British Association for American Studies


The Authoritarian Heroes of Liberal Individualism

The U.S. has long been known as a society of contrasts in which seemingly irreconcilable tendencies find a way to coexist.[1] Unbounded belief in modern science versus conservative religious convictions, sober pragmatism versus utopian aspirations, deep-seated distrust of state authority versus ardent patriotism are only some of the juxtapositions that characterize the social climate. Recently, this gallery of American contrasts has been supplemented by yet another striking phenomenon: as a nation that celebrates radically individualistic values more than any other Western country, and is, therefore, extremely sensitive toward restrictions of personal freedom, Americans have voted in a president who placed the erosion of basic rights for large parts of the population based upon their race or religion at the center of his campaign. No less surprising in office, so far he has been allowed to install members of his family in key government offices in the style of a seventeenth-century autocrat near unopposed.

At first glance, these authoritarian gestures seem fundamentally at odds with the country’s individualist-democratic principles. And yet, they may be interpreted as merely the other side of an individualistic collective mentality. For, from the political point of view, the romantically inspired fascination with the force of individual character turns out to be a double-edged sword. While on the one hand it translates into the claim for the free unfolding of civil liberties and the restriction of state power, on the other hand it all too easily drifts towards elitist hero worship and the call for a dominant leader.

‘Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint-Bernard’, Jacques-Louis David, 1801. RKDimages, Art-work number 221478.

This tension can already be observed in Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the “American Confucius”[2] and figurehead of American individualism. His 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” remains the locus classicus of radical individualism to this day. Although he is considered to be one of the less accessible canonised American writers, his message of the “infinitude of the private man” has been so thoroughly absorbed into American popular culture that his quotes have even been used in TV commercials.[3] Since his ideas on individuality and self-realization have become “a dominant spirit in the national experience”[4] his thought may serve as a paradigmatic reference point of how individualistic and authoritarian tendencies merge in the American mind. Thus, while Emerson announces that “[e]very man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same”, his special attention is drawn by the genius rising above the mass. “The world exists for the excellent”, he declares. He predicts that “the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power” (Emerson 3:49). Tellingly, the exemplary personalities he introduces as “Representative Men” do not only include poets, scientists and philosophers but notably also Napoleon Bonaparte. The latter is described by Emerson as an artist of war and

… a man of stone and iron, capable of sitting on horseback sixteen or seventeen hours, of going many days together without rest or food except by snatches, and with the speed and spring of a tiger in action; a man not embarrassed by any scruples; compact, instant, selfish, prudent, and of a perception which did not suffer itself to be baulked or misled by any pretences of others, or any superstition or any heat or haste of his own. (Emerson 4:133)

This passage is pervaded by a perceivable waft of machismo and Übermensch subjectivism, granting the individual nothing less than “the power to dispose of the whole felt and imagined world”[5]. In this way, the doors to unchecked self-aggrandizement and totalitarian power fantasies are opened wide. “Power is, in nature, the essential measure of right”, as Emerson states in “Self-Reliance” (Emerson 2:40). By observing that “[w]e can not, in the universal imbecility, indecision and indolence of men, sufficiently congratulate ourselves on this strong and ready actor”, he openly calls for the strong hand of a leader (Emerson 4:141). It is through this veneration of individual vigor and personal autonomy that the ultraliberal individualist model paradoxically provides the matrix for ultra-authoritarian mindsets.

As a result of its dedication to the maximal expansion of human capacities, radical individualism simultaneously opens up two different psychological frameworks; one of which stimulates egalitarian sensibilities,  the other authoritarian. For while in principle it aspires to realizing the full potential of each and every person, it celebrates the exceptional leader. And that is namely because the latter demonstrates an enlarged spectrum of human possibilities to all fellow human beings, thus presumably awakening them to their own potential greatness. Within this logic, democratic and authoritarian spirit become so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable. Based on these latent cultural assumptions, freedom can readily be interpreted as the right to submission.

Authoritarian leadership is horseplay for those in charge. Photo credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

Against this background, it no longer seems contradictory that many U.S. conservatives, while prominently championing radical individualistic ideals and invoking ‘power-to-the-people’ rhetoric, have taken to celebrating Vladimir Putin as a leader par excellence. For example, Pat Buchanan pays tribute to the Russian president’s “moral clarity” and lauds his political style by claiming that “[w]hile his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.”[6] In a similar vein, Rudolph Giuliani publicly commented: “Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day, right? He decided he had to go to [the Ukrainian] parliament — he went to their parliament. […] [H]e makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.”[7] It may seem absurd that, of all people, a politician like Putin is proclaimed to be the carrier of the democratic torch. And yet, the parallels to Emerson’s admiration of Napoleon show that the liberal individualist ethos has long had an authoritarian undercurrent in the American intellectual tradition.

The main problem of an uncompromisingly purist interpretation of individualist precepts is that – just like any other ideology taken to its extreme – they tend to mutate into their opposite.[8] In the most recent manifestation of this psychological mechanism, the American angst of losing personal autonomy to an overbearing state power is one of the main reasons why U.S. citizens have voted in a president whose campaign was dominated by anti-statist rhetoric. And yet, it is he who – in the continuation of the very same ‘strong-man’ stance – is now making unilateral war decisions, brazenly and openly hampering freedom of the press, and using the White House website as a marketing tool for the First Family’s personal businesses.

Inspired by the culturally sponsored hero figure of the self-reliant maverick, America has cast Donald Trump in the prototypical role of the unorthodox leader who “shakes things up” to the benefit of all. But the country will have to take a more critical look at the pervasive cultural myth of the autonomous, irreverent personality. For as Trump’s political style shows, personal independence and pompous self-aggrandizement may sometimes look eerily similar. And the courage to think one’s own thought can all too easily be confused with an intellectual obstinacy that leads to the endorsement of “alternative facts” in a tantrum-like attempt to deny inconvenient realities.

America’s democratic spirit is famously based on the ideal of maximum personal independence as a safeguard against the abuse of state power. But Trump’s triumph is the most dramatic manifestation of a scenario which critics of an unrestrainedly individualist culture have been warning against for some time now, namely that autonomy without a social dimension inevitably turns into authoritarianism. For the mere boldness to break rules is neither a token of personal independence nor a constructive feature in a democratic society.


[1] The contrasting collective patterns resulting from the sometimes contradictory implications of the country’s individualistic spirit have already been commented on by early observers of the nascent American nation, most notably J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville. As well, modern scholars such as Robert N. Bellah and Seymour Martin Lipset have repeatedly drawn attention to the sharp contrasts characterizing American public life.

[2] Warren 24.

[3] For example, in the 1988 UBU campaign by Reebok, Emerson quotes such as “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist”, “Insist on yourself; never imitate”, and “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” were recited for the purpose of marketing sneakers.

[4] Howe 1.

[5] Anderson 56.

[6] http://buchanan.org/blog/putin-one-us-6071.

[7] https://mediamatters.org/video/2014/03/03/on-fox-giuliani-praises-putin-hes-what-you-call/198316.

[8] Cf. Newfield.


Anderson, Quentin. The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (New York: Knopf, 1971).

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson, 7 volumes (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971–2013).

Howe, Irving. The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

Newfield, Christopher. The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Warren, Joyce W. The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984).


About the Author

After studying North American literature, Russian literature, and musicology at the University of Hamburg and UC Berkeley, Olga Thierbach-McLean earned her doctorate in American Studies at UHH. Her main research interests are in contemporary U.S. politics and particularly the intersections between politics and literature, in American Transcendentalism, the intellectual history of liberalism, and dystopian fiction. Currently, her projects are focused on the cultural appropriation debate as an aspect of American political exceptionalism and on the reimagination of the cyberpunk genre as social criticism. Olga Thierbach-McLean is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Hamburg.