The Universal Allure of the Autocrat

Our society is obsessed with control. Many of us feel secure only if we have dominion over our surroundings, as well as the ability to subtly (or overtly) assimilate others into our way of thinking. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the desire for influence and ultimately domination is the slithering serpent undergirding all of our behavior. While democracy has been identified as the system most conducive to governing a diverse society, few of its proponents would in actuality surrender the prospect of more control. 

This inclination isn’t unique to a few murderous dictators, however. The prospect of defining our own morality is inherently intoxicating. It allows us to shed societal expectations and pursue our own vision of human flourishing. Our self-worth is affirmed in this process, allowing us to convince ourselves that we’ve reached the pinnacle of existence—intellectual validation. When taken to the extreme, this mindset can manifest itself in an obsessive power grab, which has been the catalyst for some of the most egregious displays of evil in human history—what we’ve witnessed most recently in Ukraine is the kind of suffering that unhindered power can bring about. The poisonous allure of the autocrat leaves no heart untouched.

This temptation transcends every demographic on earth, as well as borders and party lines. While the Democratic party is often seen as the party of increased government control, authoritarian regimes with complete autonomy have often been described as “far-right”, mostly in relation to their social policies. Whether we admit it or not, those of us on both the right and left would be more inclined to support an increase in the scope of government if it proliferated our views. The fact remains that dictators have risen to prominence through the extremes of both ideologies, often reaching similar results in the process. Soviet communism and the rise of the likes of Lenin and Stalin came into being through an appeal to the downtrodden laborer and slave of the exploitative capitalist system—both distinctly leftist ideas. 

In contrast, Adolf Hitler, who vehemently opposed Soviet communism, ultimately implemented a fascist regime that represents the ultranationalistic extreme of Republicanism. However, the hallmark feature of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany remained one thing—control. While the proclaimed ideologies and rhetoric undergirding these regimes may have differed significantly, in some respects the results are eerily similar. Simply put, autocracy emerges when progress becomes unilateral and control becomes centralized. Even the United States, which has always proclaimed its allegiance to the ideals of freedom and democracy, has not always resisted this temptation. It has both covertly and overtly supported authoritarian regimes during the Cold War in an attempt to forcibly squash communism abroad. Even in a democratic system, politicians throughout American history have harnessed the power of populism to sway public opinion and distort morality.

I recently watched a thought-provoking German political satire titled Look Who’s Back, which follows the exploits of Hitler had he suddenly awakened in the 21st century shortly before his death. In the film, Hitler travels across modern-day Germany seeking to regain his lost prestige, while everyday citizens simply assume he is an actor, lavishing him with attention and providing a platform that eventually allows him to reassert his influence. Once again harnessing the power of populism, Hitler hijacks the dissent of the German people with their government, promising salvation just as he did 80 years earlier. However, the movie’s protagonist eventually realizes that the man he has been so enamored with is in fact the real Hitler, and moves quickly to halt his ascendancy. In a dramatic final confrontation, Hitler exposits the primary message of the film and reminds the audience of a sobering fact—he was elected in 1932 by the will of the German people. When the protagonist accuses him of being a monster, Hitler responds with a haunting sentiment:

“Am I? Then you must also condemn those who elected this monster. Were they all monsters? They were just ordinary people who elected an extraordinary man, entrusting the fate of their nation to him.”

“Have you ever asked yourself why people follow me? Because at their core, they are just like me. They have the same values. You can’t get rid of me. I am a part of you—a part of all of you.”

Many of us would initially recoil in horror that we might in any capacity resemble such a murderous embodiment of evil, but more rigorous introspection likely reveals otherwise. Specifically, this is the nagging urge to marginalize those we may disagree with, to actively seek the reduction of our political opposition, and to stubbornly exist in a state of intellectual arrogance. These impulses may be small at first, but the case of Hitler and countless other dictators throughout history remind us that these temptations, when left unconstrained, ultimately lead to destruction. Needless to say, the implications of the film’s commentary are terrifying,  reminding us that our human tendencies never truly change, despite how much we believe otherwise. The enabling pillars of autocracy are embedded within each and every one of us.

Unchecked power will remain a danger for as long as humanity exists as a community of imperfect beings, accentuating the importance of a divinely-defined, objective morality. When the definition of human flourishing is left exclusively to us, it inevitably becomes distorted and tainted. However, when Christ comes again, we’ll be at the mercy of a divine autocrat who isn’t callous or self-interested. Rather, He has nothing but our flourishing and salvation in mind, defined by His own perfect, infallible decrees—one that can be relied on with complete confidence and complete faith. In the end, the allure of the autocrat has no power over eternity.

“It would be folly to argue that the people cannot make political mistakes. They can and do make grave mistakes. They know it, they pay the penalty, but compared with the mistakes which have been made by every kind of autocracy they are unimportant.”

– Calvin Coolidge

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

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