“We believe that Fate has chosen him to show the way to the German people. Therefore, we greet him in devotion and reverence, and can only wish that he may be preserved for us until his work is completed.” - Goebbels, 1929
Of late, Pakistanis have been reminded of two important figures that have been referred to as symbols of darkness and oppression, and the firebrands of extreme ideologies. The actions and policies of Narendra Modi and Adolf Hitler are denoted as cautionary tales, with these leaders promoting hate and exclusion on the back of unchecked power and personal ambitions.
Throughout the course of world history, there have been countless examples of leaders who sought to attain absolute power out of personal ambition. While trying to understand the personalities of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussain, one can find many commonalities in their rise to power. Ironically, in most cases the causes of their rise are also the causes of their downfall.
The common denominator that I found was their love and concern for themselves. This self-centeredness and self-love reminded me of Narcissus, a character in a story from Greek mythology, where Narcissus was unimaginably beautiful. One day, when he saw his own reflection in a pool of still water, he was mesmerized. He couldn't look away, so captivated in the vision of himself that it seemed as if his own soul had been captured within the glittering surface. Charmed by his own magnetism, Narcissus desired to be with himself and so gazed lovingly at his reflection for days and days forgetting the surroundings and food, until eventually he died.
In medical science or psychology this sickness is termed as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Someone with NDP is referred to in simple English as a narcissist, and in political science, this disease can metastize into what is referred to as a cult of personality or cult politics. The nineteenth century saw people in search of a savior across the globe; a heroic leader to whom they could look towards for guidance, protection, and revival of nationalism. Men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin rose to power as redeemers through cult politics. The cults devoted to them ultimately proved to be misguided, yet they demonstrated the power of the idea of a redeemer personality, and the lengths to which people will go to find a leader they can believe in.
My friends and colleagues often argue while refuting me that even the worst form of democracy is better than autocracy and authoritarian rule. While respecting their point of view, my question to them has been “what is the ultimate aim - the form of government or the wellbeing of the people?” The masses have always looked for a messiah to deliver them from their misery. This desire of the masses has been manipulated by many in the history through the cult of personality that culminated with populism and populist leaders.
Cults of personality in politics and populism is a by-product of the promises of equality that democracy could not fulfill. However, the linkages between cult of personalities in politics, populism and poor democracy are complex, with varying perspectives. One school of thought is of the opinion that cults of personality and populism are the result of disillusionment with established political systems, and reflect a desire for change, while others argue that cults of personality and populism can also be a threat to democracy.
The experiences of the twentieth century have highlighted the risks of unchecked individual power. So, what promotes cults in politics? Jeremy T. Paltiel has tried to establish a linkage between political culture and the cult of personality in Lenin’s regime. His analysis leads to two conclusions. The first is that when external foes have been defeated, the political party looks for enemies within, and second, when the organizational and hierarchical structure of the party erodes, the cult of personality emerges. For Paltiel, hero worship is not just about the leader, but about 'putting the leader's personal authority above the authority of the party.’
We live in the age of populism. Jan Werner Müller in “What is Populism” describes the mood and attitude of populists and their followers to be angry, frustrated, resentful, anti-establishment, and anti-elitist. While understanding the deeply embedded frustrations among the masses, the populists play with the emotions of the public to garner support. In addition to being anti-elitists, they are anti-pluralists also. They claim to be the only representatives of the true people. In their campaigns, the political opponents are portrayed as immoral, corrupt elites, and when in office they declare any opposition as illegitimate. Their political philosophy hinges on “with us or against us.” Some scholars argue that populists in power and in office are bound to fail due to their conflict prone ideology… the anti-politics cannot do politics, yet this is also not true. In poor governance, they swiftly put the blame on the elites working against them from behind the scenes and create various conspiracy theories.
Many scholars argue populists to be anti-democracy since democracy believes in pluralistic and inclusive attitudes. Jürgen Habermas, a German scholar, refutes the idea of populist leaders and forewarns the dangers inherent in their ideology of conflict, polarization, and exclusion of the political opponents. Since their ideology is conflict prone, and creates chaos among state institutions hence, this turmoil can cause the party to be ineffective when in power, as it is difficult to fight against one's own government.
To run the government’s affairs, the populists bank on increased clientelism. Their common slogans are “the elites are robbing us of our own country” and they portray a utopian dream to the masses within a timeframe that is logically impossible… they live in political fantasy. Despite their anti-elitist proclamations, they are good with elites as long as the elites are with them and have the support of the masses.
Populists, through their actions, impede the democratic process and functioning of the state. This is because their behavior undermines the rule of law, which is essential to the functioning of justice and state administration. With no respect for the law, the order and structure in the political and economic systems collapses. They incite sentiments and hatred through extensive use of media and social media, resulting in gradual mistrust among the politicians and state administrators.
Populists at the same time believe in a free mandate where when things go wrong, they can simply turn to the people and say it’s not our fault - as we did it for you. Scholars and philosophers have identified another dangerous stage with populist leadership when in office. This is that the modifications and amendments that they bring about in the constitution to fulfil their desire for absolute power. They consolidate their power through selective legalism - laws for the enemy, and concessions for friends. Ironically, at the end of the day, populism in office is also the other form of the previous system of corrupt elites, clients and old establishment, a perfect embodiment of the famous phrase “old wine in new bottle.”
If the rise of the Third Reich during the 1930s is of some historical importance from the political perspective, then the take home lesson is that populism and its rise to power will always end up in yet another authoritarian regime.