Deceptions about authoritarianism


The Nazis were adept at using media and communications tools to twist facts, radicalize their populace and demonize targeted populations. We can only imagine how powerful that regime could have been to distract and deceive had they the digital tools available today.

Speaking to this point of where we are today with digital media, and reflecting on the past, tech journalist and author Kara Swisher commented recently, “What struck me was how easily people could be manipulated by fear and rage and how facts could be destroyed without repercussions.”

Authoritarianism is all about promises, power, the glory and conceit of nationalism, and deception.

The promises? Strong charismatic leadership that will take care of offending disturbances and disruptions, policies that will inure to the benefit of the motherland and the predominant and enduring cultural and ethnic antecedents.

The power? Allowing strongman leadership that will guarantee promises made. Dictatorship doesn’t have to be a bad word, but instead the prescription for getting things done without the messiness, delays and equivocations of liberal democracies.

The glory and conceit of nationalism? A prideful smugness associated with a sense of superiority relating to culture, language and ethnicity. Taken to the extreme, as was the case with Nazi Germany, it leads to the “purification” of a society through race and eugenics.

The deception? All these promises of simplicity, purity and sovereign glory will make your lives better. Never mind the man behind the curtain. Never mind your loss of free speech, your right to privacy, your right to choose your leaders, your right to religious freedom, your right to a fair trial by a jury of your peers. Never mind what will begin to emerge as the aristocracy of power sometimes manifest in what we know today in Russia as “the oligarchs,” those in proximity to power, dutiful in their subservience to their leader and in return are given access to the avenues of wealth.

Russia was thought to have thrown off its communist yolk when the USSR was dissolved. Efforts by Mikhail Gorbachev after the demise of Boris Yeltsin to segue away from communism were contorted and distorted by Vladimir Putin with the formation of the Federal Republic of Russia, a cynical regime or scheme purported to be a “constitutional republic.” Political scientists have strained to name what Russian governance has become, but consensus seems to have settled on “authoritarian capitalism,” something that also fits with China’s Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan.

Communism is good at first impressions, but if left to do its work it has proven to be far more destructive to economies and to business and political ethics than most gullible citizens imagined in their initial fascination. Both China and Russia have tried to blend free market principles into their economies but it’s like oil and water, they don’t mix well in practice. Most despotically led countries eventually succumb to infections of corruption, patronage, oligarchic rot and the disillusionments of people who were promised much, given little, with much taken away. Over time, the fascination and promises of populist autocrats becomes a disconnect with the reality of liberty and freedom.

Napoleon’s maxim that the best constitutions are short and ambiguous, seems to be the dictum of these despotic regimes. Ambiguity is a dictator’s, a tzar’s, or a communist party secretary general’s best friend when it comes to governance and the penalties that can be applied to political enemies.

This brings me to the more all-encompassing notion of despotic and undemocratic deceptions. We now live in the unregulated world of digital influencers. In more benign forms, we have those online who try to persuade us to change our lives through yoga, by lessening our carbon footprints, or by lifting our spirits with spontaneous dance routines on TikTok.

But there’s a much darker side to this realm of influencers. We have political influencers, propagandists who try to persuade us about policies and elections. OK, we’ve had these propagandists forever in this country, but the power and voltage of such influencers in this digital age has become alarming. In fact it becomes frighteningly disturbing when enemies of our democracy use lies and deceptions to affect our elections.

It used to be said that if something appeared in print, it was most likely to be true. Then came tabloid journalism. Now, as a tool for influencing, digital DJs like to presume that whatever they say online will be taken with at least a grain of truth, whether domestically generated or generated by the Russian FSB, also known as the former KGB.

The expression often attributed to Mark Twain is frighteningly true in these regards. “A lie travels halfway around the world before truth can get its boots on.”

If we could all just make a promise to ourselves not to be manipulated by fear, rage, disinformation and the false promises of present-day populists.

It’s more important than ever to beware the motivations of those who espouse disinformation, misinformation or alternative facts, especially those promulgating with the intent of damaging our nation, our democratic institutions, our constitutional rule of law, our democratic elections and the rectitude of our society writ large.

When history speaks to us, the lesson is crystal clear. Deceit and false covenants have a way of leading to despotism.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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