Modern dictators are not always easy to spot, since they masterfully sway public opinion in their favor. Learn to identify these warning signs of a dictator.
“A dictator is a pre-approved product of a manipulated mandate.”
The first true dictators were military leaders in ancient Rome, most famously Julius Caesar.
They seized power through force and ruled for as long as they lived or until deposed. They reigned as monarchs and emperors.
Surprisingly, Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king, was a Roman Emperor, and despite being chosen rather than elected, historians see him as a democratic leader.
Dictatorship, or autocracy, is a system of government ruled by one person with absolute power who has no legal restraints on his actions or decisions.
The term “dictatorship” comes from the Latin word “dictator”—a magistrate in the Roman Republic who was given absolute power for a short time to deal with a crisis.
A modern dictator is a national leader of a political system who wields absolute power in governing a country.
How To Spot The Signs of A Modern Day Dictator
In the past, dictators dressed in their military uniforms. With time, they changed their appearance, started to wear business suits, and became harder to recognize.
It is often difficult to identify modern-day dictators, especially in a world of post-truth and filter bubbles. The media is awash with opposing stories about them, ranging from vicious to virtuous. Dictators are typically Machiavellian, paranoid, and narcissistic people who seek adulation and obsequiousness.
A dictator starts with fantasies of ruling over a country with ultimate power. They often come to power through rigged elections and cleverly-crafted hero personas. Once established as the nation’s top leader, they assume complete control over all decisions.
People do not elect dictators in free and fair polls, at least not when they know the person is a power-crazed leader. So, modern dictators manufacture a ‘charismatic’ leadership persona to manipulate public approval. Then mostly get chosen through controlled elections.
During the Sierra Leone civil war, the US-educated Charles Taylor traded weapons for blood diamonds with the rebels. He was arrested and sent to a maximum-security prison in Boston. He escaped in 1985, only to resurface in Libya as a protégé of Muammar Gaddafi. Twelve years later, he was running for the president of Liberia. He campaigned with the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” and won 75% of the votes.
Here are some warning signs that can help you identify one. These warning signs are usually:
• No Dissent
The dictator does not allow any dissent and ensures that everyone agrees with them, however outlandish their ideas. They undermine all forms of dissent, especially political opposition, and curb popular freedom of expression and individual movements.
They do not believe in democracy, even though they publicly proclaim otherwise. They effectively dismantle parliamentary and constitutional systems and take control of the police and judiciary. Democracy ceases to function when power is beyond accountability, or when people’s concerns do not get addressed and represented in public and political discourse.
• Distanced From Reality
They need people to hero-worship them and have their own personality cult. They surround themselves with sycophants who constantly laud them while blaming others for everything that goes wrong in their administration.
They maintain a distance from the country’s realities, often isolating themselves physically. They usually live in opulent palaces guarded by impenetrable security. These people are inaccessible to the general people, government officials, and even the “yes-men” who surround them.
• Media Manipulation
The media is heavily censored and controlled by the dictator, resulting in a “caged” press. The annual 2021 Democracy Report published by V-Dem, the respected Stockholm-based think tank, says:
“First, (they) seek to restrict and control the media while curbing academia and civil society. Then (they) couple these with disrespect for political opponents to feed polarisation while using the machinery of the government to spread disinformation.”
• Rabid Nationalism
Any stance or speech against them is deemed anti-national. In most cases, modern dictatorships, whatever their initial character, take on the features of an emphatic nationalism.
“The dictators of this post-truth era are masters at swaying public opinion in their favor.”
Types of Autocracy or Dictatorship
A dictatorship can be absolute or limited. The first is totalitarianism and the second is authoritarianism. These two distinct forms of autocracy emerged in the twentieth century.
It was Mussolini who, in the early 1920s, coined the term totalitario and gave the slogan: “All within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.”
Totalitarian or absolute dictators have total and unquestioned power over everything that happens in their country, for example, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. In a totalitarian government, people cannot disagree with the leader and there are no checks and balances.
An authoritarian ruler wields a lot of power, but not absolute power. China and Russia are two such examples. In an authoritarian society, people can and often do disagree with the leader’s decisions, but they must do so behind closed doors for fear of detention or death.
In extreme situations, people may gather in masses to oppose an authoritarian leader’s decision, even when the government prohibits doing so. A recent example is anti-war demonstrations and rallies in Russia opposing the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Psychology of A Modern Dictator
The four most common psychological signs of a dictator are:
- They have an inflated sense of self-importance, are exploitative, and are usually arrogant.
- They are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, and ideal love.
- Their utter disregard for others makes them truly believe they are above the law.
- They show arrogant behavior and rude attitudes and lack emotional empathy.
Psychology is one of the first fields to be shut down under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. They frequently charge psychologists with intellectualism, attempts to incite unrest, and subvert the state.
One of the disturbing manifestations of this ‘post-truth era’ trend is the contempt for experts and expertise.
The distorted psychology of a dictator results from a dysfunctional brain. They hold their own, often bizarre, version of reality and bulldoze people who oppose their ideas and vision.
Dictators get high on power, an insatiable drive that gets progressively worse, or malignant, with time. — James Fallon, Ph.D.
They move in ultra-secure vehicles and live within extremely secure parameters. The unreal world this creates is where they can believe anything and do whatever they want without fear of consequences.
Dictators often surround themselves with people who praise them for their actions and tell them what they want to hear.
This makes dictators feel like they’re invincible and that nothing they do is ever wrong.
They typically rule by force and oppression to wield total control over the people in their country.
How Democracies Can Turn Into Dictatorships
Any democracy is not a static system. It can change into a dictatorship with the help of some key factors.
A democracy is a system of government in which all citizens have equal rights. In it, people can take part in the making of decisions that affect their lives.
The United States is a democracy, and American citizens can vote and influence the government and its actions and decisions.
According to Wikipedia:
Full democracies are nations where civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are not only respected but also reinforced by a political culture conducive to the thriving of democratic principles. These nations have a valid system of governmental checks and balances, an independent judiciary whose decisions are enforced, governments that function adequately, and diverse and independent media. These nations have only limited problems in democratic functioning.
Autocracy is the opposite of democracy, and some democracies that are not truly democratic can gradually turn into dictatorships.
It starts when an autocratic leader, after getting elected, begins removing rights or freedoms from the people.
An authoritarian government can ultimately go on to assume unlimited power for the topmost leader, leaving little to no power to the people.
Autocracy is also a breeding ground for fascism.
Fascism is when a group of people in power tries to control every detail in society to make it perfect for them.
To prevent authoritarianism from happening, we need to make sure our democracy is not taken away from us.
The most common way that democracies become dictatorships is through military coups or revolutions.
This can happen when there are significant economic and social inequalities in society or when there is turmoil in government.
It can also take place if the government has been in power for too long and the population feels like they need to be replaced by new leadership.
What is the Democracy Index
The Democracy Index is a ranking of countries according to the degree of democracy they have. It is published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company to the Economist Group.
The Democracy Index looks at factors like freedom of expression, constraints on media and political opponents, the reality of democracy in decision-making, and the quality of governance.
There can be four types of regimes based on Democracy Index scores (maximum 10; minimum 0):
- Full democracy (8.01 to 10),
- Flawed democracy (6.01 to 8.00),
- Hybrid democracy (4.01 to 6.00), and
- Authoritarian regime (0 to 4.00).
The three countries that score the lowest are North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.
According to Democracy Index 2021, Ukraine is a hybrid democracy while Russia is an authoritarian regime.
In 2016, the United States was downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy.
In 2021, Spain and Chile were downgraded from full democracies to flawed democracies, while Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Tunisia were downgraded from flawed democracies to hybrid regimes.
In the same year, Haiti, Lebanon, and Kyrgyzstan were downgraded from hybrid regimes to authoritarian regimes.
How We Can Prevent Future Dictatorship
Dictators control their country with an iron fist. In a dictatorship, rather than the individual being ruled by the will of the people, the will of one individual rules the people.
The question of how to prevent future dictatorship is difficult. There are many factors that contribute to the rise of a dictatorship, and not all of them can be controlled.
Violence is not the only, or even the most effective, means to depose dictators. Nonviolence can and has been successfully used to replace autocracies with democracies.
There is one step that works best to help prevent authoritarianism from happening.
And that is building a strong social contract toward multi-ethnicity and diversity. If people have a strong sense of belonging as a unifying nation, then they will not want to vote for someone who is trying to undermine democracy.
However, that is a hope riddled with holes in today’s volatile world.
Unfortunately, democracy is slowly being taken away from us. More than half the world is now not living under full democracy.
Book: How To Stand Up To A Dictator by Maria Ressa
Maria Ressa, CEO and co-founder of Rappler, the Philippines’ top digital news site, and co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, authored the excellent book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.”
Ressa has been a persistent critic of the former president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and has tracked government-backed disinformation networks.
- Interestingly, in 2023, the president of the Philippines is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who escaped the country because of civil protests.
- When Ferdinand Marcos fled to Hawaii in 1986, he took with him 22 crates of cash valued at $717 million, 300 crates of assorted jewelry worth $4 million, 65 Seiko and Cartier watches, a 12 by 4 ft box full of real pearls, a 3 ft solid gold statue covered in diamonds and precious stones, $200,000 in gold bullion, nearly $1 million in Philippine pesos, and deposit slips to banks in the US, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands worth $124 million.
- Marcos Jr.’s mother Imelda Marcos was sentenced to a minimum of 42 years in prison in 2018, for creating private foundations to hide her unexplained wealth.
- More interestingly, Marcos Jr.’s running mate Sara Duterte, who won the vice presidency, is the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte.
The book serves as both a memoir and a manifesto, sharing Ressa’s experiences as a journalist and her insights on how to resist authoritarianism.
“How to Stand Up to a Dictator” calls out the dangers of weaponized social media by technology companies seeking profit, knowing well that lies and hatred spread quickly online. Ressa talks of the increasing influence of social media companies and how they facilitate the spread of disinformation, helping the rise of authoritarianism globally.
The book, introduced by Amal Clooney, is a call to action, urging people to fight for their rights, challenge power structures, and protect democracy from the erosion caused by disinformation and manipulation.
Some key takeaways from the book:
- Be informed and critically evaluate the information you consume, especially on social media.
- Support independent journalism and organizations that promote freedom of expression.
- Engage in conversations and collaborative efforts to address the challenges posed by authoritarianism and disinformation.
Ressa won the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2021 and was TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018.
Ressa continues to fight despite facing legal persecution, potential prison time, and fines. Looking close, her book is a story of courage in standing up against a dictator.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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