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"If I were dictator of the United States"

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 15, 2010

We all have think-techniques, which include ones to help us be good citizens. For Americans, the standard one is "If I Were President…" It's widely used, as seen by the success of The West Wing. I'll take a pass on any evaluation based on the content of that show.

This kind of reasoning is often looked down upon. It often captures sentiments instead of facts, 'tis true. The same limitation, though, applies to any exercise of the imagination, and to any thought. Ratiocination with inadequate facts doesn't work well either, sometimes embarrassingly so.

The same imaginative technique – it's really base-level teleology – can be flipped around to scope out the likely behavior of a foe. Many committed Christians guide themselves by asking, "What would Jesus do?" The flipside is asking "What would Satan do?," or "what would I do if I were Satan?" The answer is used to watch out for evil in the world.

The darker exercise is hard for some Christians. For those, it would be a benefit for a pro-Christian atheist (yes, they exist) to do the chore. Since an atheist of that sort has no real love of God or fear of Satan, but means well, (s) he can supply a useful outsider's perspective.

That's analogous to what I'm about to do. I'm a Canadian, so I have a certain outsider's perspective. I can deploy it to come up with a framework for how a competent dictator of the United States would function. I offer it in the spirit of "what would Satan do?"

  1. Secure all organs of government, including the military and police, but particularly the civil service. Win them over, in other words. Make it clear, though policy but not necessarily words, that they come first. The bureaucrats are the most crucial because bureaucrats aren't very liked in the United States - and a dictator needs then to implement policy. Disgruntled ones are prone to either go lax or sabotage any policy they take a dislike to. Moreover, they find out that they can become popular by doing so if said policy is widely disliked.

  2. Use privileges strategically. By "privileges," I mean justifications for certain people to live above the law a little. Americans are hostile to those, so such a practice would be sub rosa and de facto. The first ones would, of course, be enjoyed by government employees. That's crucial to keeping a government together that does not have a popular mandate.

  3. Make sure all persecutions, pogroms, tyrannies, etc. originate from below. From lower in the bureaucracy, in other words, if not from ordinary folks. There are two benefits to doing so for a dictator: first of all, it keeps the top hands clean. Any dictator who uses it can swear – truthfully – that no tyrannizing was initiated by him. "I have no blood on my hands" is an attitude that helps to minimize the hatred of the dictator by the common people. Someone who has blood on his hands is fairly easy to spot.

    In addition to the PR aspect, for all of those speeches and public events, there's another reason. Initiating tyrannizing becomes a privilege enjoyed by the lower ranks, one of which even the dictator does not partake. That makes a government employee, and select ordinary subjects, feel special.
  1. Discipline unruly bureaucrats by taking their privileges away through a formal crackdown. Throw them to the wolves in extremis. Using fear in this way makes for a lot of "voluntary compliance" to the new order amongst the cadres. It also reduces supervisory requirements. 
  1. Give the ordinary folks a long leash, but make sure the leash is there. People tend to ignore a law when it's not enforced or enforced lightly. Passing draconian laws can be effected, once the initial shock and outcry is passed, if their level of implementation changes little in everyday life. Those laws can be used to make examples of people by a selective crackdown, but only if they're widely disliked beforehand. Using selective enforcement on the well-liked, let alone a folk hero, is lethal to the dictator's prestige. Any bureaucrat who does so would have to be administered measure #4.

    5a). A more subtle means is to issue a blizzard of decrees that amount to #5 when put together, and then let enforcement be lax until an example has to be made. The trouble with draconian laws is that they're draconian; that's how they read. Breaking up a draconian law into a hundred different innocuous-looking directives gets it passed with few people noticing. As for those few, a wise dictator will do his best to create a social clime where people who are prone to thoroughness in examining new laws are roundly disliked, if not co-opted. Actually, both strategies are best, as a little bit of fear in the psyche of the co-opted helps.
  1. To the greatest extent possible, shower gifts on the ordinary folks and encourage the cadres to take pleasure in serving them. Aim no draconian measures at the ordinary man in the street.  Even dictators need popular opinion on their side. Again: it's only possible to successfully scapegoat the widely disliked. A dictator can maneuver to make the people who would naturally oppose him widely disliked, but there has to be some genuine heart in it as well. People aren't that easy to brainwash.

  2. Pay close attention to the bread-and-circuses factor. This one's more delicate than it seems. People living under a dictatorship need to be flattered, and they need to be governed gingerly at times. The bread-and-circuses tie in with this requirement, and they can result in an indolent or restive populace if excessive or misplaced. The ideal bread-and-circus is something that makes people feel good when they get back to their drudgery, and doesn't given them ideas about shaking it off. To take an example, spontaneous vacations aren't such a great idea. Nor is "King For A Day."
  3. Dictatorships are expensive. The people slated to foot the bulk of the bill for everyone else have to be demonized very skillfully.  Again, this is a task that has to be approaches from the bottom-up angle. This time, though, the bottom is ordinary folks. Fomenting jealously is harder than it looks; it usually requires fomenting a popular sentiment that certain rich people are getting away with murder. They can be milked, especially if they greet co-optation with relief rather than resentment. A thicket of laws is quite useful in this capacity, especially if they're worded to make them look like they were written by angels.

    This requirement, I aver, is necessary for a dictatorship because the ordinary Joe has to feel he's getting the better of the bargain. Suckers are as necessary as scapegoats.  
  1. The ideal level of citizen subjugation is a diffuse, hard-to-pin-down series of irritants. The Lilliputian method of capture, in other words. It keeps the dictator relatively safe, and is easy to direct at an enemy or scapegoat if need be.

  2. "When all else fails, start a war." Not only does this direct aggression outwards, but it also makes the wearing of chains seem patriotic. It also makes dissent seem traitorous, and it's an aid in boosting the prestige of the military – that part of the military that's compliant, of course. [See #4.]

Granted that this list is abstract, but tyranny is only in part substantive. The method's what I want to focus upon: making people accept government domination while displacing any anger they have towards the dictator or the regime. I should add that it's crucial to the survival of any tyranny to make civil servants into tolerable civil masters. The dictator, after all, can't be everywhere. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.






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