The magic helper

A look at the psychology behind the appeal of authoritarian leaders

An expert on Russia and Canada’s foreign affairs minister uncover what is fueling the rise of populism around the world — and what can be done to counteract it

At the second annual Women in the World Canada Summit in Toronto on Monday, Heather Reisman, the chair & CEO, Indigo Inc., led a fascinating panel discussion with Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and author and New Yorker writer Masha Gessen about what’s fueling the rise of strongmen and populism around the world.

Gessen, who is Russian-American and has authored a book on Vladimir Putin, struck a very practical tone in her analysis of the global state of affairs and the forces that have fueled the rise of Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders around the world, a trend that has left the very idea of democracy in some peril. “As for this particular moment,” Gessen said, “I think we’re in grave danger. And that doesn’t mean something absolutely horrible is going to happen — although horrible things are happening all over the world — it doesn’t mean we are going to see a repeat of the disasters of the 20th century. But if we don’t hyperventilate, if we don’t act, we’ll find out when we have failed. And if we do act, we’ll never find out what we prevented.”

Assessing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, Gessen urged caution about “being mindful of what we don’t know.” Gessen warned that “it’s very tempting” to use the idea of Russian interference as an easy explanation for why Trump won the presidency. She predicted that whatever the investigation ultimately turns up, Trump will still be around. “Sixty-two million Americans who had not been robbed of their free will or their agency made the choice to vote for Donald Trump, and we’re still stuck with that,” she said.

If the idea of democracy as we know it is to be saved, Freeland suggested, activism will be central to making that outcome reality.

“Democracy is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Freeland said. “If we want to live in a liberal democracy, we can’t assume other people will make it exist and act and function for us. We have to take responsibility and be involved and be engaged,. We have to kind of fight back for liberal democracy right now,” she continued. “I think that Masha was right to say we kind of have to be a little anxious right now, but one thing I feel among Canadians is that a lot of Canadians get that. A lot are saying, you know, that I want to live in liberal democracy, I want to live in a diverse society, I want to live in a world where might does not make right, where we have a rules-based order, and I feel people are getting more active and engaged than maybe we were a decade ago.”

Gessen, explaining why autocrats often appeal to the masses, returned to the idea of freedom and cited Escape From Freedom, a book written in 1940 by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. Gessen recalls Fromm writing about “two kinds of freedom” in the book: “Freedom from and freedom to.” As Gessen puts it, the “freedom to” is a “grave responsibility and sometimes it gets to be too much.”

“When the future is truly uncertain and when people feel destabilized, when a critical mass of people feel like they don’t know what’s going to happen, they will reach for what he calls ‘the magic helper,'” Gessen said. “The magic helper is the populist leader who traffics in the appeal of the imaginary past.”

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