The Psychology of Dictatorship: A Historical Retrospective

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1939

                  Sir B.H. Liddell-Hart

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last year I read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda, or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; especially when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. But he also contrasted democracy and totalitarianism.

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. While he admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

There is much to ponder in his book and I will probably write some more of my thoughts on it, but when I read it I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot described President Donald Trump through the his campaign and after his election and inauguration.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

Once authoritarian, despotic, or dictatorial leaders gain power through the democratic process they seldom deviate from how they behave when seeking power. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.”

So please, take a breathe for a second and think about this in terms of President Trump and his actions during his first two weeks in office. Liddell-Hart noted that once a despot achieves power that their reign is marked by the following types of events:

“On gaining power:  They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it. 

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy. They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends. 

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public. 

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality. 

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward. 

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people. 

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created. 

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.”

Now pause for a moment. Donald Trump has been in office barely two weeks. Look at how he is behaving. Read his words, examine his actions, and not just during the past two weeks but throughout his business career and his campaign for the presidency. Then, take the time to let Liddell-Hart’s words sink in, hours, days, weeks, or even months. Contemplation and reflection are far better than visceral and emotional reactions.

This is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

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