We often wonder how once reasonable people end up abandoning their principles and support obvious dictators and despots who are only concerned for their own gain.
Anne Applebaum’s article* in ‘The Atlantic’ suggested common reasons. She used historical situations to explain why the US Republicans have supported Trump, despite what is obvious to most of the world – that Trump is shaping the US into a dictatorship, despite the apparent democratic processes and institutions that exist there. As this process is also occurring in a large number of countries (eg China, Russia, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Philippines), it’s worth looking at why individuals might do this.
She proposed 7 common reasons:
- We can use this moment to achieve great things.
This might be a ‘good’ reason! Perhaps I/we can align our ideas of great things to those of the leader and get them done, regardless of the leader’s competence or values. Reinvigorating US industry would be an example.
- We can protect the country from the leader.
This is also a ‘good’ reason. Remember Trump threatened to use nuclear missiles against North Korea. Useful to have some people around him, arguing against this. However, whereas the first reason is positive, this is rather a negative reason for support.
- I personally will benefit.
Now for the ‘bad’ reasons! ‘I’m in this for me!’ Tax cuts for the rich would be one example of this for Republicans, the party of the rich. This is what most people fear and observe. Once elected, representatives turn feral and seek personal benefits, regardless of which party they ‘represent’.
- I must remain close to power.
Without power, there is no influence. Even if I don’t agree with what is being done, being close to power, at least I have some chance of influence…so I shut up, don’t rock the boat and wait for my opportunity.
- Nothing really matters.
‘It’s all just a game’. This is deeply cynical, but, for those with a long run view, a few blips in the short run are unimportant. Who will remember 4 years of Trump in 20 years’ time (is the argument)? Let’s just enjoy ourselves. Principles and short-term outcomes don’t really matter.
- My side might be flawed but the political opposition is much worse.
Most politicians believe this, regardless of their party! The inability of politicians to really see and assess objectively anything from the ‘other side’ seems increasingly limited.
- I am afraid to speak out.
Finally, there’s personal fear. Look at what happens to whistleblowers everywhere. The society may be saved, but the whistleblower loses (eg Assange, Snowden, Manning)
So How Do People Get Rid of Dictators
The bad news is that it normally takes a very long time! Consider Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco from the past, the established Xi (elected for life), Putin, Kim, Assad, Husseini, Lukashenko and the emerging Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte and Modi as just some examples! Perhaps we are lucky in Australia to change PMs every year or so!!!!
Assassination, natural death, armed revolution, invasion by foreign powers are some of the main ways and they take a lot of organisation, time and commitment. People revolutions occur occasionally (Egypt, Libya, Hungary, Cuba) but they are rare…and rarely successful! Relying on ‘rationality’ and ‘the power of the people’ doesn’t seem to be the way, if the dictator gets too much of a grip.
And here Trump has worked hard to get this grip (Supreme Court and other court appointments, executive orders, fake news, lies, making minority elector registration and voting difficult and excellent social media marketing and communications). He is very dangerous. Because he is powerful, Republicans hang on, with no viable alternative for them…until he fails.
How Do We Avoid Getting into this Situation ‘Here’ (wherever ‘here’ is)
Applebaum says it’s unpredictable when powerful individuals will stop supporting a leader/dictator. What is clear is that dictatorship begins with small incremental changes (Trump’s first move was to doctor pictures of the crowd at his inauguration – remember how we laughed at that…?). When they are not opposed, called out or stopped, then larger changes are made until a whole web of institutional and psychological changes exist.
Clearly system issues are key to stopping dictatorship developing (eg the independence of different branches of the governance system, transparency of information, political funding and decisionmaking, having credible opposition (whoever is in power) and alternative views (think tanks), having powerful regulators and protecting whistleblowers have all been shown to be important in shining light into dark spots in political regimes.
Standing up and speaking out individually and collectively are important too. Greta Thunberg, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo are just some examples that do influence community and government thinking and action.
Today, the US is at risk, because the Republicans support Trump regardless. They lose power if he loses. Tomorrow, will it be ‘us’? How do we elect people to power who don’t use it against us?
* Applebaum, Anne (2020) ‘History will judge the complicit’, The Atlantic, July-August.