How to be a Dictator – 21st Century Edition

The early 21st century has seen a resurgence in dictatorships and authoritarian governments throughout the world, including regions like Europe previously thought to now be stable democracies. However, models like the Soviet-inspired communist state or “traditional” dictatorships are outdated and will not survive through the 21st century. Instead, a new form of authoritarian regime is thriving – and has led to the significant decrease in global freedom indicators through the past decade.

The aim of this article, although written in the style of an instructional manual, is in no way to encourage authoritarian practices. Rather, this article is meant to give an insight into the practices used by those trying to seize power for themselves. For a well-fortified democracy, it is crucial citizens understand the methods used by those trying to take the people’s liberties and rights, and ultimately transform their country into a dictatorship.

So, without any further ado, here it is:

The instructional guide: How to be a Modern Dictator (in 5 easy steps)

 

  1. Control (almost) Everything

Your ultimate goal to have and maintain power should be to have control, directly or indirectly, not only over the executive and legislative, but also the media, judiciary, the civil society, all the important parts of the economy, and the security forces. Controlling the above will give you sweeping powers and the best position to maintain power for at least a good while.

Make sure that, though you control everything in one way or another, you don’t fall into the trap of following the outdated Soviet model. You don’t need a specific ideology such as a promise of a better world. Also, don’t seek to have full control over people’s lives, movements and thoughts. Let the media be diverse and entertaining (though not subversive to your power – more on that later). The civil society should be allowed to have a largely independent existence (again, as long as it doesn’t threaten your rule), people should largely be able to travel freely, and the private economy should be permitted to thrive.

Rewriting history is alright. Authoritarian leaders of the 21st century use this tool routinely, although less obviously than was done in the previous century. An example of this is Putin’s effort of a “reassessment of Stalin’s historical role”. Russia maintains close control over what is printed in the history books and taught to children throughout the country.

Change the term limits, but try to not make it too obvious. Though the idea of a leader on lifetime fell out of favor with most people, with time and skill you can bring back legitimacy to the concept. Some countries, such as Turkmenistan, have proven that the concept of a leader who remains in the position until his death still has the potential to exist. Though you may find resistance when you try to de-jure change your term to last until you die, it may be a lot simpler to make this the de-facto case.

Keep in mind that disinformation and propaganda are your friends. Even if some unfavorable informations manage to seep in from the outside world, misinformation will help you to either distract the people off it, or “disprove” it with what has so fittingly been described as “alternative facts”.  Hardcore propaganda works, at least to a certain extent, both inside and outside of your country. Though it is blatantly obvious to spot, it will generally shift the opinion of the general public in the direction that you want it to shift, and it will contribute to the demoralization of your enemies.

As you may have figured, controlling the media is of high importance. Most mainstream media that you don’t have control over through “friends” will usually chose to follow the official line rather than go out of business if you put some pressure on them. A very effective way of doing so is by putting financial stress either directly on the media outlet or on private stakeholders. Rather than losing stakeholders, which are crucial to its existence, the media company will usually take on a stance that is more favorable to you.

Make sure to block out other opinions coming from outside the country. You don’t want your power to be subverted by any free press that you can’t directly control because it isn’t inside your country. On the other hand, make sure that your own opinion gets broadcast as much as possible all over the world. More on that later, though.

Going hand-in-hand with the control over the media, both internal and coming into the country, is maintaining control over the internet. If you have the monetary and personnel resources, set up a system like China’s Great Firewall for maximum security. Otherwise, you can use low-budget options like putting pressure on online portals publishing “dangerous” material and jailing some critical bloggers. Also make sure to pass laws forcing websites to self-censor if they want to continue to operate (legally).

There may be some sensitive topics that you don’t want people reporting on. As you should maintain tight control over what news reaches the people, you can bend the stories to a certain extent and might even find a benefit in the end. Take an example: when the doping scandal of Russian olympic athletes was uncovered, state-owned news made it clear to their readers that every problem was due to US plots and maneuvers. You can also try to cut out reporting on sensitive issues altogether; It is forbidden to publish photographic material of the back of the head of Aleksandr Lukshenko, Belarus’ president.

Truth isn’t of importance. If anything, it’s feelings that matter. This goes both for what you personally say in speeches, and what the media publishes. You can very much craft your own truth, and if it is spread enough, it will ultimately replace the “outdated” truth.

 

  1. Network

Look at what other authoritarian regimes have done well, and copy and borrow ideas. Learn from Russia’s spread of propaganda around the world, China’s “Great Firewall”, Venezuela’s illusion of democracy, Hungary’s disregard of international conventions, and Turkmenistan’s life-long presidency and know to incorporate all of these into your regime.

Form connections to parties in democracies that are willing to collaborate with authoritarian nations. Many right-wing parties in Europe, such as the French “National Front” or the Austrian “Freedom Party” show admiration for Russia and its president Vladimir Putin.

Make sure to also form loose connections with other authoritarian nations in organizations such as the United Nations to oppose “western” nations’ urges for democratisation. It will also give you a way to share knowledge on how to stay in power between your countries.

Keep in close contact with powerful friends. If you can’t have big media outlets or important firms under the direct control of the state, make sure that they are being led by oligarchs that happen to be your close friends. Russia, where the line between state-owned companies and those controlled by oligarchs is not clearly defined,  is a prime example of this method. It is of high importance that you always control who controls the media.

 

  1. International Reach

Try to keep neighbouring nations from becoming too democratic, as this may provide your own citizens with stupid ideas of overthrowing your rule. This especially applies if said neighbouring country used is authoritarian and is at risk of experiencing a revolution.

Your view on any revolution in a dictatorship is that if one falls, they all go. Even if it is a nation as undesirable and internationally condemned as Syria, make sure you support them in their fight against the rebels in one way or another.

Despite you blocking out other points of view from entering your country, make sure that your ideas get propagated globally. Especially democracies with their freedom of speech are very susceptible to this kind of propaganda. Russia is a great example of this art, having poured a lot of money into RT and Sputnik, which are now starting to become household names throughout western Europe and the rest of the world. China is also trying to spread its ideas, in part through state-owned media like CCTV, but focusses more on a method known as “soft power”. In the past years, China has massively invested in infrastructure programs throughout lesser economically developed nations especially in Africa and Latin America, effectively spreading their influence and direct power over the whole world.

 

  1. Legitimization

If you’re only in the process of transforming your country into an authoritarian state, make sure that you and your party have the majority. If you won’t get this through free and fair elections, you can rig them to have results that are more to your liking. Once you have the majority, keep reminding everyone that you do so – it is a great way to legitimize all your actions; after all, the majority of your people agree with you, right? It goes without saying that a majority should be an absolute majority. This will also help you to rig future elections to be even more in your favor with even larger percentages “voting” for you, which will help you to even better legitimize your rule.

Make sure to label your system either as “revised democracy” or “superior to democracy”. China likes doing this, pointing out the chaotic and inefficient nature of what they call “street politics” in western countries like the US (and is otherwise known as democracy), while highlighting how much simpler, quicker, more efficient and effective the “Chinese model” is.

Now that you have the majority, make sure that you marginalize the opposition. Make it close to impossible for them to work, effectively kicking those out of parliament that try to be any real opposition. What remains is a “pseudo-opposition”, parties of the opposition that have given up all hope in actually opposing, but want to remain in parliament, and hence are basically under your control. This will provide you with a “staged democracy”, which is highly beneficial for your legitimization.

 

  1. Oppression

The last thing you want to have happen once you’ve taken over power is some pesky citizens think that they could overthrow your rule with a revolution or anything of the sorts.

Oppression in the 21st century should rarely be blatantly obvious though, and much rather be very subtle and difficult to point out. This will make it difficult for NGOs and other government to point out specifically what you are doing wrong, delegitimizing sanctions, etc. that they may want to impose on you. It will also help you defend your actions towards your own citizens, while still maintaining full control.

However, don’t be afraid of international clapback when you do “go big”. As long as you don’t overdo it, you can invade a neighboring peninsula (like Russia), assassinate oppositionals (again like Russia), get people to read forced “confessions” (a practice North Korea particularly seems to like), or make your wife “first vice president” (ahem – Azerbaijan – ahem). The pain threshold of the population is high enough that actions like this won’t cause a revolution, and keep in mind that you can always legitimize yourself with the methods previously established.

Instead of just hunting every single person in the population who may not fully agree with your regime down, use well-hidden, selective and limited violence against critical journalists, dissidents and officials who have fallen from favor.

Also make sure to suppress NGOs – but only those that have political targets, not those that work on humanitarian efforts.

Vaguely worded laws will help you prosecute your enemies in courts that – if you prepared everything correctly – will surely provide a verdict that is favorable to you. Vague laws are especially useful against NGOs, and you can use them to control monetary flow and the extent to which the NGOs can act.

It is important that you keep the civil society oppressed so that it can’t form a resistance. A very powerful tool for that is censorship – a practice that countries like China, Turkmenistan and the DPRK have mastered. Internet censorship is absolutely crucial. Hopefully, you have the monetary resources to put in place a system like the “Great Firewall of China”, but if not you can resort to simply putting pressure on unfavorable online portals, jailing critical journalists and passing laws forcing sites to self-censor or face consequences. You can also try to nationalize the telecom company and restrict access to certain sites that way. You should also have occasional arbitrary arrests and convictions on trumped-up criminal charges – and make sure that you make an example of those you’ve imprisoned to keep the others intimidated.

Protest should be criminalized, although probably not officially. Do this by arresting protest organizers and some of the demonstrants and convicting them of charges like “disrupting public order”, or “gathering in public without a permit”. If you want, you can trump up the charges and claim some of the demonstrants assaulted police officers or possessed weapons. For more inspiration, look towards Russia and Belarus.

If you can’t entirely shut down media that isn’t under your control, at least marginalize them. Make working in your country hell for them, by cutting monetary resources, raiding headquarters, arresting journalists, much like Turkey has been doing since the coup attempt in July 2016. Your target should be to either harass them so much that the organization ceases existing or has to operate out of a neighboring country.

 

Being an authoritarian leader in the 21st century brings entirely new challenges compared to the 20th century. What stayed the same is the aim: to maintain as much power over the country with one person / party for – well, for as long as possible. To do so, you must maintain tight control over the entire executive, legislative and judicative, while leaving the citizens comparatively much freedom but not tolerating dissent or any alternate points of view.

Reports of Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, the Human Rights Watch and others show that overall, the freedom of the world has declined in the past few years after an initial upwards trend in the early 2000s. It is a worrying trend, and it is continuing in the most recent reports. Knowing the methods that authoritarian leaders in today’s world apply to tighten their grip on power will help citizens all around the world notice anti-democratic trends and give them the ability to react to defend their freedom. It should be a unified effort to preserve the freedom that countries have fought for thousands of years against being destroyed by the dictatorial ambitions of individuals.

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