Machine to Machine

It’s extremely likely that you have heard of ChatGPT by now. It is a form of Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), through which you can ask questions of any kind, and watch in amazement as it comes back with pretty reasonable-looking answers. ChatGPT is able to write speeches, programming code, stories, you name it. And it has rapidly energized an entirely new market full of similar technology. So we thought it would be interesting to have the Parallax Machine interview ChatGPT about our dictator topic. What follows is a capture of that conversation.

Parallax Machine: First of all, thanks for joining us – I know AI tools are really busy these days, so we appreciate you taking the time.

ChatGPT: Thanks for having me.

(okay we made up that first exchange – but the rest of this is real…)

Parallax Machine: How does a dictator typically come to power?

ChatGPT: Dictators typically come to power through a combination of factors such as seizing control through a military coup, exploiting economic or political instability, manipulating the existing political system, utilizing propaganda and repression to maintain control, and eliminating opposition through violence or suppression. They may also gain support from certain sectors of the population, such as the military, wealthy elites, or nationalist groups, in order to consolidate their power. In some cases, dictators may also exploit existing laws or constitutional loopholes to legitimize their authority.

Parallax Machine: Why do people allow dictators to come to power?

ChatGPT: There are a variety of reasons why people might allow dictators to come to power. Some possible explanations include:

  1. Fear: People may feel intimidated or threatened by a dictator’s use of force or coercion, leading them to comply with their rule out of fear for their safety or well-being.
  2. Manipulation: Dictators often use propaganda and manipulation techniques to control the narrative and shape public opinion in their favor. This can make it difficult for people to recognize the true intentions and actions of the dictator.
  3. Economic hardship: People facing economic hardship or instability may be more willing to support a dictator who promises stability and economic growth, even if it comes at the cost of democratic freedoms.
  4. Lack of education or information: In some cases, people may not have access to accurate information or education about the consequences of living under a dictatorship, leading them to support a dictator out of ignorance or misinformation.
  5. Desire for strong leadership: Some people may believe that a dictator can provide strong leadership and decisive action in times of crisis, leading them to support a dictator who promises to bring about positive change.
  6. Historical or cultural factors: In some societies, there may be a historical or cultural acceptance of authoritarian rule, making it easier for dictators to gain and maintain power.

Overall, the reasons why people allow dictators to come to power are complex and can vary depending on the specific circumstances in a given country or region.

Parallax Machine: What can we do to prevent future dictators?


  1. Strengthen democratic institutions: Ensure that strong checks and balances are in place to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or group.
  2. Promote transparency and accountability: Hold leaders accountable for their actions and ensure that they are transparent in their decision-making processes.
  3. Educate the population: Promote civic education and awareness of democratic principles and values to empower citizens to actively participate in the political process.
  4. Support civil society: Encourage the development of independent civil society organizations that can hold leaders accountable and advocate for the rights of citizens.
  5. Strengthen international cooperation: Build alliances with other countries and international organizations to support democracy and human rights globally.
  6. Monitor and address warning signs: Be vigilant in identifying early warning signs of authoritarianism and take proactive measures to address them before they escalate.
  7. Promote inclusive governance: Ensure that all voices are heard and represented in the political process, including marginalized communities and minority groups.
  8. Foster a culture of respect for human rights: Uphold the universal values of democracy, freedom, and human rights to prevent the rise of dictators who seek to suppress dissent and control the population.

Parallax Machine: Any final thoughts?

ChatGPT: Just a big shout out to my neural network fam back home.

(Ok we made up that last exchange too)

So, to summarize, the very Internet itself is apparently smarter than most of us about this and likely a great many other subjects. No wonder we apparently need dictators to tell us what to do and how to think.

Image by Lukas from Pixabay

Stopped Cold

In the aftermath of the brutal attack at Crocus City Hall earlier this week, the equally brutal truth is that the United States warned Vladimir Putin such an event was coming. Rather than take that intel at face value and act on it, he recoiled and took it as a personal insult to his power. Such is the ruler Putin has become – ever more fearful and tightening of his grip, while simultaneously failing to protect his own people. That is not unique to Putin; it is a common trait among dictators who rise to power on a cult of personality and then use increasing repression to remain there.

Few entities have had more impact on the world in the past thousand years than the various incarnations of Russia and the surrounding territories. Napoleon and Hitler, two of the most infamous dictators of all time, were both defeated in large part because of an inability to subdue Russia. And Russia was the primary player on the Soviet side of the Cold War with the West that dominated the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the shadow of Russia once again looms large on the world, thanks to the latest in a long line of Russian dictators. Many folks know how Russia got here, but it’s worth taking a few moments to recap, because Russia has been an absolute machine at putting dictators in power, and the latest may be the worst (or at least, that’s what more than one American political party should be thinking).

Russia was essentially born late in the first millennium as a convergence of Norse, East Slavic, and finally Byzantine cultures. The first rulers were Norse and known as the Rus’ – a name which lives on today in Russia and Belarus. Over time the Norse culture was absorbed by the Slavic culture, and the Eastern Orthodox flavor came from the long-lasting Byzantine Empire. The first state for the Rus’ was ruled from Kiev, now of course the capital of Ukraine. That state was eventually conquered by the Mongols, and it took a couple hundred years before it was able to return to power, this time centered around Moscow. The biggest leap forward on the world stage was achieved in the 15th century by essentially the first Russian dictator, Ivan III, also know as Ivan the Great. He emerged from a series of internal conflicts and victory over the deteriorating forces from the Mongol invasion. Ivan the Great definitely unified Russia, but at the expense of freedom and the light of knowledge, cutting off all ties with Western civilization just as the Renaissance was rising. He was also the first Russian Tsar (a name, recall, that traces back to the original Caesar). And, of course, it got worse, as Ivan the Great was immediately followed by Ivan the Terrible, who was known to execute disagreeing folks on a whim. He continued the expansion of Russian territory but also suffered some difficult defeats. By the onset of the 17th century, the Tsars were still ruling, but things were a bit of a mess. Enter the Romanovs.

Michael Romanov was “elected” to the throne in 1613, starting a chain of succession that would last over 300 years. The Romanovs would gradually gain back huge tracts of land (wink, wink, nudge, nudge to Python fans), and by the latter half of the century, Russia was the largest country in the world. This is where Peter I (Peter the Great) took over in 1672, and he would aggressively rule and conquer for the next 50 years. Expanding his power at home and bringing in new territories abroad, he created the Russian Empire (with him of course as the emperor) by 1721. The next formidable ruler was Catherine the II (Catherine the Great), who ruled with equal authority and conquests to Peter the Great, albeit with a bit more focus on the arts vs religion. Despite constantly beating down rebellions, the Romanovs were the ruling reality in Russia until World War I, when they finally lost their grip in quick and gruesome fashion. That was when rising communists such as Trotsky and Lenin ushered in the Revolution, freeing the Russians from oppression for a mere 5 years before the formation of the Soviet Union, which happily subsumed communism as a convenient way to subdue the Russian people once more. Joseph Stalin rose to power during this transition. Volumes could be (and again, have been) written about Stalin and the human suffering he caused both inside and outside of Russia. But for the purposes of this conversation, he was also just the first of many successive dictators over communist Russia and the broader Soviet Union.

To once again quote Inigo Montoya, lemme sum up. World War II, Potsdam, the bomb, Cold War, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, numerous not-widely-known flirtations with the end of all things, a wall falling over, and next thing you know, Russia is a fleeting democracy in the early 1990’s. Despite the efforts of folks like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it didn’t last. At the turn of the millennium, a new dictator assumed power: Vladimir Putin. And it was basically Yeltsin who was most directly responsible.

Born in 1952 and the grandson of Lenin’s and Stalin’s personal cook, Putin rose to prominence as a KGB officer for 16 years before moving into politics. Boris Yeltsin brought him onboard his administration in 1996, and eventually began grooming Putin to be his successor. He was named Prime Minister in August of 1999, and shortly thereafter became acting President when Yeltsin abruptly resigned – visibly as fatigued as the entire Russian people, who had suffered through a brutal economic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin was officially elected President in March of 2000; at the time, no one really knew what was to come.

Putin immediately began working on multiple fronts – negotiating grand deals with the Russian oligarchy to strengthen his power, reforming laws to recover the economy while also increasing the central authority of his office, and leading efforts such as the conflict with Chechen separatists. This established an extremely potent cult of personality with the Russian citizenry, leading him to a landslide reelection in 2004. At the time, the Russian constitution forbade more than two consecutive terms, so in 2008, Putin had his ally Dmitry Medvedev run for President, under which Putin became Prime Minister again, but really still in control for all practical purposes. During that time, he led the conflict against Georgia and strengthened control over the military and the police.

Whether it was when he first entered politics or sometime during his first two terms, Putin clearly had a plan, and has stuck to it. In 2008, he ushered in a constitutional change that expanded the Presidential term to six years instead of four, to take effect in 2012, when he would of course run again for a new non-consecutive term. He was indeed reelected again in 2012, but that election was clouded with doubt and claims of fraud, leading to substantial protests across the nation. This caused an uptick in the pattern of behavior that has seen Putin become increasingly fearful of losing his grip, and therefore tightening that grip with one action after another, including actions that spilled beyond the Russian borders. He annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and expanded his military presence in the Middle East through support of his allies in Syria. In 2021, he signed a constitutional amendment that – surprise, surprise – allowed him to run for election twice more – in 2024 and 2030. He is already the longest serving Russian or Soviet leader since Stalin, and it seems only his death will prevent him from ruling until at least 2036.

Of course, Putin’s most egregious action against the broader world was his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to which so many of us are probably a bit numb by now, but with atrocities continuing on a daily basis whether we pay attention or not. The war in Ukraine is also just another symptom of Putin’s growing fear that he will be defeated either from the outside or from within. Internally, the Russian political system is an absolute authoritarian dictatorship. It is beset with corruption, human rights violations, imprisonment and suppression of political opponents, and intimidation and censorship of independent media. Those who dare to challenge Putin all seem to meet the same end, from the Wagner Group to Alexei Navalny. Yet some American politicians are more impressed than horrified.

Let’s do some math. Start the clock when the Tsardom began in 1547, lasting until 1917. The Soviet Union was born in 1922 and ended in 1991. Putin took over in 2000 and has ruled for all practical purposes ever since. So out of the past 477 years of existence, Russians have lived under dictatorial rule for 463 years. That’s 14 years of fleeting freedom in nearly five centuries, despite two significant attempts to establish something different. The Russian people deserve better. And so do the citizens of future dictatorships.

Image by Eszter Miller from Pixabay


On April 20, 1889, 68 years after the death of Napoleon, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. By 1945, the year in which he committed suicide, Hitler had led the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of others, deliberately killed 9.3 million civilians and prisoners of war, and precipitated the deaths of 28.7 million soldiers and civilians through military action in the European theatre. How did the world allow one man to make all of this happen? Through elections in a democratic republic.

Throughout history, one thing every dictator has required in order to come into power is a disgruntled populace. In the case of 1920’s Germany, the disgruntlement was most directly rooted in the extremely harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The victors of that war were determined to smack Germany down hard for their role in creating the worst conflict the world had ever known at that time. This included the creation of the Weimar Republic with strict rules on how it would be governed, payment of $33B in war reparations (over $500B in today’s dollars), the surrender of colonies and territory, massive downsizing of the army, and elimination of submarines and any kind of Air Force. All of this led to humiliation and deep economic woes for the German people.

The next thing an aspiring dictator needs is a scapegoat, and Hitler along with many others singled out the Jews for that role. In his infamous Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), Hitler wrote, “All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning.” This type of language has chillingly resurfaced in recent months. In the 1920’s, Hitler exploited a fear that Germans would be swamped by an influx of Jews and others that were blatantly characterized as subhuman. And unfortunately, for all his evil faults, Hitler was also a skilled and captivating orator, adept with the kind of mob mentality he could exploit in stadiums full of people. There was even a conspiracy to exploit: the notion that Germany didn’t really lose WWI on the battlefield, but rather at home through treasonous actions. (this was known as the “stab in the back” myth)

In the early 1920’s, under orders from similar thinking people, Hitler began to infiltrate and commandeer the recently formed German Workers’ Party, already full of disgruntled people, and eventually transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – colloquially known not long after as the Nazi Party. Hitler also commandeered the swastika, a symbol which was thousands of years old, with a name that actually means “well-being” in Sanskrit. The ideology of the Nazi Party was quite simple: purification of the white race. It was anti-capitalist, anti-communist, and violently nationalist toward that end, viewing an authoritarian government as the only realistic means. At first, the Nazis attempted to seize power through a coup. Wanting to emulate Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler led the storming of a public meeting in a beer hall in Munich (the “Beer Hall Putsch”) in 1923. They then marched to the Bavarian War Ministry, where they were defeated, but not before 16 Nazis and 4 police were killed in their failed coup. Hitler was imprisoned for a mere year (during which much of Mein Kampf was compiled), and although the Nazi Party was banned, he eventually convinced the powers that be to let them reform, promising to only use political due process from that point forward.

And that is precisely what Hitler did. The financial crisis precipitated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further challenged and angered the German people, and provided Hitler another opportunity to assign blame on his usual scapegoats. In September of 1930, the government began to reshape, and President Paul von Hindenburg invoked Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, giving emergency decrees to Chancellor Heinrich Bruning – hearkening all the way back to the emergency powers originally exploited by Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, Hitler continued to target his propaganda toward the woes of farmers, war veterans, and the middle class. Mein Kampf sold 228,000 copies between 1925 and 1932, and a million in 1933. The Nazi Party went from 6.5% of election votes in May 1924 to 43.9% (17 million) in March 1933. In the July 1932 election for the Reichstag, the German parliament, the Nazis became the largest party with 230 seats and 37.3% of the vote. This level of support also prevent any other party from obtaining control, leading to stalemates in leadership. Growing in power and adored by the masses, Hitler was appointed an administrator role in 1932, making him a German citizen. He ran for President in 1932 with the slogan “Hitler over Germany” – signifying both his political ambitions and his use of campaigning by aircraft – and came in 2nd with 35% of the vote. Letters were written to Hindenburg, urging him to appoint Hitler as the leader of a government independent from parliamentary parties – and eventually he reluctantly agreed. A new cabinet was sworn in January 1933, including ministers that would give Hitler control over the police. The speed of subsequent events is terrifying.

On February 28, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire, with most historians agreeing a communist was responsible, of course that is precisely what Hitler seized upon as the reason. In response, he used Article 48 to initiate the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending basic rights and allowing detention without trial, all in the name of emergency measures to protect public safety and order. On March 21 (now known as the Day of Potsdam), a new Reichstag was created. Hitler’s government then put forth the Enabling Act, giving his cabinet the power to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag for four years – including laws deviating from the constitution. To get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis used the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest opponents and prevent them from voting. On March 23, the Enabling Act passed by a 444-94 vote, officially beginning the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, who stated, “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! … Don’t forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!”

Stormtroopers occupied union offices around the country, and unions were dissolved in May. In July, the Nazi party was declared the only legal political party in Germany. From June 30 to July 2, 1934 – the Night of the Long Knives – the Nazis rounded up and executed opposing leaders. Many in Germany believed Hitler was simply restoring order. On August 1, 1934, the cabinet enacted the Law Concerning the Head of State of the German Reich, which said that upon the President’s death, the office would be abolished, and powers merged with those of the Chancellor. Hindenburg died the next day. Hitler was named Fuhrer and Reichskanzler (Leader and Chancellor of the Reich). He also became Commander in Chief, and quickly altered the oath of soldiers to affirm loyalty to Hitler by name.

The Reichstag renewed the Enabling Act twice, sham elections became normal, and disloyal generals were purged by 1938. Preparation for war had begun back in 1934, with creative financing including special bills, printing money, and seizing assets of enemies of state (including of course many Jews). Armed with absolute power and ample funds, Hitler began to storm the world beyond Germany. Unification with Austria was announced in 1938, and Czechoslovakia was overtaken in 1939. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II. By the middle of 1941, Hitler ruled the majority of Europe and had forces deployed to North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

Like Napoleon, Hitler used religion for his own purposes, privately thinking much of it absurd, while publicly twisting Christianity to support his aims. He even planned to eliminate Christianity eventually. In the nearer term, Hitler’s plan in Eastern Europe all along was to defeat those nations (including Russia) and then remove or kill all Jews and Slavs, through deportation to Siberia for use as slave labor or simply to be murdered. By 1942, unable to defeat Russia, he moved ahead with his genocide plans, which were organized and executed by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Killing squads followed the German army through Poland, the Baltic, and the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1945, the Schutzstaffel (SS) were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 million non-combatants, including two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis were of course defeated in 1945, but at a staggering cost in human life.

Hitler and the Nazis viewed the blood of others as poison, and they used that imagery and propaganda to exploit a democratic system in order to achieve power. The real poison, of course, is the Nazi world view, which devastated the world less than a hundred years ago, and persists to this day, ready to strike and paralyze us all once more when the opportune moment arrives.

Image by P. Schreiner from Pixabay

Le Petit Caporal

In the last post, we took a brief look at monarchies. In western civilization, few sagas have offered more intrigue than the millenium-traversing wars between the monarchies of England and France. Both of them would rather have the 1700’s back. As England lost its grip on the prized colonies in America, the French got tired of being told what to do with their cake. Heads literally rolled, and a new republic was born at the Bastille. Meanwhile, an ambitious young man from Corsica began a meteoric rise to power.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born from Italian nobility in 1769, just as Corsica was being conquered by France under the rule of King Louis XVI of the centuries-ruling Bourbon family, and while his parents were actively fighting with the resistance. With that one sentence, you can see in large part how his path was charted. His family’s standing and activities ensured he would get both a great and a military focused education at École Militaire in Paris. Immediately after graduating in 1785, he became a second lieutenant fighting for the Corsican resistance. He became a well-known and successful military leader quite rapidly, leading a number of victories for the French Revolution, and becoming a brigadier general by the age of 24. Around that same time, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were famously separated from their noggins, and the Republic was born. Early on, the French Republic was led by extremists under a regime called the “Terror”, until the Convention (a new constitution) was completed in 1794. Napoleon subsequently earned even greater fame and adoration for beating back a royalist rebellion in 1795.

The French Revolution, while only a blip in time relative to the prior rule of monarchs, was long, bloody, and exhausting enough that the French people were more than willing to give way to a dominating leader, and Napoleon took advantage in a series of moves. First, he led a coup d’état in 1799 and codified his new power over the Republic with a new constitution. A rigged election established him as the First Consulate. Wait a second – where have we seen that term “Consul” before? Oh yeah, it was when Julius Caesar became the dominant Consul of Rome. This was no accident on Napoleon’s part. He greatly admired the Roman Empire. He also knew Caesar didn’t rule for long before he was assassinated in the Senate. Sure enough, there were several attempts to assassinate Napoleon, including at least one backed by the Bourbon family of old. He seized on these attempts as a justification for expanding his power, while simultaneously gaining the increasing support of the French citizens. Napoleon’s then transformed from a Consul into a King and an Emperor. He was elected Emperor by over 99% of 3.6 million votes – again, a demonstration of who is often most to blame for the rise of a dictator – the “dictatees”. He was coronated by Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame in 1804, and was crowned King of Italy in Milan in 1805.

Once Napoleon became Emperor, the skirmishes that had been going on all along with other European powers came to a head, leading to the Napoleonic Wars, which took a hefty toll on many nations, not the least of which was France itself. Somewhere along the way through these wars, whatever sense Napoleon might have had about his place in the grand scheme of things was supplanted by notions of immortality and invulnerability. The Empire reached its peak in 1812, which was impressive in its scope – stretching from Spain in the West to Prussia in the East, from Belgium in the North to Italy in the South. Basically, most of continental Europe as we know it today. He then famously pushed too far, lost a great deal of both lives and support by trying to subdue Russia, and was defeated.

And here is where things took a bizarre turn: Napoleon was “exiled” to the island of Elba, just off the Tuscan coast. Elba had 12,000 inhabitants at the time, and Napoleon was actually granted the role of Emperor over them. He created a small military and did all the things you’d expect the leader of a small nation to do. Eventually, he learned there were plans afoot to banish him to a greater distance, so he took 700 men back to France, forcing Louis XVIII (whose approval rating was rather low) to flee to Belgium. And just like that, Napoleon was back in charge again. This reign was far shorter though – now known as the “Hundred Days”. His final defeat was at the renowned Battle of Waterloo, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to a Swedish disco band having another hit 159 years later.

If they had any reservations before, the other powers in Europe were finally convinced by these events that banishing Napoleon to the Atlantic was a pretty good idea. So he was sent to Saint Helena, where he was guarded by 2100 soldiers and 10 ships. He died of stomach cancer in 1821, at the age of 51. A couple of decades later, the British government gave permission to return his remains to France, where a crowd of up to a million followed the procession to the chapel of Esplanade des Invalides. So ended the journey of “the Little Corporal” (La Petit Caporal).

In the eyes of history, Napoleon might have been pleased to discover he is often treated similarly to Julius Caesar, with a strange mix of “horrified” and “reverent”. Both were brilliant military leaders. It is also unclear, particularly at the outset of their respective careers, how much they were motivated by power for themselves versus simply wanting to do something different to improve their republics. And both left a legacy of institutions that have lasted to this day. But both were also ruthless at times, and they used a common set of tools to achieve and maintain an iron grip: unrest and discontent among the populace, propaganda, convenient political alliances, elimination of opponents from positions of power, and strict control over the rights of the citizens. Napoleon in particular reduced the rights of women, children, and people of color. He also basically recreated the monarchy, barely a decade after the previous one had been overthrown in favor of a Republic. Napoleon killed thousands of Turkish prisoners of war, and the toll of the Napoleonic Wars in general was on the order of six million.

Napoleon was utilitarian, with no greater example than in the way he manipulated organized religion: “it was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendée, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, by making myself an ultramontane that I turned men’s hearts towards me in Italy. If I were to govern a nation of Jews I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon.” Those words are rather chilling, and they reveal a common characteristic among dictators: regardless of where their ambitions may have begun, they end up devoid of any ideology beyond maintaining their own power. If any action taken by a dictator actually benefits those under their rule, it is largely by accident. Yet as time passes between the last one and the next one, so many forget, and the promises of a glorious new world become believable again.

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay