Rise of Dictators …

So, I just finished reading a biography of Julius Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. Not long before that, I read a book talking about the French Revolution exploring how it turned into the Terror. I’ve also, of course, read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. All of which talk about how governments that weren’t restrictive dictatorships/tyrannies turned into far more restrictive and tyrannical nations. While reading it, it struck me that it is precisely this that is making progressives very angry and scared, the idea that the United States is moving from being more liberal and democratic to becoming a Trump-led dictatorship. And there’s one commonality in at least those three historical events that I think they are missing.

In all of those cases, the tyranny came about because the people, in general, didn’t feel that the current system and people in power were serving the people, and so were willing to accept someone, anyone, who was in a position of some power and promised to fix all of that up.

Germany had been in dire straits for a long time after WWI, and had suffered what many of the people considered to be egregious humiliations for their part in it. The Socialists were blamed — quite likely wrongly — for the surrender, and were blamed for not making things better and/or for not trying to restore German honour. Hitler, on the other hand, directly promised to restore their honour and make the country better, and when he received power he actually did both, although how much of the economic recovery was due to his policies or just a generally recovering economy is not entirely clear. Given that he at least at first seemed to be fixing things and pretty much every move he made he won in the beginning, it’s not surprising that the general German public supported him, at least until he started losing. By the time his policies started impacting the common German, he and his party were too entrenched to be easily removed. And what is also critical to note is that his opponents often spent more time attacking him than in understanding why the common German at least somewhat supported him and trying to appeal to them.

Whatever else you might say about him, Caesar actually had a lot of support from the common person in the Civil War. Throughout his entire political career, he had advocated for and enacted a number of policies to benefit the common voter. Meanwhile, the existing Senators were seen as being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Pompey and his supporters, fearing that he might take over, actually precipitated the conflict by essentially setting up a case where Caesar could be prosecuted for purported crimes while he was in charge of Transalpine Gaul, which Caesar felt could be used to deny him what he saw as his rightful power. Given that it was clear that political trials in Rome did not turn on truth but instead on the personal interests of the people prosecuting and voting, this left Caesar potentially taking a huge risk if he accepted it. And even as official dictator, he continued to promote the interests of the common person, and at least tried to maintain the image of being merciful and conciliatory.

But the most indicative one is the French Revolution. The government was corrupt, and so the Revolutionaries rode a wave of popular support, making strong accusations and riding mob rule to carry out punishments on those people, whether or not those accusations were really founded. And then when they got into power, they continued to splinter and to make the same sorts of accusations against each other, resulting in a tug of war where the person who could actually convince the people that one of their former leaders and comrades was really a traitor to the cause winning and gaining power through that, which led to the Terror.

You can argue that Trump is taking the Caesar/Hitler route, presenting himself as the only person who can fight the corruption in the government and “drain the swamp”. And yet you can also argue that the progressives are taking the Revolution route, attempting to muster popular support by making often dramatic and poorly founded accusations against Trump and anyone who supports him in any way, and presenting his government as the corruption that they must fight and — using the Nazi parallels and the “Punch a Nazi” rhetoric — fight with violence if necessary, which means fight with violence if they can’t win. If we take these historical parallels to their logical conclusions, you’d have the choice between an American Empire or an American Terror. Is it any wonder, then, that so many moderates don’t support either side?

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