Why is dictatorship possible?

I have often wondered how it is possible for one person, or a few people, to give orders to an entire nation, which then obeys those edicts, even to its own detriment.

Were I to try such a thing, I would be ignored, or worse, thrown out on my ear – or even worse than that.  So what do dictators have that I do not?

I would like to think they are ruthless sociopaths who murder and terrorize their way to power.  But while that is certainly a factor, there are plenty of people who murder and terrorize yet never gain a following.

Perhaps the most accurate model of a powerful dictator is one who draws on both Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince.  Both of these involve the establishment and maintenance of a political infrastructure, one that empowers the dictator.  In North Korea, the current dictator inherited his position and the murderous bureaucracy that enables him.  In other cases, the tyrant constructs his own hierarchy, as, for example, did Saddam Hussein.

But even that is not enough.  The dictator requires certain, shall we say, talents.  If he is to survive in power, he must be Stalinesque, both shrewd and ruthless.  His sociopathy must be absolute, enabling him without qualm to kill any number of people, by the most horrifying means imaginable, including his own closest relatives and associates.  The master of terrorism need terrorize not millions, but only a few: those in his innermost circles of power.  Motivated by greed and fear, they will do the rest.

Despite the enormous power thus wielded by dictators, their position is a house of cards.  By surrounding himself with sociopaths, all would-be dictators themselves, the dictator must constantly pit them against each other, infusing them with distrust of each other – a distrust that is abundantly justified.  This helps to prevent collusion among them to overthrow the dictator.  The dictator never doubts that every man in his inner circles is ever alert to the first opportunity to kill him.

It is somewhat of an irony that such dictators seem never to enjoy the opulence in which they could live.  Saddam Hussein, despite his luxurious palaces, is said never to have stayed in any one place for more than two or three hours at a time, for fear that he would be located and assassinated by his many enemies, people who had reason to hate him.  Chairman Kim is exceedingly reluctant to depart North Korea, even briefly, for fear that in his absence, his inner circle will depose him.

The dictator must constantly remind his close associates that he will not hesitate to kill them, upon the slightest suspicion of disloyal actions.  Occasionally, the dictator must carry out the threat, as Kim has done more than once, murdering even one of his uncles, for what many consider a trivial offense, perhaps even an innocent action.  Saddam Hussein murdered his own treacherous, but naïve, sons-in-law, luring them from their safe haven with promises of forgiveness.

Does all this solve the mystery?  It certainly explains why you and I can never become dictators of any nation.  But it leaves one question.  With millions of people suffering under oppression, why aren't revolutions more common and timely?  Why do Iranians and Venezuelans bend the knee, year after dismal year, despite their misery?

Sadly, the most likely explanation is that too many people value temporary safety more than they treasure liberty.  Thank God that our Founders, and our first patriots, were better people than that.

Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

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