To Find an Authoritarian, Just Follow the Scapegoat

Antidemocratic leaders share a propensity for using scapegoats to weaken their opponents and break constraints on their own power.

Antidemocratic leaders share a propensity for using scapegoats to weaken their opponents and break constraints on their own power.

The forces currently assailing democracy around the world are diverse, ranging from absolute monarchs and communist dictators to populist politicians who gained power through competitive elections. Together, they have brought about a 12th consecutive year of decline for political rights and civil liberties, according to the latest edition of Freedom in the World.

One thing these antidemocratic leaders have in common, however, is their use of convenient scapegoats to distract from governance failures, bolster public support, isolate domestic opponents, and drive a wedge between their own citizens and international advocates of political freedom.

For example, the Russian regime has led the way in stigmatizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people within its own borders and suggesting that anyone who defends them—whether liberal Russian activists or European human rights bodies—is hostile to traditional morality.

Over the past year, rulers in other countries have moved from proposing or passing anti-LGBT legislation that emulates Russian laws to actually arresting, physically abusing, and prosecuting individuals suspected of being gay. Notable crackdowns have been reported in Egypt and Azerbaijan, and extralegal persecution in the Russian republic of Chechnya has forced many LGBT people to seek refuge abroad.

Muslim minorities and immigrants have also made a useful scapegoat in many parts of the world. Right-wing populists in Europe and the United States have warned of “Islamization” of their societies and called for harsh new restrictions on immigration, refugees, and ordinary travel from Muslim-majority countries. Those who oppose such moves are tarred as dangerously naïve or secretly committed to transforming or erasing the country’s national identity.

In Myanmar, the powerful military leadership has targeted the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, which enjoys little public sympathy in the country after decades of marginalization. By stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, violently expelling hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians, and exacerbating a humanitarian crisis, the authoritarian elements of Myanmar’s political establishment have effectively severed the main prodemocracy party from its reservoir of international support. Elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been forced to close ranks with the military and defend its actions, discrediting her in the eyes of foreign democratic governments and human rights activists. This ultimately serves to keep a lid on democratic change and preserve the military’s power.

A surprising number of antidemocratic figures have focused on an individual scapegoat rather than a group, placing them at the center of vast conspiracies and accusing all political opponents of guilt by association—even when there is no association to be found. George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist, is one such bogeyman. His name has come up in the rhetoric of populist and authoritarian leaders from Iceland to the Caucasus, who claim that he is pursuing a nefarious agenda with the help of mercenaries and traitors in civil society and the news media. Azerbaijan’s regime responded to a recent corruption scandal by calling it a conspiracy involving Soros, British intelligence, the “Armenian lobby,” and the United States.

The archvillain for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Although some of Gülen’s followers are believed to have participated in a coup attempt in July 2016, the government’s retaliatory purges have affected hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom have little or no connection to the preacher or the coup. Indeed, many are activists whose beliefs directly clash with those of the Gülenists, but the government’s elastic conspiracy theories simply bulge to accommodate them.

Scapegoating is effective because it exploits democratic principles, turning a strength—the recognition of basic human rights for all—into a weakness. Democrats are obliged to defend the rights of even the most vulnerable or reviled members of society, and in doing so they risk being reviled themselves.

But those who engage in scapegoating also expose their own antidemocratic nature or intent. History has shown that the practice is a warning sign of further repression to come. In protecting the rights of marginalized groups, democrats are simply guarding the frontiers of their own freedom, including freedom of expression, due process, equality before the law, and physical security. Once the safeguards of democracy are broken, they are broken for everyone.