Every dictator throughout history has cast himself and his supporters as victims. Oppressors aren’t sympathetic figures, but the oppressed are. So are saviors.
For Hitler, it was the Jews and others that failed to live up to the Nazi regime’s manufactured Aryan ideal. For Lenin, Stalin, and their successors it was the somewhat vaguely defined bourgeoisie that led the parade of enemies of the state invented by Soviet leaders. If we reach back to the rise of the Caesars we find wealthy and powerful men like Julius and Augustus Caesar portraying themselves as victims, as the common man struggles against a corrupt elite that wishes to hold them down.
Occasionally there might be some small slice of truth to the grievances that those grasping for power exploit to win popular support. But even legitimate complaints become exaggerated examples of oppression in the end. Regardless, having gained complete or near complete power, one would think these strongmen would be able to impose stability rather than perpetually calling out that they are victims. But true resolution eliminates the possibility of keeping an enemy handy that they can readily blame. For strongmen avoiding accountability is paramount.
Donald Trump, for all his authoritarian tendencies, is not Adolf Hitler. Even Vladimir Putin, a man who has been known to both assassinate and imprison his opponents, does not come close to that scale. That said, these men are no lovers of democracy and are skilled at manufacturing victims and threats of both the exaggerated and fake variety.
Authoritarians are not interested in making the trains run on time. Authoritarians derail the trains, blame the derailment on some group or another that they know a significant portion of the population is already suspicious of or despises, paint themselves as victims, then take credit for fixing the problem after workers have repaired the tracks and restored things to the way they were before the derailment. We actually saw this pattern in Trump’s dealings with North Korea, and will likely see it attempted again at some point soon in the case of immigration and border security. Indeed, Trump has set himself up beautifully to use this technique on a variety of issues in the coming months.
The case of North Korea is worth going into in some detail in order to demonstrate just how authoritarians go about manufacturing a problem in order to “solve” it. The so-called crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been slowly unfolding for generations. Had there been anything like an easy solution for it, it would have been solved decades ago.
But the fact of the matter is that even before North Korea acquired nuclear weapons it had thousands of conventional artillery pieces aimed at the heart of Seoul. Any effort to deal with the situation militarily would have, even under the best-case scenario, ended up with hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides of the 38th parallel, followed shortly thereafter by a massive humanitarian crisis. It was for this reason that sanctions were widely considered the safest way to apply pressure. Obviously, sanctions didn’t prevent North Korea from eventually developing nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t mean we should have sent in the army or dropped a bunch of nukes on them ourselves while we still had the chance. Some problems just don’t have good or obvious solutions.
North Korea’s long history of provocative words and actions have always been greeted by presidents from both political parties with either stern but diplomatic rebukes – sometimes followed by additional sanctions – or silence. Trump broke this pattern when he began responding with bellicose rhetoric of his own. As both sides began exchanging more and more heated words, a previously unthinkable US military response suddenly appeared thinkable. At that point, Trump had his crisis. All that remained was to extinguish the fuse that he had lit.
So, Trump signaled a willingness to talk and eventually agreed to a summit. In Singapore and in comments he has made since the president has practically embraced Kim Jong Un. The North Korean dictator has effectively been welcomed, at least for now, into Trump’s club of respected dictators. The president has declared complete denuclearization to be only a matter of time and claimed that thanks to his talent as a dealmaker the nuclear threat has passed. The fact that not a single nuclear weapon has been given up or that Kim Jong Un has so far refused to even disclose how many weapons he has hasn’t in the least diminished Trump’s assessment of the North Korean dictator or his conviction that he’s reached a peaceful resolution to the “crisis.” Problem solved.
Likewise, the current administration has manufactured a crisis along the border with Mexico. The number of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border of the United States was at or near their lowest level in recent memory when Trump imposed his so-called “zero tolerance policy” and began separating children from their parents as they came into the United States. But that the number of undocumented immigrants entering the US had been dropping for years is an inconvenient fact if you’re trying to demonize the people seeking a better life in America. That said, we can be reasonably confident that soon Trump will recognize the lower number of people crossing the border and begin to take credit for it. At that point, he will tell us that the undocumented immigrant “crisis” has been “solved.” As proof, he will direct our attention to statistics that are merely the latest data point along a trend line that began dropping dramatically long before his administration.
By describing every problem as an emergency, authoritarians are able to create and maintain the siege mentality so vital to their efforts to hold onto sufficient public support. The policy of every authoritarian government is to create disruption, paint themselves as victims, and blame it upon a group that people can readily identify as outsiders. For this reason, those of us opposing the rise of authoritarianism must remain clear and consistent when it comes to the language we use to describe the manufactured crises men like Trump and Putin will continue to generate as they pursue their quest for greater power.
Families fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America do not represent either an economic or existential threat to the United States. Any differences we have with our NATO allies are small and do not justify the efforts currently underway to destabilize the alliance. Automation has historically had a far greater negative impact on manufacturing jobs than trade agreements. Burdening the world economy with tariffs because the president argues that even a slight trade imbalance with another country is an indication America has been “taken advantage of” will not only fail to change that reality but will ultimately make the problem worse.
There’s a reason that every problem wasn’t a grave emergency under previous presidents. None of them were primarily in the business of marketing fear. If America really is “the home of the brave”, instead of hitting the panic button every time Donald Trump says there’s a crisis we should be telling him to give it a rest.
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