  • Lying is a hallmark of fascist and autocratic leaders; anything to advance their agenda.

  • The movement sanctions cruelty, threats, and violence to enforce their views.

  • The movement takes over all government agencies and requires loyalty oaths for employment, especially honing in on the military. These agencies no longer serve the people but follow the sole direction of the leader and the movement.

  • The leader and the movement undermine faith in the judiciary and legislative bodies. Eventually, they force out noncompliant judges and legislators, replacing them with their hand-picked puppets.

If this list does not give you chills, then you have not been paying attention to what is going on in our country and around the world. A lot of this is already happening or is in Trump’s stated plans. If his first go around was generally marked by chaos and incompetence, he and his leadership have learned from their mistakes and will be far more effective if he is given a second chance. This is not just my warning but the warning of many of his senior officials from his first term, including his own Vice President and Attorney General. They believe he is unfit for office and a second term of Donald Trump may end democracy in America.

There are several excellent books on the subject, both #1 New York Times bestsellers, which I strongly recommend. Former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, strong conservative, daughter of Bush’s Vice President, and herself a former State Department employee, has just released Oath and Honor, which details her behind-the-scenes view of the Trump Administration and the January 6th Insurrection. She was the number three person in the Republican House leadership and Vice-Chair of the January 6th Subcommittee. Likewise, Rachel Maddow’s book Prequel demonstrates that leanings toward autocracy and fascism are not a new American phenomenon as she chronicles our post-WWI history. A substantial minority of Americans were sympathetic to Hitler’s rise and his antisemitic, anti-union, strong-man policies, chief among them the industrialist Henry Ford, transatlantic hero Charles Lindberg, and a number of Senators and Representatives. Our past looks like our present.

As a Social Worker, Psychotherapist, Spiritual Counselor, Professor, and Minister, I have been studying human behavior and psychology for over fifty years. I am still puzzled by friends, neighbors, and family who are drawn to the MAGA wing and Donald Trump. It is something we cannot even talk about without arguments and bruised feelings. So, these are my theories.

  • It is pretty clear that Donald Trump suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder with Sociopathic traits. Don’t believe me, read the views of many prominent psychiatrists and his niece, Dr. Mary Trump, Clinical Psychologist. People with this mental health disorder can initially be very convincing and charming. They may be con artists, but they are good at it. Consequently, many people will be fooled by a façade that pretends to care about the little people, while privately he is repulsed by them. (People with this disorder lack empathy, compassion, insight, the ability to self-evaluate, and the ability to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Donald Trump will tell you he is never wrong and that he has nothing to apologize for. However, these are basic human qualities for healthy human beings.)

  • For some business people and wealthy Americans, it will be all about the money. They believe (accurately) that Donald Trump will favor them over regular Americans and increase their wealth and success. (What economic history tells us, however, is that when Republicans are in power, the economy suffers, especially for the lower and middle classes. When Democrats have been in power, the economy has thrived for all, rich and poor.)

  • Some conservative Christians who are anti-abortion will hold their noses and ignore his infidelity, lies, and other flaws as long as he puts people on the Supreme Court who are anti-abortion (which he did.) (This is despite the fact Donald Trump was once a moderate Democrat who was not anti-abortion.)

  • For some people, the psychology will be the need for a strong father figure, which they probably did not have as children. They want someone to guide them and tell them what to do. They want to believe this authority figure is honest and trustworthy, and cares about them.

  • For some Americans, it is about grievances and even payback. Many in our country feel disadvantaged and ignored by their society and government. They may feel they have been left out of economic, educational, and social opportunities. They may believe others (particularly people of color and immigrants) have been given unfair advantages despite the facts to the contrary. They are hurt and angry. (We cannot ignore that there is some truth to their pain. When Cathy and I traveled north in the State of Washington, for example, we passed through small town after small town where it was clear it was a hard-scrabble existence with high poverty and low opportunity realities. Much of rural America experiences the same.)

  • For those who hold racist, White Supremacist, White Christian Nationalist, Antisemitic, or Islamophobic beliefs or even embrace Neo-Nazi and KKK leanings, it gives them a place where they can express their views without fear of criticism or ostracism. It has exposed the dark underbelly of America. It has given permission for some Americans to be rude and cruel to their neighbors. (Recently, a Jewish friend, a young mother and professional, said she was followed down the street where she lives in Brooklyn by a woman repeatedly shouting “Heil Hitler” at her.)

  • Some people need simple answers to complex issues and questions. They want to know who and what to blame for all their disadvantages and all of society’s ills. The MAGA Movement gives it to them. It’s all the people trying to replace and destroy their world (immigrants, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ)—all of them. It’s the Deep State, a shadowy government within the government determined to crush them. It’s the Hollywood and government leaders who are corrupt and running a pedophile and child trafficking ring (Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chief Justice Roberts, Tom Hanks, and many others). Conspiracy theories abound in the MAGA world, and they provide one answer for all the problems.

  • Finally, for some who have mental health problems relating to anger, paranoia, and delusion, it gives them a cause to believe in and follow. It shows them the people who are the enemy and who they should go after.

This is quite a complex mix of Americans of all stripes and walks of life. As you can see, there is not one answer that fits all. Like most things relating to human psychology and society, it is complicated, multi-faceted, diverse, and abstract. For those of us of a more moderate, liberal, or progressive persuasion, it has been difficult to find a political common ground or rational debate. We are dealing with people who seem to be set in their beliefs and are not open to evidence or facts. In fact, they will discount facts as “fake.” Their minds are made up.

So, how do we relate to these friends, neighbors, and family who have drunk the Trump Kool-Aid?

  • As a spiritual person and minister, I have not lost faith that love, light, and truth will eventually win out. The Dove of Peace still stands guard over our country. However, we need to be steadfast in our faith and hope. Gandhi said, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” I believe that, but they did not fall because people sat idly by. Democracy and freedom are absolute core principles in our Universalist beliefs. Hence, we must fight for them through voting, education, political and community participation, running for office, protest, good parenting, and any other nonviolent and loving means to protect our democracy.

  • I will not engage my MAGA friends, neighbors, and family in political debate because it is a no-win proposition. For any debate to be a debate, both parties must be open to logic and facts. However, I will happily still relate to them as people on family and life issues. I’ll attend their kid’s birthday parties. I’ll attend their weddings. I’ll support them through their divorce. I’ll stand by them on neighborhood cleanup issues. I’ll still be their parent, brother, uncle, or cousin. I’ll provide spiritual advice if asked. Despite our differences, I’ll be as much of a friend, neighbor, or relative as I can be. This does not mean I will not speak up if I see a cruel or mean act, but I will do my best to maintain our common humanity.

  • Remember who we are and that we came here to raise the love consciousness of the planet. This is the challenge of our lifetime and our generations. We are the peaceful warriors who embrace all as our brothers and sisters.



Rev. Dr. Tom Norris

[1] It is interesting that White Supremacists and White Nationalists are so focused on so-called racial purity when Caucasians only make up 16% of the world’s population.



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