Tuesday, November 1, 2016

For Those Who Would Be King: The Kingmaker's Playbook / Joshua Abbott

The Kingmaker's Playbook

How does one become king? And not just a figurehead, but an absolute ruler? In the old days, kings asserted their rule by divine right, meaning either being born into it or leading an army to victory. These days, with democracy so much in vogue, it's not so simple. Not that it's impossible, but you'll have to be clever about it and probably won't get to use the title of "king."
First, you'll need a core group of committed followers.
Next, you'll need to convince at least a plurality of voters that (1) a crisis is threatening the country, (2) the current leaders are too corrupt, weak, or incompetent to do anything about it, and (3) the only solution is a strong leader, unshackled by politics.
Finally, you must persuade people that you are the strong leader they need. Without the burden of scruples, you'll soon be able to leverage whatever authority they grant you into real power.
Along the way, you also must understand that "the way to power . . . [is] to ally [your]self with . . . powerful institutions." (Shirer, 1960) Having access to existing social and political infrastructures will make your job so much easier.

Donald Trump seems to be following this playbook to the letter. The most accurate description of his ideology is that of an authoritarian nationalist, and he has plenty of ambition. His greatest initial hurdle was winning control of a major political party. As neither a true conservative nor a liberal, most experts doubted he could do it.  But he perceived early on what they did not—that a nationalist faction within the Republican party was gaining sway—and he seized his opportunity. Having consolidated his base and secured the nomination, Trump need only persuade voters that, distasteful as they may find him, he offers the lesser of two evils (admittedly not a high bar this year, given Hillary's unpopularity).
Trump's speeches offer a closer look at how exactly he's following the well-established game plan. On October 13 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Donald Trump gave a speech that, in its tone, content, and style, was what one would expect to hear only from a would-be dictator.  Overflowing with superlatives, most of what he said fell into one of several themes:
  1. A global conspiracy among his political opponents, the media, and leading financial institutions, is destroying the country.
  2. The political establishment is totally corrupt, and our current leaders are liars, criminals, and traitors.
  3. He willingly endures all their attacks and false accusations because he and the great movement he leads are our last hope to save the country.
All of this, including the apocalyptic and messianic allusions, come directly from the playbook outlined above. But while this message is sure to rally the faithful, it may be harder to convince more moderate voters. That's where his takeover of the Republican party comes in. Many who would otherwise be turned off by his rhetoric will find solace in voting for the party they've always been able to trust in the past.

In every democracy where an authoritarian has come to power, moderate voters have justified their support or their acquiescence with wishful, yet dangerously naive, thinking:
"Sure, he seems a little extreme and has said some crazy things, but I'm sure that . . ."
  • he doesn't really mean what he says
  • he'll act responsibly once he's in office.
  • we'll be able to control him.
  • we need a strongman for the current crisis.
"And if all else fails, how bad could things really get?"
If history teaches anything, it's that things can get much worse than we in this country often imagine. At a certain point in his rise to power, all an authoritarian needs to tip the scale is complacency among those who oppose him. Anyone who thinks, "it couldn't happen here," needs to remember that every time and in every place an authoritarian has seized power, many people believed the same thing.
It can happen here. When candidates speak, we must take their words seriously. We must never let our narrow partisan interests, important as those may be, outweigh the fundamental principles of liberty and equality on which our nation was founded. The most important words in the U.S. Constitution may be the first three, "We the People," because that means the people, not the state, are sovereign. Let us learn from the experiences of those in other democracies who have at least partly abdicated their sovereignty by electing authoritarians into office. America has been blessed never to have had a king or anything close to one. May it ever be so.


Joshua Abbott  November 2, 2016

After re-reading this post, I thought a bit of counter-analysis would be helpful. One could reasonably ask, "What if there really is a dangerous crisis; and our leaders really are corrupt, weak, or incompetent; and we really do need a strong leader? Shouldn't a candidate who points out those realities be considered honest and courageous, instead of a wanna-be dictator?" Possibly. If those conditions are real, then saying so may not differentiate a demagogue from a good leader.
The difference is what they propose to do about it. Fortunately, we have both good and bad historical examples to help us learn to discern. A great leader confronts challenges by building others up, emphasizing unity and shared values, appealing to our virtues (love, patience, humility), and reinforcing our commitment to fundamental principles of freedom and equality. A despot tears others down, emphasizes our differences to stir up contention (rich vs. poor, women vs. men, christian vs. muslim), cultivates a cult of personality around himself, appeals to our baser instincts (fear, greed, hate), and sacrifices fundamental values for political and economic gain.

Compare how past leaders faced crises to Trump's approach:
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory . . . will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." (Lincoln, First Inaugural Address) 
"[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." (FDR, First Inaugural Address)
"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." (JFK, inaugural address)
"We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. . . . Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (Reagan, Berlin, 1987)

And now, Trump:
"The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. . . . When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. . . . They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." (speech announcing candidacy, 2015)
"The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo." (convention speech, 2016)
"I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words." (speech announcing candidacy, 2015)
"I am your voice. . . . Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. . . . I am the Law and Order Candidate." (convention speech, 2016)

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