Perhaps the most surprising story of the past year has been the abysmal performance of the Russian military in its invasion of Ukraine. Clumsy tactics, military trucks with dry-rotted tires, rations and medicines that expired decades ago, troops making targets of themselves by talking on cellphones, even the use of raw conscripts as human waves to detect Ukrainian positions in lieu of conducting proper reconnaissance. It has been a saturnalia of incompetence from a nation which most observers, including many military experts, had believed would roll over Ukraine in a couple of weeks.
Now consider China, a country that many Americans appear to think is almost diabolically efficient. As the COVID pandemic began to spread in early 2020, it quickly became evident that sensible social distancing measures were in order, calibrated to a level that most reasonable people could tolerate without being overly disruptive to social life. When highly effective mRNA vaccines became available early in 2021, it was imperative to administer them as widely as possible.
Instead, Beijing ordered a draconian lockdown that reduced the country’s GDP by more than 3 percent, even as it refused to obtain Western vaccines. The apparent result is that inhabitants of the most populous country in the world have little immunity from prior exposure, while their government has refused a formal offer from the U.S. to provide vaccines that are effective. As a result, we can expect new waves of mutated COVID strains emanating from China as a direct consequence of its rulers’ obstinacy.
Under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has moved inexorably away from democracy to one-man rule and a punitive crackdown on dissidents. Now that an earthquake has struck the country, the capability of Erdoğan’s government to expedite rescue and recovery is under the microscope. It is not encouraging. Erdoğan’s years-long campaign against foreign NGOs means there is far less domestic infrastructure to perform disaster relief. Amid the rubble, Turkey’s ruler has already preemptively threatened potential critics. As one observer has said, “He’s warning journalists and civil society that we will prosecute you if you criticize us. He’s trying to short-circuit any discussion about accountability.”
What Russia, China and Turkey have in common, beyond their incompetence in critical situations, is that they are authoritarian systems. The link between authoritarianism and habitual blundering ought to be obvious, yet a surprising number of people claim to admire dictatorships because they are “efficient” compared to the slow, messy, and contentious work of parliamentary democracy. Along with the illusion that tax cuts increase revenue, the notion that authoritarian regimes are clear-sighted, clever and efficient is one of the more persistent canards in political pathology.
The hysterical GOP panic-mongering over the Chinese spy balloon was an implicit attack on “weak” democracies for their alleged inability to protect “the people” (meaning Fox News viewers, of course).
Even our Sinophobes fall prey to this delusion, in the sense that building that country up into an immanent and existential threat paradoxically gives the Chinese system more credit than it deserves. The hysterical panic-mongering of Republican politicians regarding a Chinese spy balloon (duly parroted by the mainstream media) was not merely wildly disproportionate and dismissive of the U.S. capacity to gain valuable intelligence from it; the criticism was also an implicit attack on “weak” democracies for their alleged inability to protect “the people” (meaning Fox News viewers) from the paranoid fears that Republicans have labored so hard to instill in them.
The United States is as prone to the tug of authoritarian worship as anywhere else, as a review of the Trump administration — high-handedness tempered by incompetence, and ending in a failed coup — makes painfully evident. And the admiration for dictatorships among citizens of freer countries has a long and undistinguished pedigree.
Probably the first great object of this dictator worship in the modern era was Benito Mussolini. It was Mussolini of whom it was said, “he made the trains run on time.” For a while, he had quite a following among the rich and influential.
Thomas W. Lamont, a J.P. Morgan & Co. partner, was one of the most influential bankers of the early 20th century; a sign of his power was that he accompanied Woodrow Wilson to Versailles to negotiate German reparations (as opposed to assigning it to some mere lackey like the secretary of state). A few years later, he became quite the Mussolini admirer, saying that he had become “something of a missionary” for fascism, and calling Il Duce “a very upstanding chap.”
Lamont was not alone. Politicians and businessmen all over America and Europe heaped praise on Mussolini. In 1927, in one of Winston Churchill’s less-than-finest hours, he said of the Italian dictator, “If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
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But how efficient was Mussolini’s regime? Paul Corner, a noted scholar of the subject, says economic progress under fascism was largely propaganda. There were a few showy projects and some hideous monuments in Rome, but Italy built fewer houses between the wars than France or Great Britain, countries presumed to be mired in depression. By the late 1930s, there was de facto food rationing.
All of that could be rationalized, however, as necessary sacrifice for the martial glories to come. Mussolini never tired of speaking of war as the most sublime expression of the human spirit: “War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and imposes the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to make it.” This mystical belief in military power and its triumphant exertion in war holds a peculiar fascination for authoritarian leaders.
But despite almost two decades of supposed preparation, the Italian military was woefully under-equipped in 1940: It was short on artillery, its tanks were deficient in every respect, and it was incompetently led by strutting martinets. Its navy, intended to secure the Mediterranean as mare nostrum (“our sea”) eventually lay at the bottom of that sea. Mussolini himself ended up being lynched alongside his mistress at a Milan petrol station by his own countrymen — hardly the Byronic man of destiny’s heroic death in battle.
Corner believes that postwar Italy never had a proper reckoning with its fascist past, preferring to forget the war, rationalize Mussolini as “not as bad as” Hitler (rather a low bar), and misremember prewar times as prosperous. Mussolini kitsch has long been for sale in Italian shops, and the removal of his portrait from a government ministry resulted — predictably! — in the Italian right wing declaring Mussolini a victim of cancel culture. Italy’s new government, whose prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leads a right-wing party that traces its origin to Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, suggests that the dictator nostalgia is alive and well.
If Adolf Hitler is the standard that some Italians use to determine a “bad” dictator, that has not prevented him from gaining a flock of foreign admirers, both in his lifetime and afterwards. Everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Charles Lindbergh to Henry Ford were ardent followers. Nazi parties like the German-American Bund sprang up in many countries. Almost eight decades later he still has a fan club, as the Camp Auschwitz T-shirt-wearers and Hitler impersonators among the Jan. 6 rioters suggest. Kanye West has lately proclaimed himself a devotee of the late Führer, a somewhat incongruous viewpoint in light of Nazi racial policies.
It can be tempting to cut through the Gordian knot of checks and balances and the rule of law by putting someone in charge to give orders and knock heads. But we must never underestimate a strain of masochism — the desire to bow down to the mighty.
While more “efficient” than its Axis neighbor to the south, Nazi Germany was hardly a consumer paradise. Adam Tooze, the definitive chronicler of the Nazi economy, points out that, like Italy, Germany already had de facto food rationing two years before the war. Workers had jobs, but at the price of low wages, long hours and a prohibition against quitting in many industries; labor unions had long since been smashed. By 1938, the coffee was mostly ersatz and gasoline increasingly scarce. Despite Albert Speer’s ostentatious public buildings, residential construction lagged: everything was being siphoned off into armaments.
Germany’s military was more effective than Italy’s, but that advantage was more than nullified by the dictatorship’s horrible judgment. The blunders Germany committed are too numerous to list; suffice it to say that levying war against the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States simultaneously did not prove to be an exercise in strategic wisdom.
Even after Pearl Harbor, the American entry into war against Germany was not guaranteed, such was the isolationist sentiment and the desire to concentrate on Japan. But Hitler sealed the deal when four days after Pearl Harbor he nonchalantly declared war against the greatest industrial power on earth while his army was buried in snowdrifts before Moscow and suffering more than 130,000 frostbite cases. (As Napoleon had discovered more than a century earlier, it’s generally a bad idea to campaign in Russia without winter gear.)
The left is not immune from dictator syndrome. George Orwell, a man of the left himself, was revolted by the servile manner in which many Western intellectuals fawned over Joseph Stalin, one of the most disgusting murderers in history. Monstrous crimes like the Ukrainian famine were either denied outright by Stalin’s fans or replied to with the hoary truism that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs (given Russia’s miserable standard of living, one wonders where the omelet was). Stalin’s rooting section lauded his cynical deal with Hitler to divide up a prostrate Poland as a diplomatic masterstroke, when in reality it merely set the stage for Hitler’s eventual invasion of the Soviet Union itself.
One saw much the same spectacle among some Western students in the 1960s, who waved around copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. It appears to have escaped their attention that the Great Cultural Revolution was still going on in the country they idealized, resulting in roughly 1.5 million dead from government-inspired violence.
As for the regime’s efficiency, the Great Leap Forward of 1959-61 is unquestionably the most disastrous industrialization policy in history. This scheme to force virtually the entire country to smelt pig iron in their backyards left crops untended. The catastrophic outcome was anywhere from 20 million to 43 million deaths (estimates have such a wide range because Beijing has suppressed the statistics, and even now forbids people any open discussion of the subject).
The left is not immune from dictator syndrome: Orwell was revolted by the way many Western intellectuals fawned over Stalin, one of the most disgusting mass murderers in history.
Why is there still the temptation to admire dictatorships by citizens in relatively freer and better-run countries? For some elements at the top layer of society, the attraction is straightforward and material: Dictatorships, or at least those of the right, are their best guarantee against pesky unions and people who demand a living wage or adequate and affordable health care. Plutocrats will not only preserve their wealth from progressive taxation, but an authoritarian regime will in almost every case enhance their wealth — possibly the only thing such a regime is “efficient” at doing.
But what of the rest of society? Arms manufacturer Alfried Krupp may have made out like a bandit, but how do we explain the ordinary Germans who thronged the streets to cheer Hitler? For that matter, what did the pathetic, scruffy slobs who stormed the U.S. Capitol get out of it, other than prison sentences, social ostracism and probable unemployability for the foreseeable future?
The complexities and frustrations of exercising responsible citizenship seem to exceed the ability or patience of some people. To be sure, the wrangling of parties, the broken campaign promises, the sheer unruliness of it all, can turn people off. Having worked in Congress myself, I saw that it was frequently an unedifying spectacle — and that was before the current crop of lunatics with election certificates descended on the premises. It is tempting to cut through the Gordian knot of checks and balances and the inconvenient thing we call the rule of law by putting someone in charge to give orders and knock heads.
But we must never underestimate a strain of masochism in some people, the desire to bow down to the mighty as if they were prostrating themselves before a deity. This pathology was frequently on display during Trump rallies, creating scenes comparable only to the gyrations and speaking in tongues one might witness in the rituals of obscure Christian sects.
Inevitably, there arose from the right-wing fever swamps a cottage industry churning out schlock paintings of Trump as a heroic figure who has miraculously shed 60 pounds and displays implausible muscularity. These efforts make Tijuana portraits of Elvis look like Rembrandt masterpieces, but they also reveal the Freudian subconscious of Trump worship to an embarrassing degree. Such failed attempts at art also echo earlier artistic idealizations of authoritarian leaders.
There must be a deeper cause of this syndrome than mere dissatisfaction with present politics, given the abundant historical evidence that authoritarian systems are worse run, more corrupt and invariably contemptuous of human life. Perhaps some early childhood disturbance in interactions with authority figures like parents is the ultimate factor. In 1954, political scientist Richard Hofstadter may have put his finger on it when he described such a person as having “a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.”
The excuse of efficiency is a feeble rationale. What appears instead to motivate popular attraction to authoritarian systems is what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm called the irrational drive for an “escape from freedom.” It is increasingly obvious that serious clinical study of the mental pathology that leads to an enthusiastic rejection of one’s own freedom and autonomy is as urgent as cancer research.
from Mike Lofgren on history and politics