Recipe for a Dictatorship

The following formula has been used—unfortunately with great success—by 20th Century tyrants, including Hitler, Lenin, Mussolini, and Mao. Could we be witnessing a return of this approach?

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Identify a legitimate fear. In the case of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Bolshevik Russia, and Communist China, the fear was largely one of massive economic recession.
  2. Exaggerate that fear into a life or death issue.  In those four countries, this exaggeration was not difficult, because poverty had become rampant in many sectors, and people were indeed facing death by starvation as a result.
  3. Identify a straw man to blame for the exaggerated fear. In the case of Hitler and Mussolini, Jews were accused of siding with outside economic forces that were allegedly imperiling the nation. In the case of Lenin and Mao, the straw man was the Western imperialist who might be masquerading as a local business leader, landlord, banker, shopkeeper, lawyer, or physician.
  4. Encourage your supporters to vilify the straw man. Enormous pent-up energy was released in those four countries when people honestly believed all their problems would be solved once the straw man was destroyed.
  5. Promise to eliminate the straw man. After all, if the straw man is the one causing all the grief, then the straw man needs to go.
  6. Claim that your opponent supports the straw man and is therefore the enemy of the people. And then, once the opponent is gone, the tyrant is the only leader left standing atop one-party rule.

Not, let’s consider whether the recipe might be at work right now, right here in the United States.

  1. Homicides occur from time to time at various places in the United States. It’s a legitimate fear.
  2. Though the national homicide rate has declined steadily over the past forty years, high profile murders are given more attention by politicians now than ever before. It seems the fear is being exaggerated.
  3. Although research demonstrates that undocumented immigrants commit homicides at a rate far below that of the resident population, a certain politician keeps claiming that they are the main cause of homicides, pointing to one or two anecdotal episodes as proof of immigrant culpability.
  4. The same politician asks his followers to support the building of a wall as a way to deter undocumented immigration. Enormous energy is released by supporters at campaign rallies.
  5. He promises to “build that wall,” eliminating illegal immigration and thereby eliminating crime and drug trafficking.
  6. He claims that the Democratic Party supports illegal immigration and therefore should be viewed as the enemy of the people.

Fortunately, unlike the rise of those other tyrants to power, the United States is governed by a Constitution designed to separate executive, legislative, and judicial power. It is our support of the Constitution, and the vibrancy of a two (or more)-party system, that is preventing the recipe from having its intended effect. We must remain vigilant, though, to protect our democracy.