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The flamboyant billionaire, whose wealth has something to do with tall buildings, had a message: A storm was coming. This civilization had reached the pinnacle of its decadence, and it was time to restore the balance and sweep out the evildoers, who happened to be foreigners. This nation, he declared, "needs its true hero."

The existing governments and institutions had failed because they were run by weak and stupid people. The hero would end that. As his butler said: "He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice." He would rise above the system, with violent, extreme, decisive gestures that he knew would be hated by the establishment, but were what the people wanted: "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy," he announced. "Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

When hearing those lines of dialogue in the Dark Knight movies, some nod in quiet agreement. When provoked by fear, Batman authoritarians want the man in the tower to tell them he knows how to fix it.

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We are witnessing a resurgence in Batman politics, as a generation of actual and would-be leaders discovers the keys to that cohort of voters who, if their fear triggers are tickled properly, are susceptible to caped crusaders.

It surprised a lot of observers when Vladimir Putin, a few years ago, began shunning ideologues who had supported his campaigns. He distanced himself from the Russian ultranationalists, and purged the far-right "neo-Eurasian" movement that had justified his invasion of Crimea in the name of a mighty "civilization." Aleksandr Dugin, that movement's figurehead, was abruptly fired from Moscow State University. Mr. Putin has realized that he does not need people with ideas.

Mr. Dugin endorsed Donald Trump last week, but Mr. Trump showed no interest. Mr. Putin has also spoken in enthusiastic praise of Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump has returned the favour, not just reciprocating the praise but duplicating the methodology.

Mr. Trump has been similarly decisive in shunning or driving away any existing movement or branch of thought that might support him. He is hated by neo-conservatives, whose most prominent proponents announced this week that they would be voting Democratic; he's equally anathema to social conservatives, movement conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians, right-wing liberals and the Republican Party establishment.

Unlike conventional politicians, when these lone-hero authoritarians say and do awful things that sever them from acceptable society and basic morality, they tend to rise in popularity, often dramatically. There are some voters who want a dark knight.

Mr. Trump's sudden sweep of the early primaries has caused Americans to pay attention to the formerly obscure branch of political science that studied and analyzed the segment of voters who are drawn to authoritarian figureheads.

"A voter's gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump," political analyst Matthew MacWilliams wrote last month, after conducting surveys of the motives of primary voters. "Neither, despite predictions to the contrary, did evangelicalism. Here is what did: authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans' inclination to authoritarian behaviour."

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His surveys found that people who have very rigid views about the use of authority in leadership and parenting, and who see society as sharply polarized into right and wrong, friend and (racial) enemy, tended overwhelmingly to favour Mr. Trump.

As several journalists pointed out this week, the Trump phenomenon was predicted in considerable detail by the 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics by political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, which saw similar divides provoked by some voters' predisposition to charismatic, ideology-free strongman figures who appeal to fear.

That book's focus on the 2008 Democratic primaries seemed strange and ill-focused when it was published, but suddenly it makes a lot more sense. They found a rump of voters – perhaps 20 per cent of the electorate – who seek out a masculine "non-sissy" politics, an absolute sense of right and wrong, and a clearly defined enemy.

There is a tendency to view Mr. Trump's and Mr. Putin's voters as economic or racial victims, people left behind by a modernizing economy and society. They aren't, though, to any important degree: Rather, they are people who have a fantasy, and were just waiting for someone to make it real.

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