to April 04 update on hypocracy and delusion

Thoughts on Ruthless Political Leadership and Crisis

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2002

During 2002 George W. Bush was facing off against Saddam Hussien. In the process a lot of "dirt" about Saddam Hussien was given media air play in the US. The dirt included stories about frequent arbitrary imprisonment and murders, secret police and death squads, and lots of other terror-inducing activities on the part of the Iraqi leadership. In sum, the US media portrays Iraqi leadership as acting like a bunch of Hollywood gangsters, and portrays them as having been doing this for years.

The question that came to my mind as I digested this was: why does the Iraqi community permit this kind of leadership? The Middle East has long experience with governments; the Iraqis pride themselves on being a civilized people, yet they let a gangster such as Saddam Hussien run their country. Why?

This question presumes that the Iraqi community could change it's choice of leadership on fairly short notice (within a couple of years). If that presumption is correct, Saddam Hussien's regime is still actively supported by important members of the Iraqi community, and is "not as bad as the alternatives" from the standpoint of that community.

This question of why do the Iraqis tolerate a gangster like Saddam Hussien is the same question as: Why did the Russians permit Stalin to rule, the Chinese permit Mao to rule, the Serbs permit Melosivich to rule, the North Koreans permit Kim Il-sung to rule, and why countless other communities have permitted countless other ruthless leaders to rule. These are leaders, who, after gaining power, declare large segments of their population criminal and haul them off to jail, or worse.

A friend of mine and fellow reflector on "weighty matters" such as these, Richard Block, offered this insight into this phenomenon of ruthless leadership. His comment was, "The only problem a ruthless leader can get into, is not being ruthless enough."

Looking at how these ruthless governments evolve with time, this insight is hard to dispute, but I was not satisfied with his insight... it was so... ruthless! So I gave this phenomenon some more thought.

Basic Definitions and Presumptions

First, a definition of a ruthless leader:

A ruthless leader is one who enacts policies based neither on law, tradition or consensus. When he or she leads, he or she is "stepping on toes" of other members of the community in a serious way. The leader gets away with this kind of leadership because he or she is actively supported by an influential minority who believe that this kind of leadership is necessary given current circumstances, and passively supported by a majority of the populace who either also think this is the right way, or feel they can't support a better way. A little further on I will talk about specific examples of ruthless leadership.

Second, some basic presumptions about leadership that influence my thinking:

First, leaders are leaders of their people. They are leading as people expect them to lead, and they are enacting policies that people expect them to enact. Even the most seemly arbitrary and powerful ruler is acting within limits prescribed by his important followers, and within the mores of the community he leads. Important segments of the community support ruthless leaders in their ruthlessness. It is likely that early in their regime the leader's support is more widely spread, but even late in their reign, important (but historically nameless) community members still support the leader. (side note: A leader cannot ignore his important followers, but he can change them. This is what purging and power shuffling are all about.)

Second, these ruthless leaders are selected by the community at the time of their rise to power as the best choice for the community. There are always other aspirants for the leading position, but these others are either not chosen, or cast aside quickly after being chosen. This casting aside process is most obvious during a "revolution". Moderates are usually the first to take power when the old regime is toppled, but they themselves are then toppled by more extreme, and ruthless, faction leaders as the revolution evolves.

Third, not all leaders are ruthless. There are other leadership styles, such as consensus, divine right, bureaucratic and charismatic that don't involve having a leader act like a gangster. When a community chooses a ruthless leader, it is an active choice on the part of the community.

Some examples of ruthless leaders

In this essay I will speak about leaders of World War II. I do so because they are numerous and well characterized. If I was to talk about ruthless leaders of, say, Rwanda, I wouldn't know much about who I was talking about, and neither would the average reader of this essay.

The leaders of World War Two.

Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-sheck (Jiang Jeishi), Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong)... There is a long list of famous leaders in the world war two period. And... most of them were ruthless.

These are the "monotonous" ruthless leaders because they are all infamous for the same thing: killing lots of people. If you want to be labeled ruthless, killing lots of people is the surest way to gain the label. But there are other ways to be ruthless, too.

Some examples of non-ruthless leaders

Non-ruthless leaders tend to be rather colorless compared to ruthless leaders, so they aren't as memorable, but here are some to consider:

What do the ruthless leaders have in common? The role of Crisis

Ruthless leaders go hand-in-hand with Crisis. When a crisis comes, the community gets worried. If the crisis is solved quickly, then people quickly stop worrying and get on about their business, and the community's conventional government thrives. If the crisis lingers, people get frustrated as well as worried, and they begin casting about for less conventional solutions to the crisis.

The potential leaders who benefit most from a sustained crisis are the "crackpots" -- those who have long aspired to lead, but wanted to lead the community using unconventional policies and philosophies. Some of those crackpots will be espousing ruthless policies. As a crisis lingers and deepens, those who espouse concepts that say, "we have to crack some heads to get through this." get paid more respect and attention than during "business as usual" times.

If the crisis is bad enough and endures long enough, a ruthless leader will emerge. This person will be given a chance to lead because: they promise to solve the crisis; more conventional ways of solving the crisis seem to have failed; and aspiring leaders with even more radical ideas are clamoring for their chance to solve the crisis -- and these more radical leaders with more radical ideas are seen as more dangerous by the current leadership decision makers.

Once in power, one difference between the ruthless leader and other kinds of leaders comes to fore: the ruthless leader will immediately begin suppressing his or her rivals to leadership, and he or she will do it effectively. If he or she doesn't do so effectively, he or she will be replaced quickly. If the crisis is over, he or she will be replaced by conventional leadership. If the crisis is not over, he or she will be replaced by an even more ruthless leader who is effective at suppressing rivals.

Another characteristic of ruthless leaders, particularly infamous ones, is that they tend to lie a lot -- even for politicians. They do so to justify their actions, and to perpetuate a crisis atmosphere.

The pathologic ruthless leader: who perpetuates the crisis

Once a ruthless leader takes power, he or she will make some attempt to resolve the crisis that brought them into power, but he or she will attempt a whole lot more as well. One of the things a smart, ruthless leader realizes is that his or her "mandate" comes from the existence of the crisis. Should he or she actually succeed in solving the crisis, he or she will be asked to step down and let conventional government forms come back to power. A pathologic ruthless leader doesn't relish this prospect, so this kind of ruthless leader actively seeks more crisis to sustain his or her mandate.

The most enduring and infamous ruthless leaders are those who convince their community that the root of the crisis is betrayal by some subset of the community. They also convince their community that these "internal enemies" have secret, powerful, external friends as well, and that the current obvious crisis is just a small part of a much larger hidden crisis that must also be combated vigorously.

If the community buys into this "large, subtle crisis" concept, they have given the leader a blank check; Richard's insight into ruthless leadership kicks in with full force, and a vicious cycle of escalating, extreme behavior begins. The ruthless leader begins the reign of terror that will be his or her hallmark in history.

Update: This 16 Feb 13 Economist article, The dread of the other
The leading role played by anti-Americanism in today’s Russia, describes how Putin is using Us versus Them thinking to sustain crisis thinking about America in Russia. He's doing this to maintain his power base in Russia.

Establishing a stable ruthless leader

Ruthless leaders always generate opposition -- they are stepping on toes. The ruthless leader who wishes to sustain him or herself will muzzle this dissent, and he or she will force dissenters out of the community. One good symptom of a ruthless leader who is bent on sustaining his or her rule is a growing and thriving "exile community" of dissenters.

The successful ruthless leader responds to the rising dissent by implementing a "reign of terror" internally. He or she also shows off this dissent as evidence of the conspiracy he or she is fighting, and smears the exiled dissidents as evidence of the external support the conspiracy is getting. The reign of terror serves two basic needs: it suppresses the opposition voices, and it makes the crisis even more real to community members. This, perversely, makes the average community member even more willing to support the leader -- the community thinks, "The leader has shown us all this betrayal. We can see that there clearly is a crisis."

Another benefit of disenfranchising of community members is lowering taxes to the rest of the community. A ruthless leader will confiscate the wealth of those disenfranchised and use this wealth to pay for the government. A government which can produce economic miracles without raising taxes always gains community respect.

Once the reign of terror is well established and institutionalized, there seem to be only two ways of ending the leader's rule: the leader's death, or a massive external intervention.

Succession to the ruthless leader

The leaders following the leaders of WWII


The successor to a ruthless leader is rarely another ruthless leader -- even when one is available. For example, Stalin's immediate successor was his former Head of Security, who wanted to be as ruthless as Stalin and had the Communist security apparatus at his disposal to sustain the crisis, but he was short-lived in that position. The stable successor was Kruschev, a much more moderate leader.

What seems to happen is the community grows tired of the ruthless leader's reign of terror. And, late in the reign of terror, the important followers see that the crisis is now a pseudo-crisis -- one that is being fabricated by the ruthless leader so he or she can stay in power. They also see that they are not safe in this community, one day the terror will turn on them. Mao's Cultural Revolution is one of the best described examples of a psuedo-crisis. If the successor to a ruthless leader attempts to be a ruthless leader using this same technique of thriving on crisis, the community rejects the successor. They will opt, instead, for a leader who is more conventional for that community.

Take Churchill, for example. He lead his country to victory in WWII, and was immediately voted out of office in the election that was called shortly after VE Day. Why? Because, while the British people were exceedingly appreciative of what he had accomplished during the war crisis, they didn't think his style was at all appropriate once the crisis was resolved. Churchill had not attempted to set himself up as an enduring leader, so he had not muzzled his opposition, and the end of the war clearly marked the end of the crisis, so he was removed.

Likewise Truman was not expected to win in the first postwar election in the US -- the US crisis was all over, too. But during his four years in office as fill-in for Roosevelt, he proved to be such a popular conventional leader that he dispelled enough of the nation's distaste with Roosevelt Ruthlessness to win on his own merits.

On the other hand, Stalin handled the postwar adjustment by keeping crisis fresh in the minds of the Soviet people. He started purging the military again as soon as the fighting stopped, and he fomented crises in the neighboring Central European countries and Korea, which demonstrated to Soviet people the need for continued vigilance.

The crisis of China's underdevelopment was still full in the face of the Chinese community when Mao finally drove Chiang off the mainland. External threat had loomed over China since the Opium War of 1840, but Mao kept it fresh by participating in the Korean War, and Chiang helped by threatening to come back to the mainland from Taiwan, supported by his "American Imperialist lackeys." Mao invoked crisis several times during his reign -- the Thousand Flowers, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. His first successors, the Gang of Four, tried to do the same, but they were quickly vilified by the post-Mao leadership decision makers, and his stable successors, such as Deng Xiaoping (Deng Shiao-ping), were much quieter rulers. An example of this quieter rule is that Tienamin Square-like crackdowns on protesters brought about no significant outrage in the Mao era, but in the post-Mao era they are considered quite distasteful.

The exception to the no-ruthless-successor rule seems to be Kim Jong-il succeeding Kim IL-sung in North Korea. But there is a mitigating circumstance in the Kim-Kim succession: from the point of view of the North Koreans, the crisis that brought Kim Il-song to power has not ended. Kim IL-sung came to power after a forty year occupation of Korea by Japan. During those forty years the Japanese had tried very hard to convince the Korean people that underneath their Korean facade they were really Japanese. When he died in 1994 the North Koreans still felt they were surrounded by dangerously aggressive enemies, and their economic livelihood was still in great peril.

The hazard of ruthless leadership

The hazard of allowing a ruthless leader to stay in power is that the leader will continually create crises. The ruler must be seen as combating a severe crisis to justify himself or herself to the community because once the crisis ends, the community will ask the ruthless leader to step down, and let a traditional governing style take over.

Also, the leader is usually living a lie. As mentioned earlier, ruthless leaders tend to lie more, and bigger, than their non-ruthless counterparts. When they step down these lies will be exposed, and the exposed lies will be hard on the leader's standing, and probably his or her survival in the community.

As a result of these conditions, it's very easy and tempting for a ruthless leader to take his followers down the path of adventurism -- leading the community to attempt bigger and riskier projects.

But when one of these adventurist projects fails, the whole structure can come down like a house of cards. Hitler was an adventurist, and Stalin picked up most of the pieces when the Thousand Year Reich came tumbling down. Stalin was also an adventurist, but until the end of WWII Hitler provided all the adventure that Stalin needed.

(Note: not all ruthless leaders are adventurist, and some will survive after they are out of power. The South Korean generals who ruled between the Korean War (50's) and Kim Young-sam's ascendancy (90's) were ruthless. But they were not particularly adventurist, and most survive as members of the Korean community to this day -- which is controversial for the Koreans. Also Chile's Pinocet survived after he retired -- which is controversial for the Chileans.)

The relation between hypocrisy and delusion in ruthless leadership

When I talk about this issue with my brother, he makes the comment, "Ruthless leaders such as Hitler and Stalin are lying hypocrites."

I thought about this... hard. When I think about my brother's statement, I also think about the Battle of Berlin at the end of World War II. This battle lasted for about ten days, and killed about a half million German and Russian soldiers -- it was a big bloodfest. But... the odd part about this battle is that it didn't have to be fought! It was fought only because both Hitler and Stalin wanted to fight it.

Why do I say this? First, the Russians, English and Americans had already split Germany when Berlin was encircled by Russian troops. This meant that the Germans weren't going to win the war, and they weren't going to be able to fight more than a few weeks, no matter what happened in Berlin. It also meant that there were no German troops anywhere near Berlin that could break the encirclement. So, Hitler can't win, and that is clear to the Germans. If Hitler was rational, he would have surrendered Berlin.

Second, it is only Russian troops surrounding Berlin -- the American and English armies are miles away stopped, by prior agreement, at the Elbe River. There is no risk to Stalin that the Americans are going to "steal a march" on the Russians, and occupy Berlin, and, again, there are no German troops in a position to break the encirclement. So, Stalin can wait, and if he's rational, he will wait.

Stalin chooses not to wait; he chooses to attack vigorously. Hitler and his leadership chose not to surrender; they choose to defend vigorously. The result is a hugely bloodthirsty, but militarily meaningless, battle.

The moral: These are not the choices of hypocrites. These people are delusional! On both sides!

Yet, my brother points out, these leaders and their close confidants talk openly about their hypocrisy in their early writings.

So, my theory of the relation between hypocrisy and delusion is this: Ruthless leaders start as hypocrites. Early in their rises to power they make statements that are based purely on what will gain them tactical advantage in winning a position of power. But, hypocrisy is an uncomfortable state of mind. The mind doesn't like "living a lie", even in a hypocrite. So, the mind will adapt by gradually becoming delusional instead -- delusion is a comfortable state of mind.

A recent, minor example of this moving from hypocrisy into delusion comes from George W. Bush and the September 11 events. According to a Wall Street Journal article that came out in the spring of 2004 (part of their reporting on the 9-11 Committee work) "President Bush likes to recount that on the morning of September 11, while he was waiting to make an address to a class of school children, he was watching TV and saw the first plane crash into the WTC. He thought [he relates] 'That's one terrible pilot!' It was only after he got news of the second plane that he thought, 'America is under attack!'

"The problem with this memory is that no pictures of the first plane crashing into the WTC showed up on TV until late in the afternoon, after the broadcasters got a hold of amateur video footage. "

I believe that by 2004 Bush believed his story to be true. I believe that the first few times he told it, he was being hypocritical. And this is the relation between hypocrisy and delusion in ruthless leaders -- they will fabricate their "big lies" as hypocrites, but their minds will steadily transform from hypocritical to delusional as their big lies seem to be believed.

And, this phenomenon may be the source of the proverb, "Power corrupts."

Another writer about ruthless leadership

As I write this, I think of another great tale about ruthless leadership: George Orwell's book "1984." George Orwell was castigating totalitarianism in that book, but the atmosphere he describes is actually a bit more general than just totalitarianism. What he is describing is the world of a mature ruthless leader of any persuasion.

In that book, as in real life, the reign of terror of a mature ruthless leader looks quite hopeless and unassailable. But, somehow, the system vitally depends on the leader himself or herself. When the leader is gone, the harsh rule will fade like winter into spring... provided... the community leaders at the time of the leader's death feel the crisis is over. This tight linkage between a reign of terror and a specific ruthless leader was something Orwell chose not to explore in his book. In his book the reign of terror is tightly linked to The Party (the leader's influential followers), rather than The Leader, although in his book The Leader is still portrayed as a vitally important symbol in maintaining the reign of terror.

Orwell and I both agree, in effect, that a reign of terror is tightly tied to a specific leader. But he worried that modern technology would allow community leaders to sustain a reign of terror without tight linkage to a specific, real, leader. On that we disagree.

How does Saddam fit in this picture?


The Iraqis have long experience with government, but they also have long experience with crisis. The Iraqi state was carved from the Ottoman Empire that disintegrated in 1918, at the end of World War One. The Fertile Crescent area that is the heart of Iraq is populated by many different kinds of peoples with different cultural backgrounds: Iraqis, Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Jews and others. In this way, it is like the Balkan Peninsula, another chronic crisis area. Iraq is a new state, and none of the groups living there have any great loyalty to this new creation -- these groups are all watching to see who will run this new entity, and if this new nation that is created will be worth staying a part of. Iraq could easily "Balkanize", and become many smaller states, and those small states could be swallowed up by powerful neighbors, much as Lebanon has been swallowed up by Syria. Living with this kind of uncertainty is a crisis.

Further, the people of all the Middle East remember acutely that three hundred years earlier, they, not Western Europe, were the center of civilization. They all face the crisis of answering how did they lose ground relative to The West, and how do they get it back again?

Saddam came to power as Iraq's influential community leaders searched for someone to save Iraq and someone who could restore the Middle East's former standing vis a vis The West. He was brought in as a modernizer, and someone would "kick ass and take names" while he got Iraq, and the Middle East, straightened out. What the Iraqi community got instead was a pathologic ruthless leader who has been a model totalitarianist. In Saddam's case oil, rather than disenfranchising a community, has been the major way of keeping the cost of government low.

What kind of ruler will succeed Saddam? It will depend on how the Iraqi influential followers feel about the state of the Crisis as his regime ends. If the followers feel the crisis is finished (or not resolvable by ruthless techniques), then the next ruler (stable ruler, that is) will be some kind of moderate. If the followers still feel seriously threatened, then they will follow the North Korean model, and install "son-of-Saddam", and let the ruthlessness continue. Son-of-Saddam is the less common alternative, but it's not clear that Saddam's leadership has made any change in the crises mix that brought him to power in the first place. If the followers feel that only ruthlessness is holding the nation together, then they will stick with ruthlessness as the proper policy.

In conclusion

A ruthless ruler is a creation of the community he or she is ruling. The people of that community select the ruthless ruler because they are facing a protracted serious crisis, and no previous, less ruthless, leader has been able to solve the crisis.

Once a ruthless leader is in place, he or she may turn pathologic. They may attempt to perpetuate their leadership by suppressing dissidents and by revealing, or even creating, new crises that the community must face with ruthless leadership. Typically, the new crisis involves some kind of internal treachery combined with secret external support, and the leader's response to this new crisis is to initiate a reign of terror. If the leader succeeds in institutionalizing the reign of terror, only the leader's death or massive outside intervention will end the leader's rule.

One sign that a ruthless leader is going for a long rule is the growth of a vocal dissident community in exile, and related to this, the ruler will be promoting a "big lie."

The "big lie" will start as hypocracy, but the longer the community around the leader acts as if the lie is true the more likely the ruthless leader is to slip from hypcracy into delusion about the big lie.

Finally, ruthless leaders tend to be adventurist. It wasn't World War Two that brought World War Two's leaders into leadership positions, it was the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930's that brought these leaders into power. And it may be possible that World War Two was not inevitable. It was, instead, a manufactured crisis brought on by Depression-Era ruthless leaders so that they could extend their rulerships.

-- The End --