A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Out of Control

Woodward Fear

Bob Woodward: Fear. Trump in the White House.  ISBN 978-9-526-53299-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I knew that reading this book would not be a source of joy. Though it is meticulously researched and extremely well written, its subject, as it unfolds, comes close to a political horror trip. Welcome to the White House of President Donald Trump aka @realdonaldtrump. In Bob Woodward’s book, he is more real than ever, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I will not go into the details of Woodward’s description of how amateurish the Trump campaign was organized, how he hijacked the Republicans and how willfully unprepared he arrived at the White House. The old warhorse of the “Washington Post” does it much better than I could ever do. I will not delve into the daily chaos that marked the White House after Trump had taken office, triggered by the president’s emotional tweets, the absence of rules and procedures, the exit of hundreds of experienced public servants and the arrival of ignorant nobs. Woodward has interviewed hundreds of people, and his fact-checking team must have spent thousands of hours verifying each statement illustrating the pervasive anarchy. It’s all in the book, and it’s worth reading it.

You may be asking why. Perhaps you think the worst is over, now that the Democrats rule the House of Representatives. I would like to temper your optimism. It’s not yet over. Trump has already profoundly changed politics in Washington, and one may even say that he has profoundly changed the United States. Here are a few take-aways related to the book.

Polarize the Nation!

Steve Bannon, the alt-Right ideological sharp-shooter, the brain behind Trump’s electoral success and the first presidential decisions in 2017, set the tone for the political dialogue in Washington: Polarize the Nation! Attack the establishment! Annihilate any enemy, left, right, centre! Republicans inside and outside Congress went along with that strategy. And many subscribed to it in the recent mid-term elections. Us versus them. No prisoners taken.

This style appeals to those who voted for Trump in 2016: Disenchanted people, with no optimistic outlook that the “American Dream” will ever become a reality for them. The forgotten ones in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, in the conservative south, those for whom globalization brought unsecurity and often misery. These people and their legitimate griefs will not go away. They will embrace Trump again or anyone emulating him. For they have nothing to lose.

Life in the Trump bubble

Since Inauguration Day, the White House is ruled by a man who seems to have lost touch with reality long ago. He lives in a bubble, shaped by excessive TV consumption, Fox News mainly, by the yes-sayers around him, by rallies with adulating crowds and the absence of any knowledge about economics and politics. According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump has the comprehension of “a fifth- or sixth-grader”, as Woodward writes.

Trump lives in a world where smoking factory chimneys mean progress and prosperity, where climate change is a scientific fraud and where the United States is a self-sufficent country, capable of handling all kind of challenges on its own. This makes it so easy to manipulate the president, with unforeseen consequences for the United States and the rest of the world. You just need to dangle the right type of carrot in front of Trump. Russia quickly understood this, Steve Bannon’s alt-Right too. That reminds me of that wonderful bon mot “Now we have them exactly where they want us.”

Outbursts and lies

Trump’s virulent attacks on all kind of multilateral agreements, from the “Iran Deal” to the Paris Climate Agreement and free trade treaties, have changed the international landscape already. Stockmarkets are wary of trade wars, while former allies will distrust the US government for as long as Trump and his ideas are around. And for good reason. There is no coherent foreign policy and there is no orderly policy-making process in the White House anymore. It’s all emotions. The president gets set up by CNN or the “Washington Post”, by the investigation on his ties to Russia, by a staffer taking longer than 10 minutes to explain an issue, and all hell breaks loose. Trump throws a tantrum and has to break something: a treaty, the relationship with an ally, anything.

Speaking about the Russia investigation, I relished Woodward’s account of the US president’s interaction with his lawyer John Dowd, who did everything possible to protect Trump from himself. To do so efficiently, he needed Trump to trust him, to faithfully recall what had been said and done during the campaign… are you laughing already? That’s precisely the point. Trump didn’t know, didn’t recall, didn’t trust. Dowd faced a pathological liar, for whom reality and fantasy have become one. One must assume that most of the time, the US president doesn’t know himself which of his statements are true actually.

Donald Trump’s presidency is about destroying the current order without replacing it by anything else – just for the sake of media coverage. Trump’s presidency is about an embattled ego, longing for recognition. Trump’s presidency is about Trump. Nothing else. The title of Woodward’s book stems from a quote of the presidential candiate: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” Trump spreads fear, no doubt. But his anger and his destructive actions are the symptoms of a suffering man.

As Woodward subtly shows, Trump himself is filled with fear. The fear to fail. He was filled with that fear probably since he was a boy, growing up in the shadow of his successful father, the New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump. What makes Trump dangerous, is his fear to fail. It makes him weak too. The first step to counter Trump and his disruptive potential is to let go any fear, to think for ourself and to speak our mind. There’s nothing to fear except our own fear that makes us helpless.

A dysfunctional system, not unlike the White House, has been described by the composer Aribert Reimann in his opera “Lear”, based on Shakespeare’s play:

Lear – You are men of stone

Truth against Falsehood – Why Shakespeare Matters

William Shakespeare: Hamlet. ISBN 978-0-19-953581 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” I have read Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” for the first time as a teenager ahead of seeing the piece in Stratford-upon-Avon and re-read it recently while brooding over Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s incidental music inspired by the play. Through the piece, the current US president came to my mind. What wretched creatures mighty men often are!

Claudius, King of Denmark, murderer of his brother, Prince Hamlet’s father, and usurper of the throne – his pitiful existence, based on a self-perpetuating lie, is exposed first by the ghost of the murdered king, than by a band of theatre actors and finally by Hamlet himself. But it is through his own words that the King of the Great Lie gives evidence of his moral mediocrity. “Madness in great ones” are Claudius’ words to characterize Hamlet. But Hamlet, Bearer of the Truth, only feigns his madness to execute his revenge on Claudius. Claudius turns reality upside down just as Donald Trump does: Anything contradicting the present US president’s mindset is labeled by him as “fake news” and considered a threat.

In reality, Trump’s presidency is “fake politics” right from the start. He didn’t win the popular vote and the crowd at his inauguration wasn’t exactly impressive. Trump’s ascendance does not reflect the will of the majority of the US electorate, it is the result of an outdated election system. Trump’s political achievements so far are ridiculous compared to his declared ambitions, and this is hardly surprising since Trump never had any real political agenda. He is exclusively interested in promoting himself. He is a salesman selling himself as a brand through Twitter. To succeed in this endeavour he hijacked politics and pretended to stand for certain political ideas that were popular among those who were most prone not to elect his rival Hillary Clinton. Or, as Hamlet puts it to his friend Horatio: Let candied tongue lick absurd pomp!

Donald Trump is no president and his political project is an empty shell. Much talk, little substance. Shakespeare had a keen awareness for the trappings of political power in the 17th century which are essentially the same 400 years later: Vanity, without which you cannot run for office, slyness to seduce the masses, falsehood to discredit any rivals and deflect any criticism, ruthlessness to stay in power, arrogance as you get used to be in power. Sounds familiar? It should.

Shakespeare’s play pitches truth against falsehood, Hamlet against Claudius. Both die in this moral struggle, but Hamlet is the moral victor since he saves his friend Horatio from certain death. Truth, deceny, loyalty and friendship – these are the virtues to guide us through difficult times. What was true in the 17th century is of utmost relevance today. People should spend less time on social networks and read Shakespeare instead. Present writer included.

As I already mentioned Tchaikovsky’s incidental music renewed my interest in “Hamlet” and stimulated my writing:

Murder, madness and stirring melodies

On Over-Seized Egos and the Rule of Fear in Politics

Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin – Parallel lives. ISBN 978-0-679-7294-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a brick. It is some 900 pages long, but it is an exceptional book about world history and power politics, meticulously researched and well written. It covers the history of the first half of the 20th century seen through the eyes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Dugashwili, later known as Stalin. The book, published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is a huge scientific achievement and a book of utmost relevance today. It touches a number of psychological points highly interesting to anyone interested in how political leaders see and shape today’s world.

Propaganda is key

The way Adolf Hitler, a low profile soldier and artist, conquered political power and managed to put Germany under the spell of a racist ideology leading to World War II and the long list of atrocities committed by German soldiers and the SS is significant as Hitler used means very similar to those used by Donald Trump to gain access to the White House. A key element is and was the spreading of fear deriving from wild conspiracy theories among the political constituency – the Jewish worldwide alliance against Germany in the case of Hitler, Europe and China cheating on the US and the threat posed by the establishment in Washington (the “swamp” that still waits to be drained) in the case of Trump.

Both Hitler and Trump achieved this through a constant propagandistic drumbeat. Hitler excelled as an orator and dispatched Nazi speakers with a road-show to all corners of Germany saturating the public debate with his populist slogans and his foul speech while Trump uses friendly media outlets and social networks to spread lies, slander rivals and spin the public debate to suit his personal ambitions.

Vying for the disenchanted masses

Building a political career on the resentments of the constituency is another parallel. Germany’s already weak economy was heavily hit by the Great Depression and political stability was shaky after 1918. Thus Germans were hard to convince of the benefit of their first truly democratic experience and readily listened to anyone suggesting a firm leadership and quick fixes, however unrealistic they seemed to an unbiased observer. Today globalization has produced a great number of people losing out in all industrialized countries and specifically in the US. Many of those became easily convinced that Trump could make America great again and thus restore their former personal position in society.

Stalin came to power in a very different way than Hitler. He gained a foothold in politics by becoming a professional revolutionary in Georgia, his native region, and by joining the Communist cause. Once he had become part of the inner circle of Lenin, he made sure to become Lenin’s successor instead of Lev Trotzky as the leader of the Communist Party by eliminating all rivals through bureaucratic manoeuvring or by inventing conspiracies and having his rivals arrested. From the 1920s on until his death in 1953 Stalin ruled by fear. He succumbed to many economic, political and military mistakes that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, but very few people were allowed to contradict him. They could all too easily lose their position, their privileges or their life.

Alan Bullock’s description of Stalin’s grip over the Soviet Union reminds me in many respects of the ways the president Vladimir Putin rules Russia today. Of course, there are no Gulags anymore and the FSB does not deport hundreds of thousands to Siberia. The means have become more subtle, more polished to maintain the illusion of the rule of law. But the basic logic remains unchanged: Shut up or else!

Denying reality and “fake news”

Both Stalin and Hitler show how far leaders can become removed from reality, : Hitler never visited the front, he locked himself up in his bunker during the last months of World War II, unwilling and unable to acknowledge that the war was lost and that he had sacrificed Germany for a fantasy i.e. conquering “Lebensraum” (living space) for racially pure German colonists and to satisfy his own ego. Up to the last days he maintained that he was the saviour of Germany, finding an astonishing variety of scapegoats: the  General Staff of the armed forces, the officer corps and the leadership of the SS, all of them having betrayed him at some point, and of course Great Britain who had failed to understand the benefit of a coalition with the Nazi regime.

Stalin isolated himself no less from reality by surrounding himself with legions of yes-sayers. Any reports not fitting with his opinion would be deemed a fabrication. The psychological mechanisms at work in the case of these two leaders remind me very much about reports on how the White House handles current affairs and the time Trump devotes to identify and denounce “fake news”.

Leaders are vulnerable

Finally Bullock’s study shows that the paramount driving force for both leaders was fear. Hitler had to prove himself everyday that Providence had chosen him to save Germany, that Germany adored him for his spiritual leadership and that Germany could rule Europe through the sheer power of will (Thank you Schopenauer for giving this man such grand ideas!). He had founded a religion and cast himself in the role of God. Omniscient, omnipotent. Fear to be proven wrong kept Hitler going until his last days in Berlin. The war could not be lost, because it would have called into question his abilities and the fate that Providence had reserved for him, Germany and the rest of the world for that matter.

Stalin fared no better: His early career as a revolutionary, forced to operate in clandestine ways, made him prone to a paranoia that took exceptional dimensions under the strain of conducting a war first against Russia’s peasants and then against Germany. Stalin would not have trusted his own shadow. And he had plenty of reasons to fear to be assassinated: He had made himself legions of enemies during the purges of the Communist Party and the armed forces, and his dramatic miscalculations in the early stages of the German offensive had led many to believe he was unfit for office.

When appreciating today’s world leaders this book offers a key to understand their true motivations and the decision-making processes that define their policies irrespective of the time. At the centre is the concept of fear – the fear to lose the power they have gained, the very same fear they use to come to and stay in power. They use fear and they know it works. And they fear it could be successfully used against them. This fear makes them corruptible for it makes them vulnerable. If we want to get rid of them, this is the weak spot we have to strike at. But before that we need to overcome our own fear.

This post would not be complete without a reference to music and I suggest Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 “Leningrad”. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of Stalin’s animosity, and the siege of Leningrad was an early example of the contest of will-power between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany:

A symphony born out of rubbles

Living in an uncertain world


Zygmunt Baumann: Liquid Times. Living in an Age of Uncertainty.
ISBN: 978-0-745-63987-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A modern day prophet explains why we feel uneasy in a globalized world, how we became disconnected from our neighbours and what shapes our existential fears. A thoughtful book, very appropriate in a time marked by “alternate facts”, delusional politicians, racism and simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Laure Mandeville: Qui est vraiment Donald Trump? ISBN 978-2-84990-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Short and to the point. A portray of the 45th US president and the Unites States at a historical landmark.

Arlie R. Hochschild: Strangers in their own land. ISBN 978-1-62097-225-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Climbing the empathy wall to see how people in the red states of the US feel about past, present, future and why Trump’s message appeals to them – a fascinating, frightening journey.

The ascendance of a populist like Donald Trump, the United Kingdom set to leave the EU, Turkey betraying its modern history – western societies face widespread discontent with the current state of political affairs. The contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian has written an interesting piece that came to my mind while I contemplated a world that seems to fall apart:

Before and after#Brexit