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The Enemy of Tyrants

Ivan Popov

In many ways dictatorships are unnatural.

People dislike being ordered around, dislike not having the freedom to do what they want, dislike others having more rights and privileges than they do. Because of that, open and blatant dictatorships, while do appear from time to time, quickly cause anger and resentment of the general populace and even of the establishment that such a regime needs to rely on. They usually can hold on to power with brute force for some time. But as a wise man said, “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them”. At least, you cannot sit on them for any meaningful period of time.

Therefore, it is very much preferable for the dictatorships to find a way to justify their own existence to their own people. Almost no regime that reserves for itself the unchecked power to arbitrarily control the lives of its subjects without their consent actually presents such arrangement as natural and/or permanent (at the very least, not in the modern era). Such regimes do need to come up with a set of reasons why a single person or a specific small clique should be allowed to wield dictatorial power. One of the most common tools they use for such purposes is the image of a common enemy.


When a country faces a terrible foe, it seems sensible that its people must unite as one under a single leadership and battle the enemy. Such arrangements are quite sensible or, at the very least, not too controversial: even governments in democratic societies often reserve the right to declare the state of war or emergency if the situation calls for it. Arrangements of that sort seem acceptable to the public and that is what dictators appeal to — unite around me and together, under my resolute leadership, we will win. Resist my power and the enemy will destroy us all while we are divided. Of course, that does require an emergency. Or a terrible foe.

Most, if not all, dictatorships find or invent said foes for themselves. Traditional totalitarian regimes of the 20th century focused on the internal enemies: representatives of undesirable social classes and the demonized opposition in communist regimes, ethnic minorities in fascist and extreme nationalist regimes. Modern autocracies, being generally more moderate in terms of internal politics, usually seek opponents abroad: almost universally they rally their populations against the “West” these days.


Yet what makes a good external enemy? What makes “the West” such a popular choice? While having an enemy is very convenient indeed, a “national leader” around whom the public rallies is usually expected to fight that enemy. Such is the theory at least. A reasonable dictator, though, wants to pick his fights himself and generally even avoid them since such struggles have the potential to destabilize his own reign. With the West it is generally not a problem. It is usually far away and does not want to fight (or even think or care) about the dictator in question either. Moreover, it is quite obviously extremely powerful, and nobody can genuinely expect that any modern autocratic state will be able to achieve a meaningful victory over it. Such a formidable and yet disinterested enemy keeps the expectations of the loyal “patriotic” public extremely low — even simple survival of the country (which is normally in no danger at all in the first place) can be celebrated as victory.


Anti-Western narrative is such a potent tool to concentrate power in the hands of an autocrat that within non-democratic governments even originally moderate politicians (in terms of foreign policy) resort to it when they assume leadership positions. Initially inoffensive Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping can serve as colorful examples as well as the Ayatollah Khomeini who was perfectly willing to maintain contacts with the governments of France and the US and even attempt to gain favor with them before his ascension to power in Iran1. The adoption of such a narrative allows them to declare anyone opposing the growth of their personal power a puppet or a useful idiot of hostile foreign powers. Such accusations, even if seemingly absurd for people in possession of basic critical thinking abilities, provide critical legitimization for the suppression of the opposition, especially in the early stages of dictator’s rule. A dictator can then attempt to establish that his enemies are also the enemies of the nation and therefore traitors. After all, the accusation of treason is probably one of the harshest one can level against one’s political opponent — not much else invokes such a visceral and universally negative reaction in almost any society.


Of course, it cannot be denied that an anti-Western sentiment, fueled by the perception of inequality, past grievances and the cultural friction that sometimes occurs because of globalization, does exist in many countries that are now controlled by authoritarian regimes. And yet, in many cases it is being conjured out of thin air by the dictator’s propaganda, usually emphasizing and exaggerating the aforementioned factors. In the recent decade the focus has largely shifted to the excesses generally associated with the Western progressive Left (specifically the part of it usually dubbed “Social Justice Warriors”). Such excesses, commonly blown out of proportions to a ridiculous extent, are now an essential part of the Russian, Iranian and Chinese propaganda that presents the spread of such “Western degeneracy” as one of the chief threats against which the dictatorial regimes protect their subjects. An unfortunate TV viewer in an authoritarian country may be quite brazenly presented with an idea that the alternative to the “Supreme Leader’s” continuous rule is the poor viewer’s children being forcibly groomed into becoming transsexuals “as it is done now all over Europe and America”.


Thus the “Culture war”, that rages on the Western political battlefields these days, gives ample fuel for the authoritarian propaganda. Only caution and moderation in the criticism of their opponents, avoidance of exaggeration and doomsaying may be advised to those who do not wish to provide such fuel.



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