How an authoritarian leader thinks

Vladimir Putin is a classic example of an authoritarian leader who achieves great power.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Recently, Elon Musk challenged Vladimir Putin to single combat–with the winner taking Ukraine. It was a dumb joke, for all that Musk claimed to be “absolutely serious” about it. But it caught my attention because the person he challenged happens to be one of the biggest authoritarians on the planet. That kind of challenge means something to an authoritarian that a non-authoritarian doesn’t quite understand. By examining how an authoritarian leader thinks, we can understand why it’s such a colossal mistake to hand one of these folks any kind of power.

Power: The first language of an authoritarian leader

First and foremost, an authoritarian leader fluently speaks the language of power. At an innate and instinctive level, authoritarians understand how to gain it, wield it, and guard it.

In this sense, power is defined as the ability to tell people to do things–and then to see them doing it, even if it’s stuff they really don’t want to do. The more those people don’t want to do the things, the more of a power rush the authoritarian leader feels in seeing them do it anyway.

Authoritarian followers think that cozying up to sources of great power keeps them safe. All too often, they are wrong. However, it takes a lot for them to realize that they are nothing more than a source of power for their leaders. In turn, an authoritarian leader knows that offering these folks the promise of safety achieves wondrous returns.

As followers scurry about to garner power in their own private courts, the authoritarian leader sits atop the throne itself. This leader lets them scurry, as long as their machinations don’t get too close to the throne.

Once that happens, all bets are off. An authoritarian leader cannot risk any attempt to usurp the throne. Thus, these leaders harshly punish even innocent mistakes. It must be so. Any offense that is not immediately addressed becomes a sign of weakness. And in those scurrying followers, we may rest assured that at least a few are earnestly looking for those signs–because they want the throne themselves.

Alas, authoritarian leaders are laser-focused on that same throne. They can easily spot interlopers. Unfortunately, they often draw false positives there. Really, anyone who achieves too much power becomes a serious threat to any higher-ranking leader. Such a person must be dealt with.

Fear: The secret heart of the authoritarian leader

If you’ve ever been very afraid, then you know how the entire world narrows down to that one situation. You stop being able to think clearly–or being able to consider others’ needs. You might even start reaching for potential solutions that you’d never have considered earlier. Your reactions become kneejerk, reflexive, overcorrecting.

That’s how it is all the time for an authoritarian.

You see, alongside an understanding of power beats a heart of pure fear in authoritarian leaders. Fear governs everything that all authoritarians do. Authoritarian followers simply display this quality far more clearly. However, authoritarian leaders are not exempt from the reality of fear. If anything, fear rules them far more intensely.

More than anyone in their entire group, authoritarian leaders dread the idea of losing power. Over time, they display greater and greater degrees of paranoia. They retaliate increasingly viciously against any criticisms. They behave in more and more grandiose ways. As their illusions fray at the seams, their fear intensifies accordingly.

Of course, authoritarian leaders have very good reason to feel fear. As I mentioned earlier, they can’t trust their simpering, fawning underlings. At any time, any one of those sycophants could make a play for the throne. The greater the rewards, the bigger the risks involved in winning them–and the worse the end is for the loser of that fight. (It’s true: in playing the game of thrones, one either wins–or dies.)

No matter how much of a posturing, bombastic “strongman” an authoritarian leader plays at being, authoritarian leanings guarantee that that person is ruled by fear.

Never be fooled by the illusion of strength. In reality, that facade is as fragile as wet tissue paper.

Sycophants: the community enabling these leaders

No authoritarian leader achieves great power without a court to enable this ascension.

However, authoritarian leaders do not select their court based upon skills and experience in their respective departments. Instead, they ennoble their courtiers based on sycophancy alone. Who kisses ass the best? Who covers for their leaders when the chips seem to be trending downward? In short, who plays ball?

I’ve written many times about how the top leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) choose their generals. Their Presidents tend to be pastors. So do the CEOs of their publishing company. And the budget allocators of the Executive Committee.

Just consider the case of former SBC employee Ed Stetzer. Despite having absolutely no background in the required science, he still landed the job of leading their internal research department at Lifeway. He’d simply rubbed elbows with the right people, it seems to me–and accordingly, he has garnered the many rewards of that elbow-rubbing. Even now, despite having no skill whatsoever at teaching evangelism, he chairs and directs an evangelism department at a major evangelical university.

Much has been made of Putin’s sycophants in the US. But he’s got many more–and more officially placed–in his home country. Count on that.

Good little sycophants know that their positions depend utterly on maintaining good relations with their authoritarian leader. They may also put their group’s image and reputation ahead of their own interests–even their own safety.

For these reasons and more, the leader’s court may be counted upon to protect their leader, no matter the costs to themselves. And sometimes, those costs are enormous.

Hypocrisy: the secret vice of an authoritarian leader

When someone values power above all other prizes, expressing that power becomes a thrill all on its own. Of what use is power if the holder is not wielding it?

Very little expresses power like flouting the group’s rules and violating their most cherished ideals. Hypocrisy becomes one of the most cherished ways to express one’s own level of power. Only the powerless follow rules. The powerful make the rules–and then break them all without fear of repercussions.

This is why authoritarian leaders tend to be extreme hypocrites as well. When we look at their personal lives, we discover that they follow few to none of their own rules.

When Russia was still the Soviet Union, Gen Xers heard (as teens and college kids) that these Communists had their own 1%, who lived in luxurious, state-bestowed “dachas” in luxury communities. Little seems to have changed. But that was hypocrisy at the social level. On a personal level, the leaders of these groups seem to suffer their own deep, internal hypocrisy.

Putin, in particular, “tries to come across as the great defender of international institutions, peace through compromise and global consensus,” according to a CNN post from 2013. But his behavior and recent speeches have proven that he is anything but.

Look at what an authoritarian leader rails against the most often and most passionately. Almost always, that exact vice will be what that leader does in private. In their world, hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug.

The ones who know better become part of the thrill

When authoritarian leaders stir up moral panic about their favorite vice, this bugbear of theirs, they know perfectly well that their closest associates and victims know what’s really happening behind the scenes.

They broadcast to that very select audience: I’m doing this exact thing, and there is nothing any of you can do about it.

One voice raised in outrage might end the leader’s entire facade. And yet, these leaders count on nobody daring to do it. The more voices that could do it and the more devastating they’d be, the more thrilling the hypocritical behavior becomes.

The day my then-husband Biff shared a Satanic Panic-style testimony in front of an entire church, he knew that his own wife, sitting in that very audience, knew that none of it had actually happened. He shared this fictionalized testimony anyway. He counted on me to play along.

I refused. Worse still, I threatened to expose him if he ever lied again. And when I did, I’m the one he and our friends got mad at. They got angry at me because the people Biff might convert based on his testimony might stumble in their faith, to use the Christianese, to learn the truth. If his testimony–fake as it was–converted people, then that saved them from Hell and thus was ultimately a good thing. If I exposed him–by following our group’s own values by revealing the truth–then I became the bad guy in this equation.

In their eyes, I was literally threatening to send these theoretical converts to Hell! Did I not care about souls’ fates?

I was not cowed, however. I stood my ground.

Biff never lied on the pulpit again, at least not while I was there to hear it.

But he hadn’t come into any real power. (Nor would he, thankfully.) His court was, accordingly, ineffective. The retaliation I faced was fairly minimal, certainly not enough to silence me or stop me from whistleblowing if the need arose.

The stakes for a major authoritarian leader with enormous power

Now, imagine what kind of retaliation a major world leader and his court can bring to bear on dissenters.

More than that, imagine what kind of future all of these folks fear might happen if their leader loses power. That future involves a lot of variables:

  • Their enemies gaining power at their expense–
  • –and then retaliating against them for their opposition
  • Consequences for any off-limits hypocrisy they committed themselves
  • Their entire legacy: dismantled, subverted, defeated

That’s the future that authoritarian leaders and their court work to avoid at all costs. Authoritarian leaders, in particular, know exactly what will happen if they lose power. They know, because as they rose up the ranks they saw many previous leaders losing power at all levels. Just as they themselves participated in destroying those previous leaders, they know one thing above all:

At all times, someone watches them, waiting for the opportunity to strike. Their replacement is already there, already present, among the adoring eyes gazing upon them. The shape of their downfall is already in that replacement’s mind, and might already be taking form. It is now potential social energy, waiting to become kinetic.

Once the kinetic social energy explodes outward, though, the cycle will continue as before–just with new names at the levels of power in the group.

Come meet the new boss. They look the same as the old boss. That’s also a feature, not a bug, of authoritarian systems. So, if Vladimir Putin ever does take Elon Musk up on his offer to go mano-a-mano for Ukraine, no doubt within that very year we’ll all be talking about Musk’s own authoritarian streak.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...