The last few years have not been kind to autocrats. Once invincible giants have been felled by incurable diseases, subverted by imperialist machinations, or hounded out of office by hordes of uneducated peasants clamoring for highfalutin nonsense like basic human rights. The string of performances given by both aspiring megalomaniacs and seasoned despots has been dismal: Qadhafi made amateur mistakes, Mubarak got cocky, the Cubans botched Maduro, and just last week, Aliyev was revealed to be the winner of his country’s presidential contest a full day before voting began.
Of course, the news is not all glum — there have been some bright spots. Assad’s deft diplomatic stalling and Mugabe’s disciplined reign of terror come to mind; these two men have certainly fortified their credentials. But if Assad and Mugabe are senior officers in the A-club, Vladimir Putin is its secretary general. The man’s crackdown on internal dissent has been truly nonpareil. Buffeted by economic headwinds and besieged from all sides, Putin has managed to consolidate power.
Given the perilous conditions for autocracy everywhere, now might have been a propitious time to reiterate the time-worn precepts of authoritarianism. But instead of dusting off old, canonical guidebooks, it may be more instructive to review industry best practices, like a Corporate Executive Board for dictators. Based on AEI scholar Leon Aron’s recent (and rather more serious) analysis of Putin’s rule in Russia, herewith a list of “real-world” tips for orchestrating an authoritarian consolidation:
- Reach into the past to recover symbols of national strength. This will help you validate your reactionary policies. Putin rehabilitated the “Hero of Labor” medal, which – except for the two-headed eagle in lieu of the hammer-and-sickle embossment – looks exactly like the Soviet Union’s highest civilian award.
- Stigmatize the vanguard of civil society: NGOs and their leaders. Eliminate alternative sources of power; discredit liberal, democratic values that view the state as an instrument of society rather than as an unchallengeable entity established by God himself.
- Play on prejudices, myths, and other dark sides of human values. Why not?
- Pass a series of repressive and nationalistic laws. The goal is to make patriotism synonymous with political loyalty. To get your creative juices flowing, some of the Duma’s initiatives: limit marriages between government employees and foreigners, bar the children of officials from studying abroad, require movie theaters to screen Russian-made films at least 20 percent of the time. You might also consider ripping a page out of Putin’s playbook and make non-profits live with the derogatory connotations of being “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding.
- Reject Western values in exchange for “traditional” values. Putin signed a law that prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” essentially banning gay narratives in virtually all media and public venues. Although you may damage your international reputation among the Western elite, it’s an acceptable price to pay for bolstering loyalty at home.
- Portray your country as a fortress besieged by foreign enemies. Mobilizing public opinion against the US is always an easy win. Blaming hostile outsiders to rally your troops around the flag enables you to deflect blame for economic mismanagement and other foibles.
Once you’ve mastered these tactics, it’s a few short steps from autocracy to apotheosis. We’ll cover that in the next chapter.
Disclaimer: AEIdeas does not make any warranty, express or implied, for specific policy proposals, or assume liability for a severe backfire that could leave your opulent palace in ruins, your family name forever dishonored, and your country redolent of cordite and blood.