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Chemical Romance

The revelation that Kim Jong Un's brother was murdered through the use of VX nerve gas is the latest reminder of the proverbial love of dictators for all things chemical (weapons, that is). Or, sometimes, just plain chemicals. 

Let's start with weapons, though.

It burns!

Illustration by Ben Mills - Own work, Public Domain, 

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Bad Time for Dictators?

While human nature isn't likely to grow less evil over time, there are some moments in history when it just is a bad idea to be a dictator. We may be living through one of those moments now.

Certainly the events in Ukraine and Venezuela seem to suggest that, if not in outright retreat, the autocrats of our time are finding that there is no such thing as 'ultimate' power. At the very least what this shows is that modern dictaotors have not yet fully absorbed the lessons from history's more successful autocrats on managing unrest and consolidating their rule, lessons we discussed in our book

The one seeming exception? Vladimir Putin, of course, but more on Russia later.  

Re-post: A Dictator's Christmas Carol

(Time to drag out the holiday classic, kicking and screaming, once again ... and apologies to Charles Dickens, James Ellroy, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine)

The following manuscript was found in a cache of stolen documents, nestled between execution orders and ledgers detailing illegal funds siphoned from international aid programs.

Part 1

The holiday  inches closer and the masses prepare for it, and they seem happy, or at least content with their lot, living under a dictatorship.

I make that last observation every year and it puzzles me. But I let it go. No need to obsess over it, even if I cannot understand how anyone could be content being ruled by another. This is no ordinary tin-pot autocracy; the peoples' means of earning a livelihood, their media access, travel, ability to express ideas, all of it controlled and restricted. Yet I see them even now, hanging wreaths, setting mangers, trimming trees … pouring rum in their egg nog, casual and distracted, as if secret police are not sharing their good will toast.

(My country is mostly Christian, nominally, and so even I am ‘officially,’ or at least when it’s prudent to appear so. But I have no use for turning the other cheek.)

I find all this holiday cheer strange … I’d never show my face at a party if someone held the power of life and death over me. But then I don’t have that problem because I’m THE DICTATOR. Richard M. Tater, at your service (but not really).

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Growing Up Fast, Dictator Style

The time comes when every dictator-in-training must put away simple dreams of power and grab at the real thing. This concept is not only featured in The Dictator's Handbook, it's also something that can be seen in almost every autocrat's life. Augustus at Actium, Alexander at Vergina, Hitler after the beer-hall putsch ... these were moments when the drive toward one-man rule was finally, completely unchained. And it's happened again, this time in North Korea. 

Giving myself a hand

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Proto-Dictators: D'Annunzio

Like everyone else, dictators have a historical context, a place in time where they learned to be the autocrats they eventually became. Sometimes they learned from the real thing, other times from pretenders. Think Julius Caesar learning from Sulla's example, Boy Assad learning from his, ahem, father, or Hitler watching the anti-Semitic Vienna mayor Karl Lueger operate.  

Mussolini had an antecedent too, a very close one. But Gabrielle D'Annunzio wasn't just a would-be tyrant; he was more, a poet, novelist, lover, aviator, orator, and all-around son-of-a-bitch. 

Like my throne?

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On Signs of Weakness

In The Dictator's Handbook, particularly in chapter 2 ('Inimitable You'), we stress that part of the dictatorship game (a major part) is projecting an air of invincibility and unassailable power. In other words, look and act like an all-seeing, all-knowing autocrat, and most of the populace will fall in line -- some out of power worship, others out of fear. Mobutu, Idi Amin, even Hitler, Chaplin mustache and all, projected this kind of lethal power despite physical shortcomings (take it from us, Amin fans, it's a shortcoming if you look like you'd fit nicely in a Santa suit). Then, of course, there is Bashar Assad. 

I know I look foolishj

He certainly looks right on for an accountant at a small midwestern aluminum washer firm, but as a dictator? No uniform, no sunglasses or medals, no epaulets. Worse, the recent reports out of Syria (direct from our forum) -- which claim that the rebels have been able to target his personal convoy -- betray all the tell-tale signs of weakness, the later denials notwithstanding. In a true dictatorship, no one should even think of aiming missiles at your car. 

It's too early to tell, but usually these indications of weakness point toward only one conclusion -- a unpleasant one for any autocrat who lets the mask of power slip.  

On Losing the Military

In The Dictator's' Handbook we stressed the importance of military support to established and aspiring tyrants, a fact that should be obvious to anyone with even a small awareness of history. Well, perhaps that's just another unrealistic expectation, because it looks as if Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had no idea! (And do you remember what happened the last time the Egyptian militaryissued a communique?)

Rule number 1 for any competent autocrat should be 'keep the military on your side'; rule number 2 should be 'know your people.' And if your people have within recent memory deposed another heedless dictator who usurped the democratic process, antagonized the supporters of civil society, and responded poorly to ongoing protests, then the very least you can do is avoid repeating the mistakes of the prior regime.

And that includes keeping the military on your good side, President Morsi! 

Uh-oh, I should have read the Dictator's Handbook more carefully

Tools of the Trade: The Sit-Down

This blog has rightly been commenting on the events in Turkey in recent weeks, and now it seems events are taking a page right from The Dictator's Handbook -- Chapter 8, to be precise.

It now looks as if, despite unleashing terrible and probably counter-productive violence, Prime Minister Erdogan is willing to meet with the protesters, ostensibly to hear their complaints.

In Chapter 8 of our book we note that this tactic, the 'Sit-Down', can be particularly useful when trying to defuse public unrest. Take a page from corporate America, dictators -- the CEOs of the world know that nothing grinds down productivity like endless meetings -- and use the face time to snuff out the burgeoning rebellion. Even hint at 'concessions', as Erdogan did, but if you do listen to Rich Tater and insist that all public protestations must cease before any 'meaningful' talks commence.

So keep an eye on Erdogan and see how he plays his cards: and join the conversation on this topic at our forum.

And the riots roll on ...

Dictator Must-Haves: Nicknames

Today a real-life inspiration to all would-be tyrants joined the ranks of the departed; Giulio Andreotti died at age 94, a seven-times prime minister of Italy and the architect or enabler of the 'strategy of tension' (we'll never know for sure, but for an account of how dictators can use this technique see chapter 8 of our book) who in many obituaries is being referred to as the 'center of Italian political life for 50 years.'

Giulio gave great material for aphorists: 'Power wears out those who don't have it' and 'Never leave traces' are but two examples. But perhaps for aspiring dictators his greatest legacy is a long list of expressive nicknames. As we point out in chapter 13 of The Dictator's Handbook, a great nickname will go a long way in projecting your reputation while almost certainly capturing what the man in the street thinks about you. Here is what Signor Andreotti was called over his long lifetime:

-The Black Pope
-The Hunchback (hunchbacks are considered unreasonably lucky in Italy)
-The Prince of Darkness
-Uncle Giulio
-Il Divo Giulio (the Divine Giulio) 
-Lavazza (an Italian coffee; refers to the strange habit acquired by some of Andreotti's enemies -- dying after drinking a poisoned espresso) 

Uncle Giulio and Friends