Democracy is under assault. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, ISIS terrorism, the nuclear threat from North Korea and Donald Trump’s populism are just a few examples of the forces challenging our societies.
Concerns about immigrants from terrorist enclaves helped elect Trump and fuelled Brexit. Amid the Russian scandal that’s engulfed Trump’s presidency, many observers worry about his apparent indifference toward Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the Baltic states, and see a resemblance between their strongman styles. On the other hand, people on the alt-right in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen, openly admire Putin’s authoritarianism and want it for Europe.
In my book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice and Terror, I delve into how various forms of tyranny, dictatorship and populist demagoguery have a detailed and fascinating history reaching back to ancient Greece. That history can help us sort out what’s happening today—and even reassure us that there’s reason for hope.
The birth of tyranny
Tyranny was first experienced on a large scale by the ancient Greeks—both from the external threat posed to their small city-states by the mighty Persian empire and from the tendency of their own politics to veer between extremes of tyranny and anarchy. A change in government usually meant the new winners would oppress the previous winners, prosecuting them and seizing their property. Responsible self-government under the rule of law was fragile.
Different categories of tyrannies emerged over the ages that have helped to classify and condemn tyranny and other exploitative forms of authority, and to encourage self-governing societies. We can still apply those categories today.
America’s Founding Fathers, in fact, were among those so deeply concerned about avoiding tyranny, either from a single politician or a majority mob, that they developed a system of government to thwart it. Echoing ancient students of politics like Plato and Sallust, Alexander Hamilton warned against a potential “Catiline or Caesar” arising in democracy’s midst disguised as the people’s champion.
The following categories of tyrannies may have some startling parallels to current events:
Tyrants who run their countries like Mafia dons
For sheer exploitation, these are the oldest type in their class, and still the most widespread today. Plato would have instantly recognized Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, for example. The wealth and autocratic power of such tyrants are often accompanied by cruelty and hedonism, from the sexual perversions of Nero to Muammar Gaddafi’s abused female bodyguards and rumours of Kim Jong-un killing his uncle by setting wild dogs upon him.
Tyrants who want acclaim and influence
As far back as Alexander the Great, the Tudors and “enlightened despots” like Frederick the Great, we’ve also seen tyrannical autocrats who want to build large, powerful and prosperous states with some benefits for ordinary people, but without sharing power. Putin and the state oligarchy of China are examples.
These tyrants are rational actors open to bargaining with foreign adversaries, but not necessarily in the Western manner. Imperial clout in their self-proclaimed spheres of influence, prestige, national honour — all may mean as much to them as economic prosperity; perhaps more.
Finally, there are the totalitarians, like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and Khmer Rouge who want a collectivist utopia, submerging the individual in a monolithic, all-encompassing state. Typically such regimes, going back to the Jacobins and the French Revolution, involve genocide against imagined class or racial enemies, as well as foreign conquest as they endeavour to extend the blessings of the coming world collective to all mankind.
Today’s terrorist movements, including ISIS, share similar Utopian aims, now rebranded from Communism and National Socialism to the coming worldwide caliphate, requiring the same genocidal means and imperialistic expansion. Their aims and methods owe far more to Robespierre and Lenin than to genuine Islam. Terrorists are totalitarian tyrants in waiting.
These different kinds of tyrannical or demagogical threats to freedom have been dealt with in different ways—and will continue to be dealt with.
Recent election results in France and the Netherlands, and the likely outcome in Germany, prove that Europeans are so far resisting the extreme reaches of populism. That’s despite widespread concerns about the loss of national sovereignty to “global elites”—whether they’re multinational corporations or aspiring supranational authorities such as the United Nations or the European Union’s government in Brussels.
In the United States, Trump’s populism and nativism have longstanding historical precedents, including Andrew Jackson, Huey Long (dubbed by H.L. Mencken as a “backwoods Mussolini”) and George Wallace.
The country survived them.
And Trump will not be able to exert his personal will over all branches of government—court challenges are clipping his wings. The U.S. political system is working as the Founding Fathers intended, forestalling the tyranny of one branch of government over the others through checks and balances. If Trump is indeed the American “Catiline or Caesar” who so worried Hamilton, he’ll never be able to act on his demagogical inclinations fully.
In the realm of international relations, where a firewall of sober appointees is so far hemming in Trump, deals can conceivably be reached with the dictators of Russia and China. Unlike genuine totalitarians such as Adolf Hitler or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, these autocrats have no intention of risking having their own societies, and especially their own power, going down in flames over any effort to bring about a totalitarian Utopia via world war.
But firmness and steadiness of purpose will be needed in this long-term poker game. Putin must be made to understand that he has no claims on territory belonging to the former Warsaw Pact, despite his wish to avenge Russia’s wounded pride after it lost the Cold War. China must be made to understand that it cannot build naval bases in international waters.
As for today’s totalitarians like ISIS, they will continue to present the gravest challenge to democracy because they don’t want just power, riches or national pride. They want to bring heaven to Earth and force the rest of us to submit to them as masters.
Reasons for hope
None of this is cause for despair, however. As I make clear in my book, the history of tyranny is, after all, also the history of its eventual defeat.
The Great King of Persia was checked at Marathon and Salamis. Napoleon was checked at Waterloo. Hitler was checked on D-Day. The Soviet Empire collapsed inwardly through the combination of tardy and half-hearted attempts at reform and steady pressure from the United States, NATO and from Pope John Paul II. The Polish-born pope strode into the heart of captive Poland and encouraged his countrymen to “live in the truth.” It was clear he meant the truth about everything, including Communist totalitarianism—not just religious faith.
Tyrants and tyrannies can be frightening from the outside, but are often brittle within. They feature presumed followers who are themselves living in fear of the monsters ruling them, eager to escape.
With perseverance and realism, aided and inspired by the history of free government besting its tyrannical foes for thousands of years, democracy can meet the challenge once again.