This article highlights three main problems with current conceptualizations of authoritarianism: they constitute a negative or residual category, focus excessively on elections and assume that authoritarianism is necessarily a state-level phenomenon. Such ‘regime classifications’ cannot help us comment intelligently on public concerns that politicians like President Rodrigo Duterte, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Viktor Orban or President Donald Trump are essentially ‘authoritarian’ leaders. This article proposes that, in order to provide political scientists with better tools to distinguish between contemporary threats to democracy and interpretations imbued by left-liberal prejudice, authoritarianism studies must be reoriented towards studying authoritarian as well as illiberal practices rather than the fairness of national elections alone. The article defines and illustrates such practices, which exist in authoritarian, democratic and transnational contexts. Comparative analysis of authoritarian and illiberal practices will help us understand conditions in which they thrive and how they are best countered.