Breaking the Wheel

Before we put all the pieces together from our series on dictators, it is important to take a step back and reaffirm the perspective from which the Parallax Machine operates. The whole intention of this blog is generally to force a third look at topics where there are only two predominant views. That’s why the triangle is a part of our logo, and the gear in the middle is gray. Too often we become polarized into one of two camps, and it makes meaningful dialogue almost impossible. It should also come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog over the past few years that Parallax Machine Headquarters leans to the left on most issues. But we have done our best to avoid topics with the traditional distinction between legitimate conservative and liberal approaches to solving problems. Our focus here has instead been on topics that should not be partisan at all. And that is why we are talking about dictators. It just so happens that the presumptive Republican nominee for President is more likely than any of his predecessors to become a dictator if elected to a second term. Preventing him from accomplishing that should be a bipartisan effort, because it transcends our long-standing two-party politics.

With that perspective in mind, let us now look at the parallels between the examples examined to date with the current climate in American politics. Wikipedia’s definition of a dictator seems to have held true in the cases we explored so far: “In modern usage the term dictator is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the procedures of the rule of law; and the existence of a cult of personality centered on the leader.” Another common theme: dictators generally need help to achieve power, and large numbers of people are often more than willing to do just that. You’ve probably heard the adage that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. So let’s take a look at history repeating in a table.

Contributing FactorsCaesarNapoleonHitlerPutinTrump
Disgruntled PopulaceRoman reach was too far, many were suffering closer to homeOver a decade of bloody revolution and economic woesHumiliation and economic hardships from Treaty of VersaillesA decade of struggles in establishing a free market economyDeep political divides, intensifying world conflicts, volatile economy
Cult of Personality  Leading to Wide SupportDeified by Augustus and the Senate after his death, leading Augustus to declare as “son of a god”Employed a group of official artists linking him to Roman emperors and Charlemagne,  elected by 99% of the voteSaid everything but “Make Germany Great Again” – filled stadiums with supporters, Nazis rose to 30-40% of vote at peakAction publicity stunts, food products named after him, Army of Putin (female fan club) – got 72% of vote in 2004Has created a persona and alternate reality that have taken over the Republican Party, automatically bringing 40-45% of the vote
Leveraging “isms”All other nations were portrayed as barbarians that needed the “light of Rome”Severely discriminated against women, children, people of colorSingled out Jews and Slavs as “poisoning the blood” of the white raceIronically refers to the de-Nazification of Ukraine as justification for war, pins blame on WestRevived the “poisoning” rhetoric, overtly supportive of white nationalism
Leveraging Chaos and TerrorismRose to power through waging of war abroad and invasion of RomeLeveraged multiple assassination attempts to justify increased powerArson led to Reichstag Fire Decree, which led to Enabling ActChechen rebellion, Georgia rebellion, twisted justification for Ukraine invasionFans the flames of conspiracy theories while using modern world conflicts to scare people
Propaganda, Misinformation, and War with JounralismFirst Roman to have himself portrayed on a coin, which put his image everywhere; also wrote his own telling of his Gallic warsUsed artists to portray his royalty and command as a general, got his bulletins from battlefield published in newspapersReich Ministry led by Goebbels  controlled art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the pressJournalists overtly murdered (Navalny only the latest); Russian people may or may not believe the propaganda, but they know the Kremlin is in controlPortrayal of any opposing takes as “Fake News”, propagated by networks like Fox and NewsMax, and barrages of easily exposable lies in every speech taken as gospel by MAGA
Hijacking a PartyLeveraged consul format to form first triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, exploited populist party of the timesSubsumed the push from the French Revolution to achieve initial power, then basically became a new monarchGerman Workers’ Party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis), who later persecuted socialistsHijacked Unity Party created by Yeltsin, merged with other parties to create dominant United Russia Party MAGA is dominant in the fractured Republican Party, similarly to how the Nazi Party became dominant in fractured German politics 
Hijacking ReligionDeified by Octavian and the Senate after his death, leading Octavian (Augustus) to declare as “son of a god”Catered as needed to Catholics, Muslims, Papal authority, overtly claimed it as part of his success in gaining powerLargely portrayed the Nazi Party as Christians, labeling Jews as enemies while planning to dismantle Christianity laterRegularly uses connections to Orthodox Church for political gainPublicity stunts with Bibles, alignment of rhetoric with white nationalistic view of Christianity
Hijacking LawsCaesar then Augustus slowly chipped away, including final say on who could hold office and total control of armyTook advantage of a leadership vacuum to orchestrate a coup, then created a new constitution to keep image of a republicUsed Weimar Republic constitution to invoke Reichstag Fire Decree, which in turn led to Enabling ActModified constitution to lengthen Presidential term, then again to extend to at least 2036First strained American legal system with election challenges and now pushing limits of Presidential immunity
Support from a Body that was Supposed to Act as a CheckOnce filled with Caesar’s supporters, the Senate’s only job was to legitimize the emperor’s ruleFilled positions of power with his supporters, leaving no body in place to effect any checks on his powerFilled Reichstag with supporters, effectively outlawed and then later murdered oppositionFederation Council is basically a rubber stamp for Putin’s policies and actions similar to past examplesSupreme Court is 6-3 conservative; considerable chance MAGA would control all three branches in 2025
Consequences  Measured in DeathsOver a million from Gallic and civil wars during Julius Caesar’s reign aloneMillions from Napoleonic Wars and execution of prisonersTens of millions through war and genocideProbably approaching a million (over half a million in Ukraine) but he’s not done???
The Dictatorial Playbook Throughout History

There are plenty of takeaways here. The first one that should be clobbering you over the head about now: this keeps happening. That cannot be underscored enough. In every generation, the majority of people are walking about, doing their daily business, content with the notion that somebody like Caesar or Hitler could never rise to power here, in a free republic. Yet the men heading the first four columns did just that, with both implicit and explicit help from just enough Romans, French, Germans, and Russians. And all four either distorted or created a constitution to create the illusion that the republic was just undergoing a leadership change.

Another key takeaway: every successful dictator has had help from some variation of a “Senate”. We like to think this can’t happen in America, but the checks and balances that have made our nation so famous as a democracy only work if the three branches of Government have a healthy tension between them. The Supreme Court is effectively Republican, now the party of Trump – for the foreseeable future. There is a razor-thin edge in both Houses of Congress. The 2024 election could very easily lead to an entirely Republican (i.e., Trump) Government. This would create an environment where Trump has free rein to push the envelope of Presidential power as far as it can be pushed, with enthusiastic cooperation by his enablers in the other two branches. His lawyers are already pushing that envelope today as they argue why he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he did in his first term. With all three branches effectively under Trump’s control in a second term, any sort of protest or disturbance could be turned into a “Capitol Fire Decree”, Congress could invoke a new “Enabling Act”, and the Supreme Court could declare it constitutional.

And the hat trick of takeaways: the last row in the table. What level of death would result from this scenario? America might become isolationist, which would free malevolent nations to do as they please around the world – leading to a great many more deaths like what we are seeing in Ukraine right now. Meanwhile, it is simple fact that hatred is running rampant in America even now. The level of political division and malevolence is probably as high as it’s been since the Civil War. Put that hatred together with inflamed masses and stockpiles of guns, and it is not at all difficult to imagine large numbers of people dying for no other reason than their political allegiances. It is folly to think that couldn’t happen here; it happened in the 1860’s, and America is still filled with fallible humans, just like Germany was when it allowed millions to be murdered not even a century ago. We are not immune from the bad behavior that has repeatedly flared up throughout history – rather, we are displaying all the worrisome symptoms.

So what can we do? Longer term, pie-in-the-sky though it may seem, we somehow need to find our way to the world described by ChatGPT in our last blog post:

  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.

Those eight things are going to take a very long time and a lot of hard work. They will not happen before the 2024 election. Shorter term, there is only one answer: the 2024 election itself. In a post from a few years ago, we explored the depressingly low percentage of eligible American voters who typically bother to exercise their sacred right. In 2020, 66% of eligible voters participated in the Presidential election – the highest percentage since 1900. That still means a third of those who could, didn’t. Some of that owes to continued voter suppression tactics. But most of it is probably apathy – and that is one of the main enablers of dictators throughout time. To paraphrase another cliche, all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Should we have more and better options for President than we often do? Unquestionably. But the frustration of living in that world pales in comparison with the misery of an authoritarian regime and its horrific impacts on both its own citizens and those of its neighbors.

In the HBO version of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen talked about breaking the wheel – ending the cycle of ruthless leaders oppressing Westeros – before she became just another spoke in the wheel. We can do better, but the wheel of authoritarian rule is gaining momentum again, and this time it is headed straight for America. We will not be able to step out of its way when it arrives. We must break it now, by putting country above apathy, and country above party.

Image by Bernd from Pixabay

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