How to Build a Twenty-first-Century Tyrant

On the bigger historical question, though, Naím is a little unsatisfying. What’s the difference between Beppe and Benito? Between Chávez and the Peróns? Mussolini, too, depended on charismatic, extra-political exchanges with his countrymen, and Juan and Evita had the haziest of ideologies, apart from a set of repeated populist gestures. Their performances were rooted, as befitted the time, in newsreels and still photographs and tabloid mystique, but were more than a bit “3P”-ish. Are we seeing a genuinely new phenomenon, or just a variant of an essentially unchanging one? For that matter, are we even justified in calling men like Salvini or Chávez or Bolsonaro “dictators” and making them part of the history of autocracy? They often get booted out, after all, by the same electors who welcomed them in.

Guriev and Treisman’s book, on the other hand, takes the contrast between old and new as its singular subject, drawing a yin-and-yang distinction between “fear dictators,” the classic kind, and “spin dictators,” the contemporary kind. Its central observation is that the new generation of authoritarians, whether fully fledged or still aspirant, as in the U.S., usually exploit the apparent levers of democratic politics but use more discreet forms of manipulation to extend their rule. Rather than cancel elections, they rig them; rather than outlaw opposition media, they marginalize them; sooner than start a gulag, they put constraints on Google. They are autocrats in their hatred and contempt for liberal institutions other than the one that helped them into power. (Guriev and Treisman trace the ancestry, surprisingly, to Lee Kuan Yew, the seemingly benign Prime Minister of Singapore for three decades, who was, they believe, the first modern leader to combine an authoritarian core with a civil surface.)

The two social scientists pack their account with meaty graphs and well-organized evidence. Some of what they say is familiar to anyone who reads the papers: new dictators use social media (including bots or fake accounts) and typically arrest their opponents for nonpolitical crimes that make their convictions less obviously persecutional. But Guriev and Treisman advance subtler arguments, as they show that authoritarian rulers can come to power by democratic means and stay there. Some of it is simply the workings of fear: the intimidation of private firms by government threats, and the cynical erosion of what are still exasperatingly called norms. (A norm is a standard social expectation, like the audience wearing evening clothes at the opera; submitting to the peaceful transfer of power is a premise, like the cast singing at the opera.) Yet “Spin Dictators” also suggests that the very forces that temper authoritarian power can accelerate its ascension. As globalization and the rise of the Internet make it harder to exercise absolute power, dictators may deploy more limited power that allows space for unthreatening dissent without allowing real opposition.

Once again, there are more historical continuities here than are first apparent. Napoleon, the very model of the nineteenth-century autocrat, ruled constitutionally and by plebiscite, however rigged the voting might have been. And he was immensely shrewd in his efforts to marginalize or co-opt his opposition—wooing a liberal philosopher like Benjamin Constant or allowing the Marquis de Lafayette to retire to the countryside unmolested, even offering him the recently invented Légion d’Honneur.

The over-all arc that Guriev and Treisman present is in any case surprisingly positive: we learn that, in the nineteen-eighties, fully ninety-five per cent of countries with newly authoritarian rulers were alleged to be torturing political prisoners; in the two-thousands, that share fell to a mere seventy-four per cent. In 1981, the constitutions of “non-military dictatorships” enumerated an average of 7.5 liberal rights; by 2008, the number had risen to 11.2. The rights are not secured, of course, but they exist. As the level of violence in the world has decreased, the rhetoric of authoritarianism has become, worldwide, necessarily less militaristic and more consumerist. Guriev and Treisman detail the malevolent strategies that spin dictators use against their critics—having them framed for sexual and business misdeeds is a common one—and the way in which they may enlist Interpol as a bureaucratic collaborator in targeting enemies. But they also emphasize that being marginalized is not the same as being murdered, the typical recourse of fear dictators. The bayonet is blunted, though a hundred blunted bayonets pointed at a single throat is enough to silence a speaker.

How to reconcile their thesis with the madness of the moment? In some ways, their work is already in need of an update. Vladimir Putin plays a significant role for them: at one point, his cult of personality in Russia is distinguished from earlier, Stalinist cults and likened instead to something as wholesome and fan-generated as Obama ornaments sold on the sidewalks of D.C. “There is no Putin salute, dance, or other enforced ritual, no bible of Putinism that all must study and recite,” Guriev and Treisman write. “Most Putin merchandise comes not from central propagandists but from street-level hucksters eager to cash in.” Putin is seen as illustrative of the new era in his ability to assert authority without ever invoking absolute power.

Within days of the invasion of Ukraine, though, “violent repression and comprehensive censorship”—the hallmarks of the fear dictator, per Guriev and Treisman—made a quick comeback, with people being arrested just for holding blank pieces of paper as a protest, while the Russian government fought a war on civilians in finest Stalinist style. Two years earlier, Putin had tried to assassinate his leading political opponent, Alexei Navalny, and, when the effort failed, left him to languish in prison. When push comes to shove, it seems, the spin dictator stops pushing and starts shoving. In an instant, the new dictators will forgo soft and confusing action and go back to the hard stuff, like a reformed drunk who isn’t all that reformed.

Yet reviewers risk overreacting to a current event as much as social scientists risk overgeneralizing with their graphs. That people are not entirely different from earlier primates does not mean that people are not different. We have, as these books illustrate, a strong common intuition that a new type of authoritarianism surely does exist, one that exploits electoral politics, even if its impulses balance uneasily between genuinely dictatorial and painfully democratic. Hungary’s Orbán, Turkey’s Erdoğan, Venezuela’s Chávez and Maduro, Poland’s Kaczyński and Duda: they all do seem to belong to a class that’s distinct from the illiberal leaders of the previous century. Is it possible to construct a short taxonomy of the generational differences between dictators, and to say what’s new about the new ones?

First, there’s their dependence on accessibility and the embrace of forms of entertainment, even grotesque and burlesque entertainment. Though Benito and Evita played on a public stage, they sought an aura of remote mystery. The history of how Napoleon was depicted typifies this kind of progression: from popular imagery of him as a soldier to heroic Romantic imagery of him as a conqueror to hieratic figuration as he became emperor. By contrast, Grillo and Chávez and the rest remain here among us: they don’t mind being familiar, chuckling, confidential, as long as they can be omnipresent. They understand that omnipresence is key in an era of round-the-clock television and social media. “Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film for the Third Reich, depends on the Olympian grandeur of Hitler’s descent directly from the clouds into Nuremberg on the day of the rally. That kind of rock-star mystique is now reserved for actual rock stars. Populist politicians, arrived or ascendant, appear haphazardly and then stay on camera for hours.

This is not entirely new—nothing ever is—but the crossbreeding of clownishness and politics has never been so intense. The Russian dissident literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin taught us to cherish “carnival” culture as a liberating force in social life. It’s in the authority-mocking brio embodied by the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, or, for that matter, by the self-deprecating clowning of Alexei Navalny, unashamed to play video games and to make lip-synched TikTok videos. Yet the social-subversive impulse can serve different masters. As Emanuel Marx points out in his book “State Violence in Nazi Germany” (2019), Kristallnacht, in November of 1938, occurred during a carnival season that Catholics traditionally celebrated: “For the mass of participants and bystanders, the Kristallnacht was a noisy and rowdy carnival that suspended for a few hours the ordinary standards of behavior.” Breaking the windows of Jewish merchants could be as much a gleeful, subversive, Rabelaisian activity as mocking the overlords. Indeed, the Nazis in power gently chided, and even tried, a handful of the rioters for overdoing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *