Dictators do not come in military uniforms anymore. In fact, they get elected nowadays. “A dictatorship by any other name is still a dictatorship,” writes former American secretary of state Madeline Albright in her 2018 book “Fascism: A warning.”
According to the Britannica Dictionary, fascism is “a way of organizing society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government.” How does this apply in a purported democracy? Democratic dictatorships are more dangerous because they lay claim to a popular mandate. But the methods are the same.
“Heads of government with an autocratic bent have won reelection in Russia, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Cambodia, Ms Albright notes, and “in each case, the field of competition was tilted heavily in favor of the incumbent.” Fascists hide their intentions behind charm, laws and secrecy. Adolf Hitler, the German war criminal responsible for unparalled genocide in history during World War II, did not start out as a dictator.
Kathryn Olmsted explains in her 2022 book “The newspaper axis: Six press barons who enabled Hitler” how “the six most powerful media moguls in the United States and the United Kingdom – Rothermere, Lord Max Beaverbrook, William Randolph Hearst, Robert McCormick, and Joseph and Cissy Patterson – all dismissed the fascist threat.” Together all six media moguls had a readership of over 60 million in Britain and America.
Even they could not have known how grave and historical their error would be: More than 70 million people died in World War II. Mr Hitler drew crowds, charmed politicians and media moguls, and gave awe-inspiring speeches. He built his influence and power incrementally, chipping away at liberties piecemeal, with no one the wiser until it was too late. A world war was the result.
Much democratic progress has been made since, as the lessons of the war were constant sour reminders of what could happen when guardians of decent society in the media, judiciary, and international community allow themselves to be fooled by pseudo-democrats, whose desire is absolute power. It usually starts with a fanatical personal cult-leadership, with a followership traversing all aspects of society.
Those who disagree or sense early the dangers of these masked fascists are bought over, harassed, prosecuted or killed; one person at a time. Suddenly you wake up one day, and there is not a single adverse opinion of the regime of the day. Actually, that is not entirely true. Fascists have become quite clever, you see. To avoid suspicion, they allow criticisms here and there. That way, no one can accuse them of media suppression.
As authors Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman put it in their 2022 book “Spin dictators: The changing face of tyranny in the 21st century,” “they consolidate control over the media, often discreetly in order to preserve its credibility, quietly buying off owners and encouraging self-censorship.” Fascists infiltrate opposition parties too. Dull candidates are sponsored to compete against ruling party ones. The result? Very predictable. But you couldn’t then accuse the regime of not being democratic. Elections are held, the opposition has ‘free rein’ and ruling party candidates simply win.
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Ms. Albright notes in “Fascism: A warning” how “in any society, men and women with imagination will rebel at being told what to do, what to believe, and not think.” Knowing this, fascists usually start by co-opting society’s thinkers, most of whom tend to populate academia and the media. Fascists are thinkers too. They plan years and decades ahead, slowly building a web of influence, such that when they finally rear their ugly heads, you find their believers are everywhere.
This is not an exaggeration: everywhere. It is hard to believe. But when you mull it properly, it is very possible. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former foreign policy egghead for the American State department, describes how in succint detail in her 2017 book “The chessboard & the web: Strategies of connection in a networked world.” You couldn’t overwhelm such a web without one wider. Only other option on short notice is the nuclear one; that is, destroy everything and everyone, which is a non-starter.
Violence is no longer what underpins the antics of these evil-doers. “In place of harsh repression, the new dictators manipulate information,” Guriev & Treisman (2022) assert, thus reshaping beliefs to “fool people into compliance and even enthusiastic approval.” Fascists have learned that the surest way to success is the path of least resistance.