Beware of Autocrats
The Revenge of Power

Beware of Autocrats

Scholar and journalist Moisés Naím provides an articulate warning about the power of autocrats to undermine democracy.

Moisés Naím – a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former executive director of the World Bank – details how ruthless autocrats convincingly pose as selfless populists. In this lucid exposition of the corrosive rise of populism worldwide, Naím eloquently and vehemently asserts that democracies can survive only if they counter each malignant step of autocracy’s advance.


Naím argues that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin occupy different parts of the same political spectrum: Both are willing to lie extravagantly, and neither brooks dissent nor suffers second-guessing. Naím cites Trump and Putin, as well as the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines as embracing an innovative formula to gain and consolidate power.

Free societies all around the world face an implacable new enemy. Moisés Naím

Autocrats pretend to accept democratic consensus while flouting its norms and eroding its foundations. Once authoritarian leaders win elections, they subvert the checks and balances that are democracy’s bedrock.

“Populism, Polarization and Post-Truth – the 3Ps”

3P autocrats spin tales of doom and paint the political establishment as dishonest and broken. They criminalize opponents, glorify the military and harp on malevolent immigrants. They belittle experts, academics and scientists while celebrating ignorance. They attack the media and stoke identity politics by demonizing an Other.

Today, budding autocrats hoping for absolute power need, more than anything else, a reliable system for sidestepping these checks on their power. Moisés Naím

Trump, for example, ordered administration officials to ignore Congressional subpoenas, and he claimed “absolute power” to dictate COVID-19 lockdowns. Former Bolivian president Evo Morales appointed members of Bolivia’s highest court, who ended presidential term limits so that Morales could stay in power. Putin arranged to extend the president’s term to six years from four.

Just like pseudoscience appropriates the outward forms of science to pervert it, pseudolaw borrows the look and feel of the rule of law to render law meaningless.Moisés Naím

3P practitioners turn to a faux legalism that enables autocrats to pursue antidemocratic goals. For example, in 2018, Trump ordered the postmaster general to increase the price of parcel shipping to hurt the profits of Amazon – the company of the anti-Trump Jeff Bezos. Naím tells how Orban forced the Central European University out of Hungary. Financier George Soros backed the school, which employed a faculty unfriendly to Orban’s regime.

Cults of Personality

The autocratic populist, Naím explains, secretly corrupts the rule of law and the separation of powers, and often appears in public to bond with supporters. As the autocrat shuns accountability and becomes an icon, his or her fan base offers undying support.

The Trump era has, if nothing else, had the salutary effect of puncturing Americans’ dangerous complacency about the perilous spread of populism.Moisés Naím

Cultlike leaders from history – from Julius Caesar and Charlemagne to Benito Mussolini and Fidel Castro – traded on their charisma. The 3P autocrats incorporate the modern trappings of celebrity. For example, when Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, he appeared before what seemed to be supporters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Trump: Make America Great Again!” In fact, they were paid actors.

Trump intuited that, today, celebrity counts for more than political experience. He understood that if a traditional politician breaks a rule of politics, the politician loses support, but if a celebrity violates a political norm, fans love the celebrity even more.

Silvio Berlusconi

Billionaire Berlusconi built an Italian monopoly in television broadcasting. But when he encountered legal problems, his novel response was to run for prime minister in 1994.

Berlusconi was a transitional figure rather than a fully fledged exponent of the 21st century versions of 3P leaders. But he was surely a pioneer.Moisés Naím

Berlusconi recruited his employees as campaign workers and offered simplified proclamations about complex political problems. Working from a script Trump later would follow, Berlusconi made fun of judges, pilloried the press and became an inescapable presence on Italy’s airwaves. The voters loved him.

Mass Media

Trump instructed aides to treat his presidency as a television show in which the hero defeats his foes. Venezuela’s Chavez mastered television as a tool in his cult of personality, hosting a TV program titled Aló Presidente.

The rise of Chavez swept away the old systems of identification with dizzying speed.Moisés Naím

Trump and Chavez boasted of their sexual prowess and promised improbable infrastructure projects. Chavez’s autocracy transformed an economically thriving democracy into a bankrupt dictatorship.

“Power Tools”

Money is a potent power tool in the hands of an autocrat. When oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky’s TV station poked fun at Putin, the Russian president assaulted Gusinsky’s empire. The rest of the oligarchs got the hint: They could keep their wealth and power if they were subservient to Putin – and shared their riches with him.

A genuine ignoramus can achieve things, politically, that a pretend one just can’t.Moisés Naím

Stubborn denial is another power tool. Trump turned his intellectual deficiencies into an asset. When he claimed climate change was fake, he was convincing because no one doubted his inability to comprehend facts. 

A War on Democracy

Autocrats undermine democracies through corrupt governance, meddling in other countries and “the Big Lie,” which Trump exemplifies by his claim of voter fraud in his 2020 election loss. Big Lies aren’t punished with a loss of power, so autocrats like Trump and Putin continue to lie.

The threat to global democracy could not be more real. The assaults on freedom are global, sustained and formidable.Moisés Naím

Putin’s Russia is essentially a mafia state pretending to be a democracy. Russian hackers sowed disinformation leading up to the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in the United States. This war on truth costs autocrats little but wreaks havoc.

Autocrats always claim that a malign force looms and that only they, the heroic populists, can ride to the rescue. Their “illiberal narratives” depend on a simplistic, fantastical storyline spiced with conspiracy theories.

A Grim Overview

Naím proves almost too convincing in this catalog of autocrats and their depressingly effective tactics. He explains those tactics and how autocrats’ opponents remain baffled at the counterintuitive effectiveness of willful stupidity, crudity, bigotry and lies. Naím is not entirely without hope, but he offers scant optimism as to the intelligence of the voting public. But however articulate and insightful he is, Naím preaches to the choir; no Trump supporter will read this book or agree with Naím’s conclusions.

Moisés Naím also wrote The End of Power, Two Spies in Caracas, Illicit, and Paper Tigers and Minotaurs. Parallel works include Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth and Jill Lepore’s This America.

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