October 15, 2019

As we all know, these are dark days for democracy. Mere weeks ago, the sinister despot-in-waiting Boris Johnson staged a constitutional coup against Parliament. Admittedly it wasn’t a very successful coup, and it was swiftly overturned by some old judges who he meekly obeyed, and Johnson had already offered to hold an election anyway — but that didn’t stop the accusations of incipient totalitarianism from flying thick and fast. Google “Boris Johnson dictator” and you’ll get 4,000,000 results.

Meanwhile, in the US, we have Donald Trump. What is there to say about this would-be Caesar that The Washington Post did not encapsulate in the slogan it adopted in 2017: “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (T-shirts available in S, M and XXL)? A tad histrionic, you might say, but what about the enormous gold statue Trump recently erected to himself on the National Mall? And the new lines added to the pledge of allegiance “At the moment of my betrayal to Donald the America-Father let my breath stop”?

Well okay, there is no statue and the pledge hasn’t changed. Yet Google “Trump dictator” and you’ll get 15,000,000 results. Switch “dictator” for “Hitler” and the total rises to 65,000,000. The facts – that in the US we have a chaotic, disorganised administration that lurches from one crisis to the next, while in Britain the Government can’t get a single act through Parliament – make little difference. Many, many people are highly agitated and prone to making overheated comparisons, completely untethered to any observable reality.

If more people knew about actual dictatorships, would they be less slap-happy about constantly invoking the monsters of the 20th century whenever they got a bit upset by a politician? Probably not, but in his How to be a Dictator: the Cult of Personality in the 20th Century, Dutch historian Frank Dikotter provides a primer that would do the job, if anybody were willing to listen.

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Dikotter has written extensively on Mao’s China and knows a thing or two about totalitarian excess, but here he expands his scope to cover eight appalling regimes across four continents, ranging from Mussolini at the start of the 20th century through to Mengistu at its end. His emphasis is on the phenomenon of the personality cults, the establishment of which is, in his view, “the most efficient” way for a dictator “to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals”, beating out even purges and the principle of divide and rule – though they certainly have a role to play.

Mussolini established the template that many dictatorial cult-builders would subsequently follow. Although he was less interested in establishing a coherent ideology than his Marxist-Leninist peers, he shared their desire to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands, to establish himself as a supreme and unquestioned leader, and duly forced himself into his subjects’ consciousnesses via photographs, posters, slogans, books, radio broadcasts and newsreels, while also turning up in person to dig ditches or inspect things. He was also highly attentive to detail: “In the middle of the war he found time to change the colour of a woman’s magazine from purple to brown,” writes Dikotter. Then it all collapsed, and Mussolini’s cult crumbled overnight.

Dikotter also explores the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung who, despite their ideological and personal differences, all managed to find a lot of common ground with their Italian predecessor, sharing such passions as self-glorification, terror, war, books with their names on the spines, and the act of naming lots of streets, avenues and cities after themselves. (They did, however, have limits: while Stalin was big on erecting statues to himself, Hitler would not permit them; monuments were for the past, and he was a leader of the future. Mao was okay with statues, but he did not want parks or cities to be named in his honour.)

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Then there are the rarely discussed regimes of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. Here, things get weirder. The Voodoo-obsessed Duvalier, who declared himself as the “personification of God” and liked to wear top hat and tails, was clearly operating in a very different cultural context from the despots of Europe and Asia, yet he had enough in common with them that Dikotter proclaims him “a dictator’s dictator, a man who wielded naked power without the pretence of ideology”. Mengistu, meanwhile, moved into Haile Selassie’s Grand Palace, had the emperor’s corpse interred underneath his office, kept the cheetahs on chains, and then caused the famine that inspired Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to write Do They Know It’s Christmas?

And so it happened, again and again. Millions would live and die in the nightmare worlds constructed by evil men, only for it all to disappear as these despots fell or died; the 20th century’s own lunatic, appalling “eternal return“, an epoch of murder, torture and degradation inspired by absurd utopian fantasies.

All of which underscores the radical stupidity of comparing controversial and/or unpopular elected leaders with Hitler and Stalin. Yes, I’ll admit that Trump straws and the unedited Trump rallies I see on Fox when I’m at the gym seem a bit odd, but CNN is running concurrently on another screen and it’s non-stop Trump-bashing. As for Boris Johnson, aside from his books and some swag sold at the last Tory conference, he has nothing at all in terms of personality cult.

Both men will also, whether or not they win their next elections, be gone very soon in the grand scheme of things. Would Stalin or Mao have allowed themselves to be voted out? Obviously not. Dikotter sees this as a sign of weakness – that they were not willing to put their ideas and regimes to the test of a plebiscite – but this is naive. There are many reasons not to hold elections if you can get away with it, and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of leaders throughout history have not bothered to ask the masses what they think.

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In fact, even when you turn your attention to actual, successful contemporary authoritarians, you’ll see little like the horrors of the recent past, aside from a handful of places such as North Korea or Turkmenistan. Today’s tyrants, while unquestionably awful, pale in comparison to their 20th century antecedents. Yes, Putin is sinister and repressive, but he is more liberal than almost every Russian leader before him bar the occasional drunk and naif.

Erdogan is an appalling thug but he was patient enough to wait decades to advance his goals through elections, constitutional reform and a long march through the institutions. And then there is Xi Jinping, a man guilty of many sins, but no Mao. As Dikotter points out: “hardly a month goes by without a new book announcing ‘the Death of Democracy'” yet “even a modicum of perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline when compared to the twentieth century”.

So why do so many people feel the need to pretend that we are living on the edge of a new era of totalitarian horror all the time, when they are not only trivialising the sufferings of those who lived under terrible regimes, but also concealing the true nature of the problems we face?

After all, honest language would bring clarity of thought, and with it, a merciless focus on the weakness and confusion of our leaders, the desperation of our elected representatives, and the pitiful sadness of their squabbles. It would also denude excitable journalists and all keyboard warriors of the fantasy that they are engaged in a battle between forces of light and darkness, replacing it with a sense that they are witness only to intractable squabbles over things which are very complicated, which no-one will win, and where everyone will feel disappointed in the end. It would also point to the fact that even second and third tier despots regularly outwit the leaders of the democratic West.

Hmm, I can see why they don’t want to do that. But still.