If the past few years have proved anything, it’s that people are wrong to think they’ll know tyranny when they see it. Those who fancy themselves especially well attuned to recognizing and resisting tyranny tend to get so excited at the idea of playing dress up in heroic costumes that they lose the plot. Think of the New York Times billboard ad reading “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” It is? More than ever? More than during the McCarthy hearings in 1954? More than during the Vietnam War? During Hitler’s rise to power? Is Trump really Hitler? Or is Hillary Hitler? Does democracy die in darkness, or does it die equally well in daylight? You see what I mean.
Enter two books that aren’t just winging it when they look at authoritarianism: Waller R. Newell’s Tyrants, out now in an updated paperback, and Frank Dikötter’s How to Be a Dictator. Here are two books that actually try to situate panic about tyranny in the context of history, rather than dissolving our sense of history in panic about tyranny. Among other important reminders they provide is a catalog of intellectuals and saints who fail miserably at repudiating authoritarianism in the Marxist-Leninist or fascist flesh. Here is George Bernard Shaw, singing Stalin’s praises and setting up a shrine in his home to the strongman. There is Gandhi, praising Mussolini as “one of the great statesmen of the time.” These anecdotes abound, and they remind us that our betters often got these things wrong.
Newell’s book is smarter than it is precise, and more precise than it is stylish. Which is a coy way of saying I like it and think Newell is wise and correct, but his book needed a good edit. There are sentences that feel interminable, factual inaccuracies, and typos throughout. He claims Jordan was “the original intended Palestinian State,” which is a stretch; the British did imply that King Abdullah I might later be able to rule Palestine, but that’s a different claim. And in this updated second edition, the misspelled phrase “pubic adulation” is still printed in place of “public adulation”; while I have no value judgments about either subject, the difference seems important. I have to mention these things, but I also have to call myself petty for doing so. As to its content, it is a sweeping and literary look at tyranny that tours several thousand years of literature, archaeology, history, and philosophy to show how we got here.
Answer: We were always here. The causes of tyranny are located inside us, not in the passing fashions of historical eras. And they aren’t going away. They were in Achilles and Alexander and they are in al-Qaida too.
That isn’t to say tyranny doesn’t develop in discernible ways. By understanding tyrants in categories—the kleptocratic tyranny, the reforming tyranny, and most dangerous of all, the millenarian/utopian tyranny—Newell gives us a framework for understanding and predicting why they do what they do and how bad things are likely to get for their subjects. It’s great to learn about Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More on the way to understanding where modern jihadists come from. But like with many academics’ books, it feels like the reader is indulging the writer and not the other, proper way around.
Dikötter is a historian, not a political scientist, and history, unlike political science, is a real scholarly discipline. His book is therefore much more professional, and its scope is correspondingly much more narrow. The fact that he seems to share a core political and historiographical sensibility with Newell is what makes the sharp contrast between the two books so interesting: Where Newell seeks to locate our questions about despotism today within the broadest possible story, giving us thousands of years of “the strange career of tyranny,” Dikötter, a leading Mao scholar, sticks carefully to the personality cults of the past century. Where Newell uses a tour through history from Homer to Hamas to lay out a typology of different forms of tyrants, Dikötter breaks down the discrete phases that play out as a dictator seizes power.
Dikötter allows the basic similarities of eight different 20th-century dictators to jump out at the reader on their own, as each fast-paced chapter traces the rise and fall of a regime. The sequence he sketches looks like this: Each leader mythologizes his own glorious image as he debases his society, starting as a lowly peasant and freedom fighter who takes power and inevitably conducts purges and creates a doctrinal ism (usually not a terribly innovative one) in his name. Eventually, he turns to increasingly violent repression as the stagnant dictatorial system shows signs of crackup and decline. Dictators are desperate to get power and desperate to keep it, and everything else flows from this.
Yet while the falls are dramatic, not everyone falls. The end of the Nicolae Ceaușescu chapter concludes with the Romanian strongman and his wife, Elena, shot against a concrete wall as she offers a not-very-queenly dying “fuck you.” A single sign of televised weakness had set the people rioting for its freedom in a paroxysm of anger against the 24-year rule of the insane megalomaniac who reportedly had a legion of soldiers travel ahead of him to paint the leaves his preferred shade of green. That is more emotionally satisfying than the North Korea chapter, which offers no closure on the Kim dynasty’s existing Stalinist nightmare state.
The stories told in Dikötter’s chapters offer a compelling case for an out-of-fashion idea: that the inherently febrile authoritarian systems of the world not only should not last but also cannot last, even in their more dynamic updated 21st-century forms. This is no dewy-eyed, end of history idealism, just good odds-making. He reminds us over and over of the inherent weakness of the personality cults that emerge when a leader gets absolute power and stops being questioned. “Dictators, the thinking went, were unshakable, like their statues. They had captured the souls of their subjects and molded their thinking. They had cast a spell on them. But there never was a spell. There was fear …”
One cannot escape hearing about how the Western intelligentsia over-interpreted the End of History. Perhaps we have over-interpreted the over-interpretation, too. “Hardly a month goes by without a new book announcing ‘The Death of Democracy’ or ‘The End of Liberalism,’” writes Dikötter scornfully. It’s not that liberalism is doomed to succeed. But dictatorship, he reminds us by showing the ways it is fragile, is doomed to fail. The thesis that emerges is a liberal broadside against gloom.
How to Be a Dictator hits the perfect balance between popular and scholarly, and it’s difficult to imagine the reader who wouldn’t learn from it and enjoy the ride. Dikötter’s book is anti-communist and anti-authoritarian in its politics, but more importantly it is historically detailed and compelling in its chronicling of how dictators set about organizing an entire society around their own glorification and power. He makes his points in fresh ways and is careful to bring in fresh details. When he covers less famous dictatorships, like Mengistu’s Ethiopia, he brings the same sensibility, but he is never obscure.
The quixotic worlds men from Stalin to Duvalier used their absolute power to build are personal and singular because they are singular. But if each dictatorship had its creepy quirks, Dikötter’s book focuses more on what these personality cults have more in common, which is where the two books align.
Both Dikötter and Newell urge us not to see dictatorship as a historical aberration—not before the Enlightenment, not in the 19th century or the 20th, and not in our own. It does not belong to a bygone and defeated premodern part of history, and it never will. “To tyrannize is human, to liberalize divine” would be too cute a summary of what both books have to teach. It’s more like “to tyrannize is human, to liberalize is human too.”
What we have today is a resistance that is eternally vigilant but incredibly nearsighted. History professor Jill Lepore recently sounded an alarm in The New Yorker: “Starting in about 2005, the number of democracies around the world began to fall, as it had in the 1930s. Authoritarians rose to power: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald J. Trump in the United States.”
Lepore’s passage, we might say, contains too much vigilance, and too little. Among the derangements, for some reason it does not mention the teaching of “Xi Jinping thought” as a diktat of the genocidal Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, among the entries it does enumerate, it really might do to notice and contrast some rather salient politico-scientific distinctions. Up top, Putin is one of the worst tyrants on the planet, and if his original election was legitimate his more recent ones are likely stolen through a combination of intimidation and outright cheating: If The New Yorker operated in the Russian Federation, he’d have had it raided and had Lepore’s computer bashed. But Western observers taking his measure tend not to understand that he still has some limitations on his domestic power and is weak internationally—except in his ability to convince them that he controls everything with kompromat and some sort of black magic. On his level, Duterte has successfully encouraged roving street gangs to summarily murder fellow citizens in his name. Pretty fascisty! Erdoğan has canceled and reheld elections he doesn’t like, rewritten constitutional provisions, made it illegal to criticize his person, and purged the military and civil service so only loyalists remain. Again, that does seem to earn the term authoritarian as more than a mere epithet.
Down a tier, perhaps, in actual dictatorial control of society if not in the evil in their souls, are Kaczyński and Duda in Poland and Orbán in Hungary. It is not vile complicity to point out that while Orbán may be a disgusting anti-Semite and xenophobe, things just factually aren’t as repressive on the streets of Budapest as they are in Istanbul, let alone in Moscow—and forget about China. As to Bolsonaro, he’s a democratically elected leader of low character who indulges a trollish, irresponsible, dangerous penchant for ginning up hate against his enemies, who hate him right back. His rhetoric and policies are cruel for the sake of being cruel, and his supporters revel in how refreshing it all is to not have to pretend to any empathy for despised outgroups. Trump is maybe 70% as bad as that.
America is obviously not an authoritarian country run by a lawless dictator, even if one of its three branches of government is run by a unstable person with an authoritarian personality who was elected to live in the White House three years ago. Come on, Jill Lepore. Go outside. Even if you were in Clint, Texas, which you are not, this is absurd. Why choose to be ridiculous?
Newell speaks to this not-terribly-scholarly obsession with making everything about Trump in the updated section of his book (appended to the front as an introduction but probably best read as a coda): “Let me now turn to the question I have been asked almost on a daily basis since this book first came out: Is Donald J. Trump a tyrant, and if so, what kind?” Here, in the present, is where having somebody with a broad cross-disciplinary historical approach to questions of tyranny really helps with critical distance. He notes dryly and accurately: “Many of the harshest criticisms of Trump have been about his character and how he cheapened the presidency by his trashy and inflammatory language. Is Trump the most vulgar president in American history? For coarse language, I wouldn’t say he exceeds John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or George W. Bush.” He also notes that the United States is clearly “capable of tyrannical actions” like slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, assassinations, unjust wars, etc., none of which happened on Trump’s watch. (But what about the “Muslim ban”? I can hear one of Lepore’s eager activist grad students crying out. Well, it may be bad, but it isn’t Jim Crow. It’s an injustice, of which there are many on the planet Earth, and always will be, until humans are eliminated by justice-seeking robots built by Apple.)
America, under Trump or otherwise, is not a tyranny. And it is resilient to becoming one, since it has “checks and balances that would thwart the ability of one branch of government to usurp the other two in a tyranny of the majority, a minority, or of one leader. Throughout America’s history, in the course of time, its wrongdoings have been reversed or at least ameliorated because of these checks and balances.”
If this sounds like a basic civics lesson on American government and the distinction between open societies and their opposite side … well, good. The need for that kind of lesson seems increasingly apparent. This is not to say there is no due alarm about recent political developments, including in America. “It would be fair to say that the rise of Donald Trump took place in an atmosphere in which, while the division of powers was not overturned, the Republic was getting shaky on its feet. Racial tension was at a pitch unparalleled since the riots of the sixties. Candidate Trump poured oil on the fire when he appeared to argue that most Mexican immigrants to the United States were criminals and rapists.”
So, these books show, there is still an intelligent and precise way for political scientists and historians to write about tyranny after 2016. And then there is a hysterical and moronic one. Go for the former, which is well represented in these two very different honest and inquisitive looks at the worst form of government, including all the others.
Must Donald Trump ruin scholarship, too?
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Nicholas Clairmont is an associate editor at Arc Digital and a regular contributor to the Washington Examiner Magazine, where he writes the Word of the Week feature. He is also a freelance book reviewer and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @nickclairmont1.