5 Ways Normal People Allow Evil Rulers To Thrive
A wise person -- no one has any fucking idea who -- once said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." And while I hate to disagree with whoever it was, the reality is a little more alarming. Evil people gain power because otherwise-good people actively help them along.
Above All Else, Citizens Just Want To Pay The Rent
Here is one of the single most underrated contributors to evil on Earth: Many people fear losing their jobs almost as much as death itself. Now let me explain how this sort of thinking helped Joseph Stalin stay in power.
From 1931 to 1934, he starved at least five million people to death in Ukraine. Millions more were executed or died in gulags. We usually tend to assume some mix of mortal fear and propaganda is why no one stood up to the old bastard while he was alive. But there's another, scarier explanation: His Soviet Union put a lot of food on a lot of tables.
We usually think of the USSR as an impoverished place dominated by breadlines, but that's comparing it to the United States. Compared to the old Russian Empire, where most people had been essentially serfs, it was a huge step forward. The Soviet Union's per capita GNP rose every year from 1928 to 1985. Russian children actually grew larger during the years of industrialization, while the opposite was true in most Western nations.
This, then, is the first universal truth we have to deal with: If everyday people are able to buy food and school clothes for their kids, and if they don't have to see too much of the bad shit with their own two eyes, they can overlook just about anything.
Deep Down, We Want To Trust People
Well, we've made it like one minute into the article without mentioning Hitler, so let's go ahead and do that. Or rather, let's talk about one of his buddies, Ernst Rohm. He was a prominent gay man, a combat veteran, and a political activist. He looked like this:
Ernst, milk-curdling mustache and all, was pretty close to Hitler. He founded the Sturmabteilung (SA), or "the Brownshirts," a paramilitary unit that was basically around to punch anyone who tried to interrupt a Nazi rally. Also, Ernst was the only Nazi leader Hitler allowed to address him as "Adolph." Ernst trusted Hitler. He'd built a three-million-man street-fighting army for him. They were good bros.
Then Hitler had Ernst murdered in 1934, during the Night of Long Knives, which for Hitler was the Night of "Knock A Shitload of Stuff Off Mein To-Do List." Rohm's private army scared the real army, and while Hitler liked Rohm, he liked the army more.
In fact, behind every great dictator in history is a pile of close friends whom they fucked over. Stalin had most of his best friends executed. Saddam Hussein was viewed as a moderate, reasonable politician by his colleagues, right up until he had a bunch of them killed and made the others watch video tapes of it. Even the American soldiers guarding Saddam, who knew exactly what he'd done, still sorta loved the old monster.
Once we start believing in a person who holds power -- believing in their cause, or their personal goodness, or simply that they're on "our side" -- it is almost impossible to break that spell. We will forgive the most gruesome sins. In fact, it can work the opposite way. Knowing that a leader is cruel or dismissive to others while he treats you with kindness can have an intoxicating effect. Sure, he's an asshole, but he's an asshole for us. Which brings us to how ...
When We're Scared, We Seek Protectors
Frightened people do not make great decisions. For proof of this, pistol-whip a stranger and then order them at gunpoint to complete a crossword puzzle. They will not do well. This is why totalitarian movements always take control during periods of fear and upheaval. Let's go back to the Nazis again.
In the late 1920s and early '30s, the pace of change in Germany was insane. The emperor was gone. Women could vote. People were communicating by telegraph and flying across the continent in planes and not just walking until they died of cholera. Part of Hitler's appeal was that -- and it sounds bizarre to say this -- he seemed like he had a mastery of this hip new cholera-less way of life, a way of life that terrified a lot of people. He used POSTERS, for god's sake. That's the 1933 equivalent of putting your campaign speeches in an Instagram story.
When we're scared, we want solutions, and Hitler provided those. When German industrialists got spooked that socialists were gonna take all their stuff, Hitler and a few others helped to persuade economist Walther Funk to join the Nazi Party to put their minds at ease and keep them funneling cash into their pockets. Were the solutions that Funk provided particularly complex? No, god no. But they sounded really good. And guys like Paul Manafort have made tens of millions of dollars off that maneuver in fairly recent years.
Before he was Donald Trump's campaign manager, Manafort basically did PR for dictators and wannabe dictators all around the world. In 2005, he went to work for Victor Yanukovych, a Ukrainian presidential candidate who was losing despite probably poisoning his opponent with dioxin. Yanukovych lost that election, but Paul started coaching him on American-style political tactics. He had Yanukovych emphasize the divide between the East and West, and told party candidates to stop giving detailed answers about a bunch of different questions and start focusing on a single issue every week. He also ordered Yanukovych and his representatives to only wear super fancy suits so they'd look rich and powerful.
It was a cynical, gross, dumb plan to win an election, and it totally worked. Yanukovych and the Party of Regions came to power in 2010. Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014, and that sparked a bloody civil war that continues to this day, but the point is that Manafort knew what he was doing.
This is human nature. In 1960, a bunch of scientists talked to coal miners who'd survived deadly disasters and been trapped deep in the ground. They found that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when things were at their most chaotic, a few men stepped forward and took effective action. These men were almost all antisocial, with poor emotional control and a distinct lack of empathy. In the regular world we call them assholes and block them on Twitter. In an emergency, if they react well, we're almost hardwired to trust them.
All of their worst attributes -- aggression, disregard for social conventions, inability to contemplate consequences -- suddenly sound pretty good. It's almost like they'd been waiting their whole lives for things to get bad enough that they could finally shine. And if their proverbial coal mine disaster never comes? Well, that's when they have to go to work convincing the rest of us that everything has gone to shit. Show me someone who lusts for power, and I'll show you someone who loves to paint every problem as a crisis.
We Refuse To Compromise, Even If It Means Stopping A Greater Evil
Boy howdy, Captain America sure is great, huh? I'm talking both the character and the unreasonably handsome man who plays him and never returns my phone calls or dozens of handwritten letters, the son of a bitch. The only thing I don't like about Captain America is this speech from the comics, which you'll see quoted on Twitter and elsewhere:
"Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the whole world -- 'No, you move.'"
Here's a fun game: Put that quote in the mouth of someone arguing that gay people shouldn't be able to adopt kids. It still makes just as much sense. In the modern world, basically everyone feels this way about a whole bunch of things all the time, even when given incontrovertible proof that we're wrong. Cap makes it sound like it's the ultimate courage to refuse to compromise, when in reality that's most people's default. Feeling like you're The Most Right Person On Earth is great, while realizing you were wrong is fucking awful. Which of those two do you think actually takes courage?
So how does this enable monsters? Well, let's go back to the Nazis again. They were, as it turns out, always a minority party. Combined, the moderate liberals and the left were the majority of voting Germans. But the communists and the center-left Social Democratic party refused to work together. The communists called the Social Democrats "social fascists" and declared that the moderate middle was just as bad as the guys with swastikas. Ernst Thalmann, head of the German Communist Party, said in 1932 that "Nothing could be more fatal for us than to opportunistically overestimate the danger posed by Hitler-fascism."
He died in Buchenwald in 1944.
Thalmann, like many passionate true believers, wanted the world to move around him. So did General Kurt von Schleicher. He was a conservative politician and for a hot minute Germany's chancellor. He hated Hitler, but he thought the dude was dumb and figured he could use Hitler and the Nazis to box the Social Democrats and the communists completely out of the government. He wanted to ignore most of the population, because the alternative was *shudder* cooperating with them.
Hitler, on the other hand, was more than willing to work with Schleicher, right up until the point when he stopped working with him and demanded his job. He got it -- Schleicher was assassinated during the Night of Long Knives. See, dictators are always willing to compromise, because at the end of the day any actual cause they promote is a distant second to their primary cause of attaining power at all costs. The best they can hope for is a fragmented opposition full of people so rigid in their beliefs that they'll never form a majority. A bunch of Captain Americas, in other words.
Extreme Ideas Don't Require A Majority
One of my favorite moments in television comes midway through the Anthony Bourdain episode about Libya. He talks to a series of young men who, when the uprising against Qaddafi started, all suddenly picked up guns to go fight. The day before, they thought it was impossible, believed Qaddafi would rule forever. And then a few hours later: "Seeing groups with you going towards the Martyr's Square, demanding their rights, at that moment you feel that you can do anything. That this is going to happen ..."
The 40-year-old dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi fell during the "Arab Spring" of 2011. That same year, a bunch of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic tried to figure out how extreme ideas tip from "weird" to "normal" so suddenly. Being responsible scientists, they didn't do this by fomenting an insurrection of their own and riding into power on the bloody confirmation of their hypothesis. Instead, they set up a network to model the spread of ideas in human society.
Most of the people in the model, like most people in society, were willing to change their beliefs to avoid conflict with the people around them. The scientists then "sprinkled" extremists into the model -- people who could not be convinced of anything themselves, but could convince others. You know, the Captain America types. They found that when the number of extremists was below 10 percent, those fringe ideas couldn't make much progress. Professor Boleslaw Szymanski even said, "It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority."
But, he added, "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame."
Now, 11 percent of people believing in an idea and thus being able to completely overthrow a mustache-twirling tyrant sounds pretty fucking great right now. But it cuts both ways. An idea can seem too awful to even speak one day and be shouted by mainstream news anchors the next. Extreme ideas are exciting, they draw attention, they dominate the conversation.
If we want to end on a positive note, here's the best I can offer:
That model was not meant to replicate a polarized society like ours. Maybe having a ton of extremists all trying to sell different ideas actually makes our society immune to any one type of extremism. Kinda like how in that one episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns has every disease known to man, but can't die because his diseases are all in perfect balance.
That's a stable foundation upon which to build a peaceful future, right?
Robert Evans is the host of the Behind The Bastards podcast.
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