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Natalie, your research on political geographies has brought you closer to the study of authoritarianism and/or illiberalism. In the recent collective volume you edited, Spatializing Authoritarianism, you write about the limitations of state-level analysis when considering the relative levels of democratic participation. Can you explain why it’s important to take a multi-level spatial analysis when considering regime types? And building on that, when we focus on the highest levels of analysis, what do we miss?

I have always been a scholar of authoritarianism, but it took a long time for me to fully embrace the word itself. I was always fascinated by authoritarian regimes, but as soon as I began my geography studies, I became uncomfortable with how academic and popular discussions about it always seemed to assume the modernist state system. That is, they took for granted and “natural” the political imaginary that neatly divides global space into territorial states. This is seen in the way that an entire country – a territorial state with discrete borders, an inside and an outside – can frequently labeled as authoritarian or democratic. This assumption alone negates what I see as the main contribution of my field of political geography: explaining how global space is imagined and populated with political and moral values, and how these imaginaries are then materially inscribed and territorialized (on land and water, as much as on subjects and bodies).

So for a long time, I refused to use the word because I didn’t want to smuggle in essentialist understandings of geography that hide the way that borders, states, and territories are political constructs. But at some point, I realized I needed to join the conversations about authoritarianism, which were and till now continue to be dominated by political scientists, since understanding authoritarianism actually demands a critical understanding of the social construction of political geographic concepts. So to return to your questions, my approach to spatializing authoritarianism is not an issue the scale of analysis, per se. Rather, it is a question of the theoretical understanding of space and spatial metaphors. A multi-level spatial analysis is important when considering regime types because it refuses the simplistic idea that a regime is fully in control of the territory controlled by the state, in whose name that regime rules.

It calls our attention instead to how regimes depend on its subjects and outsiders alike assuming the “state” to be a real thing that exists in the world. Whether democratic or authoritarian, governments derive much of their power from the legitimacy of the state as a construct, in the most abstract sense. If we start from this constructivist view of political geography, then we can more critically examine the practices by which states themselves are made, and to perceive how authoritarian regimes benefit from this political geographic imaginary. We can also start to understand how authoritarianism has a spatiality, and that there are actually many scales and experiences of authoritarian space-time.

For example, we can see authoritarianism in democratic states if we look more closely at the various pockets of authoritarian rule – not just in the spatial islands of illiberalism like a prison but also in the social islands of illiberalism like a militia or the online spaces curated by antidemocratic actors of all sorts (conspiracy theorists, hate-mongers, etc.). But even with this idea of “illiberal islands” in a democracy, or “democratic islands” in an autocracy, it is tempting to let the spatial metaphor take over our understanding of how to distinguish between a democracy and autocracy, as if it is a question of saturation. I have long struggled with this issue, but always hold in mind one quote from Michel Foucault in Birth of Biopolitics, when he asserts:

But even with this idea of “illiberal islands” in a democracy, or “democratic islands” in an autocracy, it is tempting to let the spatial metaphor take over our understanding of how to distinguish between a democracy and autocracy, as if it is a question of saturation.

we should not think of freedom as a universal which is gradually realized over time, or which undergoes quantitative variations, greater or lesser drastic reductions, or more of less important periods of eclipse. It is not a universal which is particularized in time and geography. Freedom is not a white surface with more or less numerous black spaces here and there and from time to time. (Foucault 2008, 63)

Here Foucault is making the important point that spatial metaphors deceive. The challenge for scholars of authoritarianism, then, is to find the creative ways not to be deceived by the most basic spatial metaphors that underpin our understanding of the world and politics – metaphors like the state. Looking beyond the state does not mean rejecting its relevance for organizing political life, but rather considering how it does that organizing work and who is involved in those processes (willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously). In short, moving beyond essentialist frames of statism helps us interrogate the diverse scalar and spatial expressions of il/liberalism, and how these relationships and practices are written into the world and our lives through identity narratives, built landscapes, borders, legal systems, markets, and other territorial and extra-territorial expressions of power.

Both in the introduction and in a previous article, Post-Triumphalist Geopolitics, you challenge the conceptual frames of liberalism/illiberalism, democracy/despotism, noticing their tendency to orientalize the “Other” and the use of this language to support missionary action against supposedly “illiberal” states. How do modern practices make use of colonial tropes? How can scholars and practitioners move away from this frame?

Yes, this Orientalizing inclination in a great deal of scholarship and media coverage about authoritarianism is another reason that I previously tried to avoid the word. I remember first reading Max Weber’s Economy and Society in graduate school and being revolted by the Orientalist overtones of his concept of “sultanism” (and much more) – only to discover that some scholars continued to use the word unproblematically. This hasn’t ended, unfortunately, but it was the beginning my hyper-vigilant attention to the moral overtones and undertones of the language that people use when they describe authoritarian/illiberal/despotic regimes or systems. Of course, as Edward Said explains in Orientalism, these discourses are often more about the self than the Other.

I think scholars have to start with a mirror – taking a critical and unflinchingly honest view of our own identity narratives and moral judgments.

So to move away from the not only fallacious but racist and xenophobic ideas of Orientalism, I think scholars have to start with a mirror – taking a critical and unflinchingly honest view of our own identity narratives and moral judgments. Often, we may not even be aware of these implicit biases or normative commitments, but it is possible if we take that mirror in hand and allow ourselves to think beyond the mainstream. For example, I grew up in the United States and was thus bombarded with the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the American love of freedom and democracy, as are all American citizens. But something snapped in me on September 12, 2001. As the dust from the Twin Towers was still settling in Manhattan, a terrifyingly bellicose, rally-around-the-flag episode of hate-mongering in the name of nationalism seemed to suddenly grip everyone around me.

I was still in high school, so I didn’t have the academic language to describe it, but I suddenly felt the common tropes of American nationalism to ring hallow. When I started my studies in geography a few years later, I finally started to see and understand the power of political discourses like nationalism and the emotional effect of all those American flags fluttering as icons of “liberty” (not hate!) after 9/11. So now as a geography professor and an author, I feel it is important simply to give people the opportunity to see these practices of the self for what they are – politically- and morally-laden discourses that give us meaning and a sense of purpose as we move through the world. Teaching others and constantly reflecting on our own practices are, for me, the best place to start when tackling a force as formidable as Orientalism.

To continue on that central element, how is the use of liberalism as a foreign policy cudgel reconciled with the fact that its use can be devastatingly undemocratic? If liberal triumphalism presents a telling of history that is skewed, is it possible to escape interventionist policies that often run contrary to liberal values?

Promoting liberalism in foreign policy discussions is not inherently problematic. Where liberal advocacy becomes problematic is when it is bound up in those Orientalist practices that position the speaker as a “good” liberal subject and the audience as a “bad” illiberal subject. This sets up an oppositional hierarchy, where one party is assumed to have superior knowledge, experience, and moral credentials that justify intervention. These interventions have historically led to undemocratic violations of others’ sovereignty and right to self-actualization. If foreign policy exchanges are instead conducted in a way that promotes liberalism in a less moralizing manner, and in a way that supports partners’ agency to act and without feeling beholden to some outsiders’ opaque assessment of their worth, we might be one step closer to promoting liberal values. If we instead allow democracy-promotion projects to reproduce the same creeping culture of surveillance and micro-management that people in the corporate sector in the West are now rallying against as oppressive, we are sure to alienate those who would otherwise be inclined to embrace liberal values.

Where liberal advocacy becomes problematic is when it is bound up in those Orientalist practices that position the speaker as a “good” liberal subject and the audience as a “bad” illiberal subject. This sets up an oppositional hierarchy, where one party is assumed to have superior knowledge, experience, and moral credentials that justify intervention.

In your chapter of Spatializing Authoritarianism, you describe Trump’s personality cult as “quintessentially American.” Can you explain how personality cults became identifiable with American culture? Is there anything that sets American cults of personality apart from others across space and time?

How exactly personality cults became such an important part of American culture is a great question – and I wish I had a good answer. Unfortunately I can’t say I know why it is the case, but an important step to understanding the phenomenon is to accept that it is the case. In reading the media critiques of Donald Trump during the 2016 election and over the years of his presidency, the liberal discourse of Orientalizing authoritarianism never dissipated, but during the 2020 election, it was increasingly indexed through referencing the idea of a “personality cult.” Fitting the typical American nationalist formulations, accusing Trump of fostering a personality cult and his base of being cult-members, was fundamentally a story of U.S. exceptionalism. Mainstream American nationalism today celebrates individualism, carrying the currents of World War II propaganda and its successor identity narratives, which demonized the supposedly “mindless” followers of fascism that paved the way for Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and others. Obviously, as Hannah Arendt forcefully shows in Eichmann in Jerusalem and elsewhere, human behavior is much more complex than this. But nationalist mythologies, such as the idea that Americans are special because they are ultra-independent thinkers (never blind followers!), do not care for such complexity. Easy and comforting stories of uniqueness thus permeate the dominant discourse about personality cults.

So if we start with the simple argument that the United States is not exceptional, then what does that tell us about the country’s relationship with personality cults? Well, it tells us that American culture is not immune from them. In fact, if you look to history there are dozens of cases in the U.S. I could have listed many more, but some of the ones I noted in the chapter are George Washington, Robert E. Lee, George Armstrong Custer, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, and in the realm of popular culture today you can include figures like Lance Armstrong, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elizabeth Holmes, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Rush Limbaugh, and even Q of QAnon. But mainstream U.S. nationalism is such that this long and diverse history of personality cults is conveniently ignored. Instead, self-aggrandizing narratives of exceptionalism write these cases off as aberrations, and instead fetishize the personality cults in countries like China, Cuba, Iran, or Korea, and hold them up not as aberrations but icons of those places’ inherent “backwardness.” So I think the only thing that sets American personality cults apart is the fact that people in the U.S. seem not to understand them as quintessentially American. But, as I argue, they are.

You write that you observed Americans participating in the construction of Trump’s cult of personality in the run-up to the 2020 election with ever-gaudier displays of Trump loyalism. We often assume that a personality cult is built top-down by charismatic figures, but can you explain the social process of such cults being reenforced from a grassroots perspective?

Yes, in that chapter I described my observations of how the displays of Trump loyalism and fandom proliferated as the 2020 presidential election got closer. I got an earful of this from various far-right family members in Arizona, but at the time, I was living in Central New York. There, I was riding my bike through these rural landscapes many hours every day, I watched the visible markers of this became increasingly ostentatious. I didn’t do interviews with the people putting up Trump signs, flying Trump flags from their cars, or painting their sheds with “TRUMP,” but I started to have the sense that they were trying to outdo their neighbors. Or, at minimum, to fit in with their neighbors. Whatever the case may be, it is a phenomenon that Ian Kershaw memorably describes in The “Hitler Myth” and Lisa Wedeen also details in her analysis of Hafiz al-Asad’s cult of personality in Syria in Ambiguities of Domination. This kind of grassroots curation of the cult, whereby ordinary people socialize one another in the cult, and perpetuate it through their mutual surveillance, is an intrinsic element of how cults function. What makes these three cases – Trump, Hitler, and Asad – particularly interesting and intellectually important is the fact that they are all interwoven with the threads of nationalism. When the conformism encouraged by a personality cult fuses with the conformist thinking of nationalisms, it gains a special strength. But as with any nationalism, personality cults need to be constantly cultivated. How this develops in the next years will be critically important to monitor in the United States – and indeed, the rest of the world.

This kind of grassroots curation of the cult, whereby ordinary people socialize one another in the cult, and perpetuate it through their mutual surveillance, is an intrinsic element of how cults function.


Natalie Koch is a political geographer focusing on authoritarianism, geopolitics, nationalism and identity politics, and resource governance. She also works on sports geography. She is broadly interested in understanding how the territorial state system is maintained, and how individuals become subjects in different political systems and spaces. Empirically, her work focuses on the Arabian Peninsula, including the many transnational ties that bind the Gulf countries, actors, and ideas to other parts of the world. To do so, she examines alternative sites of geopolitical analysis such as science and higher education, sport, spectacle, nationalist rituals and landscapes, environmental policy and sustainability initiatives, urban development, and broader sovereign wealth fund-backed investment schemes.

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.