The Eternal Dictator

by Kevin D. Williamson
The ruthless exercise of power by strongmen and generalissimos is the natural state of human affairs.

I’m 41 years old, which doesn’t feel that old to me (most days), but history is short. With the exception of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the world as I have known it has been remarkably free and prosperous, and it is getting more free and more prosperous. But it is also a fact that, within my lifetime, there have been dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Poland, India, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, and half of Germany — and lots of other places, too, to be sure, but you sort of expect them in Cameroon and Russia. If I were only a few years older, I could add France to that list. (You know how you can tell that Charles de Gaulle was a pretty good dictator? He’s almost never described as a “dictator.”) There have been three attempted coups d’état in Spain during my life. Take the span of my father’s life and you’ll find dictatorships and coups and generalissimos rampant in practically every country, even the nice ones, like Norway.

That democratic self-governance is a historical anomaly is easy to forget for those of us in the Anglosphere — we haven’t really endured a dictator since Oliver Cromwell. The United States came close, first under Woodrow Wilson and then during the very long presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Both men were surrounded by advisers who admired various aspects of authoritarian models then fashionable in Europe. Rexford Tugwell, a key figure in Roosevelt’s so-called brain trust, was particularly keen on the Italian fascist model, which he described as “the cleanest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen.” And the means by which that social hygiene was maintained? “It makes me envious,” he said. That envy will always be with us, which is one of the reasons why progressives work so diligently to undermine the separation of powers, aggrandize the machinery of the state, and stifle criticism of the state. We’ll always have our Hendrik Hertzbergs — but who could say the words “Canadian dictatorship” without laughing a little? As Tom Wolfe put it, “The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Why is that? Is there something magical about Albion’s seed — Protestantism? the English language itself? the combination of the two in the King James Bible? — that inoculates the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand against the European intellectual disease? That disease mutates every 20 years, but the primordial strain of the virus is always identifiable: more power, centralized power, consolidated power. If you were observing Earth from space, or from Rome during the reign of Hadrian, you would not be likely to think of England as the planet’s great mover and shaker; it is just a little island sneered at by Europe’s great men as “a nation of shopkeepers.” But culture and history are sensitive to initial conditions, and somewhere between the drafting of the Magna Carta and the invention of the first power loom, a British butterfly flapped its wings in the right way at the right moment, and the deeply intertwined phenomena of the Industrial Revolution and the liberty revolution emerged together, creating an entirely new kind of civilization, one that showed the world that it is indeed a glorious thing to be a nation of shopkeepers. Walk through modern-day London, or drive through Houston, and see how their shopkeepers are keeping themselves — most of them won’t even bother to sneer at the memory of Napoleon and his grubby little wars.

But freedom, self-rule, and prosperity are extraordinarily delicate things. The natural state of the human animal is not security and plenty, but terror and privation. When the Romans overthrew Tarquin, they swore they’d never have another king. Soon enough, they had an emperor, a word deriving from the Latin imperator, which, some of my conservative friends would do well to remember, means “commander-in-chief.”

We Americans venerate our Constitution as the English venerate their Magna Carta (which is our Magna Carta, too), but it isn’t our laws or our documents that keep us free. The United States and the United Kingdom have very different forms of government, and there are many contradictory and incompatible laws, institutions, health-care arrangements, etc., across the countries of the Anglosphere. What keeps us free is our civilization and our culture, and our tenacity in defending the best aspects of them.

As John Fund points out, 13 times since 2012 the Supreme Court has felt itself obliged to unanimously stop Barack Obama from doing violence to the Constitution and the law in the service of aggrandizing his own power. The president’s most recent defeat, in the matter of his attempting to make recess appointments when the Senate is not in recess, was a naked power grab, ugly and vicious enough that even Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama named to the Court, both felt obliged by duty to blow the whistle on his transgression. But even the mighty Supreme Court can be overcome: When the Court decided that the First Amendment means what the First Amendment says, Senate Democrats under the leadership of Harry Reid introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal the First Amendment. The president himself has made it clear that when it comes to appointing justices to the Court, a commitment to his political agenda — he calls that “empathy” — trumps any commitment to the Constitution. The Constitution can be defaced, and it can be perverted. All it takes is a willing hand. You do not want to bet the future of our civilization on the mood swings of Anthony Kennedy.

When I was visiting Madrid a few years back, I sat drinking coffee on one of that city’s beautiful public squares and watching the Spanish go about their business — walking to work, shopping, flirting, reading newspapers, enjoying the sun — and I wondered: How is it that these people — these civilized, elegant heirs to Cervantes, Velázquez, and Ignatius of Loyola — manage to inflict upon themselves a cartoonish dictator such as Francisco Franco? (The answer, of course, is: by narrowly avoiding inflicting on themselves a Russian dictator rather than a Spanish one.) I am not much of a multiculturalist; there are some societies that one expects to be governed under roughly the same principles around which a baboon troop or a cackle of hyenas is organized. But the Greeks? The Germans? The Italians? The Norwegians, for Pete’s sake? If it can happen to them — and it has — it can happen to anybody.

The worrisome lesson of history is that there is no shortage of strongmen and generalissimos, and their holding power and exercising it ruthlessly is the natural state of human affairs. Nobody has to do anything to make that happen; it’s making that not happen that requires our attention.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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