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Oldest Trick in the Book

Oldest Trick in the Book

American society isn't immune to the levers of manipulation used by dictators.

Alexis Ludwig

Political campaigns are not rocket science–but in our current electoral season, we've seen more circus clown antics than academic argument. This phenomenon has me rethinking what I thought I had learned by observing some of the world’s most fragile democracies as a career diplomat—that American democracy was uniquely resilient and those who uphold it deeply committed to its tenets and principles. The other possibility is simply that I learned the wrong thing. Not only are we no different from any other country, our longstanding democracy enjoys no special immunity from the levers of manipulation used by authoritarians.

The same paradoxical political rule that governed some fragile democracies where I served applies to the United States as well. That rule: the more seemingly nonsensical or absurd the message, the more political resonance it probably has. The unshakable hold that former President Trump has on the MAGA base seems to fit that bill. Logical counterargument gains no purchase; they heed appeals neither to reason nor national interest. The latter seems to them to be a pointless abstraction. How can any of this be explained?

During my three decades as a career American diplomat, I focused on “developing” countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Stark social and economic inequalities characterized most of these countries—there was a small elite class above, a massive underclass below, and a meager middle class squeezed between the two. The majority of the population lived in visibly precarious circumstances, typically in makeshift homes in shanty-type towns with few amenities or services. Individuals lucky enough to have jobs often worked in the so-called “informal sector”—off the books with few employment protections or guarantees. State institutions lacked capacity and were marred by corruption, often failing to provide the most basic of services, starting with security. Police not infrequently doubled as criminals, extorting just as often as protecting ordinary people.  

In such places, it was hard to disagree that the political system mostly served the interests of an affluent minority; that public institutions were “captured” by groups of private power; that the system was “rigged” against the majority—especially since the judiciary often served as an overt tool of political power, rather than of justice. With objectively little or no stake in the existing system, many people felt they had nothing to lose by standing or voting against it.

Within such a context, it was almost understandable that people could fall prey to populist claptrap and absurd demagoguery. Again, what did they have to lose? Political gimmicks could take the simple form of a giveaway bribe: for example, a coveted sack of rice could work wonders (it being literally better than nothing). Gestures of performative nationalism could also be persuasive, such as regaining sovereign access to lost territory. This was a commonly successful maneuver, and frequently cast as a magical solution of sorts to deep-seated problems. 

Rhetorically speaking, making sweeping, unrealizable promises would have an effect not unlike waving a magic wand. These included promises to end poverty and injustice; to provide food, housing, and jobs for all; and—more important still—to codify the long catalog of these promises in a new constitution. This last promise was a perennial favorite, and often given top billing. But vows to rain down revenge on privileged elites—the people benefitting from the corrupt system that was keeping ordinary people down—always packed the most potent punch. Not coincidentally, political vengeance was among the promises that were more easily kept. 

Nevertheless, populists and demagogues share a distinct vulnerability: Both are better at building illusory hopes than institutional capacity. Both excel at identifying enemies but fall short at solving practical problems. Both successfully harness popular dissatisfaction, but mostly to destructive ends. As a result, despite or indeed because of their power, they typically make bad situations worse. This, coupled with a tendency to cling to power by any means necessary, makes them dangerous. Accordingly, make no mistake: January 6, 2021, could be a mere foreshadowing of what’s to come in America.

What most puzzles me is this: Unlike most of the places where I served, the United States is a rich, developed country with a stupendous array of advantages both natural and acquired. Beyond the basics—unrivaled geography, inexhaustible natural resources, a broadly educated population, and unmatched economic dynamism—these advantages extend to nearly every sector that matters in the contemporary world, whether technology innovation, energy development, financial sophistication, or military power. The list goes on. It also includes—or used to—political institutions, with our rambunctious system of democracy representing perhaps the most critical advantage in all our great arsenal. A federal system based on e pluribus unum, it has enabled us to experiment, absorb, adapt, renew, course-correct, and also to fix mistakes before they fixed us. However flawed, it was (as the saying goes) better than the available alternatives. But now?

Many Americans don’t seem to realize the advantages they have by simple virtue of being American and living in the United States. And thus they do not seem to understand the extent to which our flawed democratic system is worth preserving, perfecting, and protecting from enemies foreign and domestic.  

Why do so many of us believe we have so little to lose? Is it because our problems seem so complex and entrenched that they can’t be fixed— and can only get worse? And that this sense of futility causes some to believe that what’s needed is a “strong leader” (notwithstanding the evidence of previous experience)—who can bring order (or retribution) to a cruel, disorderly world? Perhaps it’s simply that a critical mass of people are angry with a system they feel serves only the interests of a privileged elite, are frustrated that their own interests are forgotten, and who are accordingly fed up enough to vote against a perceived broken “system”—even if it is not clear what they are voting for

However valid the diagnoses or understandable the feelings of frustration, the proposed remedy will only aggravate the actual disease. No doubt, our system does need reform. Political parties are not truly representative of where the population is, particularly the immense moderate middle. Congress is paralyzed by polarization and infighting. The Supreme Court appears to be out of step with majority sentiment. Health care, housing, and higher education, among other basic services, are out of reach for too many. Additionally, powerful political interests, resurgent historical currents, a debate over what constitutes facts, and performative politics all combine to produce the critical situation we face.  

But our democratic system is nothing if not flexible, adaptive, and fixable.

Why otherwise do we suppose so many hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world risk their lives to come here by every possible means? Seeing what I have seen in many of the places where I’ve served, I think I know why. Perhaps we might solve our immigration problem by proposing a swap: Out with those Americans who have grown too complacent and insufficiently appreciative of what they have to lose, in with those hungry foreigners prepared to take full advantage of all the opportunities they would never have in the places they leave behind.

Alexis Ludwig is a retired senior foreign service officer.

Image: Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Wikimedia Commons: Nicolas Pinault, Voice of America)

AuthoritarianismCultureDemocracyLatin AmericaPolitical PhilosophyUnited States