Tyrants Are Bad and Some Are Worse
A Q&A with Waller R. Newell, a scholar of despotism, on how a democrat should judge an autocrat.
October 5, 2019, 9:00 AM EDT Updated on October 5, 2019, 12:28 PM EDT
How many dictators can you find in this picture?
Photographer: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images
“Where’s my favorite dictator?” That was a question asked by President Donald Trump at the G-7 summit in August. The missing tyrant? Not North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, not Russia’s Vladimir Putin, not China’s Xi Jinping — all of whom have been subjects of Trump’s flattery. It was Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt. While the U.S. president later said he was joking, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t have a soft spot for a strongman who once had a 38,000-square-yard red carpet rolled out in his honor.
Trump’s fondness for strongmen is alarming, but how closely does he resemble one? Plenty of Americans agree with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, who in September said Trump was becoming “more and more of a tyrant.”
But what exactly is a tyrant? Are all dictators evil? To answer these questions, I consulted Waller R. Newell, a professor at Carleton University in Canada and the author of “Tyrants: Power, Injustice and Terror.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview:
Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Lots of people call Donald Trump a tyrant. Is he one?
Waller R. Newell: There are two sides to this question. As a factual matter, is Donald Trump a tyrant? As a psychological matter, does he harbor ambitions to be one, or share the personality traits of a tyrant?
The answer to the first question is no, for the simple reason that the U.S. is not structured as a tyrannical regime, a one-party state or dictatorship. The founders set up the division of powers with the express purpose of thwarting potential tyranny, whether it be of the majority, the minority or one ruler. That system, while strained, is holding.
Are Trump’s actions tyrannical even if not unlawful? That’s a matter for political judgement. Past presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt were adored by some, reviled as tyrants by others.
TH: And Trump’s psychology?
WRN: That question is harder because we can’t look into anyone’s inner personality. Trump obviously displays a temperamental partiality toward strongman rulers such as Putin and Xi, and comes close to saying that he wished he had their kind of power. He also tends to make everything about himself and his personal relationships with these tyrants, as if he belonged to their club of titans. He certainly fits into the pedigree of homegrown American populists like Andrew Jackson and Huey Long. He seems to want to run the entire American economy by himself, interfering with markets at will. Sometimes he reminds me of the Roman emperor Diocletian, who forbade prices and people’s occupations to ever change.
TH: You developed a sort of taxonomy of tyranny for the book. Please briefly describe of each of the three types, and maybe give contemporary examples.
WRN: First, there are tyrants who run an entire country as if it was their private property, exploiting it to enrich themselves and their cronies, like Mafia dons on a national scale. This is the oldest kind of tyranny — garden variety kleptocrats. Examples include the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Somozas in Nicaragua, and now Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Then you’ve got the tyrant as reformer, someone who wants all power and glory, but who also wants to make genuine economic and social reforms that will improve the lot of the common people. There’s a long list here from Julius Caesar to the Tudors to Kemal Ataturk, and they are harder to assess morally because they often really do achieve positive things, though at the price of erasing political liberty.
Finally, we have millenarian tyranny, a uniquely modern creation. It’s the attempt to create a utopia of collectivist equality using genocide and war to destroy hated race or class enemies, beginning with Robespierre and including Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the more extreme elements of the international jihad. The scale of their destruction greatly exceeds that of the other two types.
TH: I find it odd somehow to think of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda as tyrannies — they are so amorphous. What do they have in common with the more traditional type nation-state tyranny?
WRN: It’s not the conventional way of looking at it, but I maintain that terrorists are millenarian tyrants in waiting. They want to build heaven on earth, restore our lost collective happiness. To do this, they need to create a state, like Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia, or Islamic State’s caliphate. Think of Hitler. He began as the leader of a revolutionary movement employing terrorism and rose to be absolute dictator so he could carry out the Nazis’ totalitarian blueprint. If you look at the manifestos of al-Qaeda, Hamas, all of them, their ultimate aim is a worldwide Islamic regime. Their aim is revolutionary, not mere spasmodic protest violence like anarchists. Once millenarian movements get into power, their states continue, like Iran, to terrorize their own populations at home and export terrorism abroad.
TH: Who’s a better tyrant — Putin or Xi?
WRN: Both illustrate the paradox of what I call the tyrant as reformer. Both are capable of limitless ruthlessness, bent on crushing any spark of individual liberty. It’s said that when Putin was charged with crushing the Chechen rebels, he had an apartment block blown up, killing hundreds, so he could blame it on them. We’ll never know the number of victims Xi has trodden over in his rise to supreme power.
But you can argue that both have achieved important things for their countries economically and militarily. Putin really did stabilize economic life for ordinary Russians and root out the corruption of the old Soviet apparatchiks who had seized state enterprises, although he replaced them with his own oligarchs. Under Xi, China has invested billions in improving housing and transportation for the masses. I think Xi is the better — meaning more successful — tyrant because he has an impressive self-control and smoothness that the rough-edged Putin lacks, and more importantly, because he is working with more favorable conditions. China is a relatively homogeneous society, whereas Russia remains an internal empire of many national groupings. Putin’s main economic strength is through oil, always subject to market fluctuations. Xi, on the other hand, built on Deng Xiaoping’s state capitalist reforms to build a far more diversified manufacturing sector.
TH: When trying to explain Putin, people often claim that there is something about Russians that makes them want a strongman, going back to the czars. Well, the English and French had tyrants for centuries, and they aren’t clamoring for an iron fist today. (Although some Brits may be open to anything right now.) Do you buy this idea that Russians need a tyrannical overlord?
WRN: I don’t buy the idea that Russians can’t do without a tyrannical overlord, and it’s true that the modern nation-states of Europe often went through a phase of benevolent despotism, rulers like Henry VIII and Frederick the Great who laid the basis for market economies and meritocracy by force from above.
But there is a major cultural difference between Europe and Russia, going back to the ancient tradition whereby the Russian czar was the head of both the state and the church, a tradition whose ultimate origin was the Byzantine emperors. In Europe, by contrast, even as early as the Middle Ages, there was more of an autonomous role for society as opposed to the church, and no king or pope ever succeeded at controlling both. The Russian czar literally owned everything, so Russians are culturally more partial to the notion that a strong ruler, a master, can get things done.
TH: There are a lot of obvious advantages for an authoritarian state in competition with democracies. But what weaknesses can the free nations exploit when it comes to China and Russia?
WRN: The economies of the liberal democracies thrive on an ethos of individual entrepreneurialism. Historically, the emergence of democracy went hand-in-hand with the development of the Protestant work ethic. Russia and especially China have tried to compensate for this with state capitalism. China actually does not want an independent Chinese bourgeoisie to emerge. Its leaders know from the history of the West that this spells the end of despotism. That’s why they prefer foreign investment partners to homegrown startups. All their companies are in one way or another state-owned. The long-run advantage of the democracies is that the Chinese approach may prove overly bureaucratic and risk-averse, compared to the American ethos of the self-made business tycoon.
TH: What current nation is the best example of a benign tyranny?
WRN: While one hesitates to call any of them benign, I think China comes closest, for the reasons stated. But we can’t overlook China’s horrible record of human rights abuses, labor camps, organ harvesting and the rest.
TH: The U.S. and its democratic allies will need partnerships with some lesser states that aren’t exactly beacons of liberty. Should the West’s priority be dealing with these potential allies on their own terms, or to try and push them toward greater freedoms? Can history be a guide here?
WRN: History can be a guide, but not an infallible guide. The U.S. ought to push its non-democratic allies toward greater freedoms. But it should be wary of letting their rulers be toppled for being insufficiently democratic by our standards if that means their place will be taken by millenarian movements that not only are more oppressive to their own people but intransigent foes of the West. The classic example is when Jimmy Carter stood aside and let the Shah of Iran be toppled because his attempt to modernize Iran from above fell far short of our own standards for human rights. The result was that an imperfectly democratizing, reforming tyrant was replaced by a full-blown revolutionary regime in the mold of past totalitarian regimes like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.
Similarly, you could say that abandoning authoritarian allies or at least noncombatants during the Arab Spring, like Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi, only increased the prospects for civil war and inroads by terrorist groups and regimes that were even more tyrannical and deeply hostile to the U.S. and Israel.
We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sometimes the results of that can be horrible, as when the U.S. supported Augusto Pinochet because they feared that Salvador Allende was creating another Soviet satellite in Chile. In that case, the solution was far worse in terms of tyrannical abuses than the problem it was meant to solve.
TH: One clear message I get from your book is that one shouldn’t assume the arc of the moral universe bends toward individual freedom. Is that accurate?
WRN: Assuming that history is progressing inevitably toward individual freedom, that all human beings are by nature Jeffersonian democrats waiting only to be liberated from their tyrants, can blind us to the hard truth that the tyrannical temptation is a recurrent fixture on the human and political landscape. It can’t always be bought off by prosperity, especially when it is motivated by righteous rage. Armed with the knowledge of the continuing threat posed to the forces of democracy by the forces of tyranny is precisely what will help us head tyranny off at the pass.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at email@example.com
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