The Return of the Big Men

Sitting in the sun, near the aisle at a good friend’s outdoor wedding in Palm Springs, California, we had already been struck at just how welcoming and tolerant this beautiful city was. From the moment we arrived, everyone we met would instantly greet us and smile. After a short while, this infectious and authentic goodwill is guaranteed to lift the spirits of all who visit.

It was a Jewish wedding, that again, was welcoming and accessible to all of us from different denominations and geographies.

I couldn’t help asking myself why were these open and friendly gestures so noticeable and rather unique? Having arrived from an increasingly divided UK since the momentous Brexit referendum, maybe it was just me — maybe?

Earlier that same morning, as I switched the TV on to a very animated Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s belligerent president immediately after his country’s referendum on extending the powers of the Office of the President. He was in full flow, there was no reaching out to the ‘No’ voters who had just lost out by less than 2%. Despite the recriminations over the fairness of the voting, he didn’t appear to even think about reconciling the opposing factions. In fact, it felt like he was after even further division.

As we prepared to leave it was impossible to miss the wall to wall TV coverage of the ongoing war of words between President Trump and North Korea. Threats and counter threats of nuclear responses and even embroiling China, North Korea’s only ally. Trump delivered a menacing message that if China wasn’t prepared to rein in this renegade state, the “US would deal with it”.

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, isn’t one for backing down or for seeking a diplomatic solution. He promised to respond immediately with all-out war with nuclear weapons targeting the USA.

The war rhetoric was also heating up in Syria. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and Trump were stirring things up again, with no-one prepared to lose face by backing down.

This somehow felt like a different world, and seemed so unnecessary as we were soon sat in the warmth of a wonderful Palm Springs wedding amongst the family and guests. The groom was from London and the bride from Vancouver, Canada. He was Jewish and she was more than comfortable having a Jewish wedding ceremony despite not being Jewish. It was an unforgettable occasion, as the sun came out right on time, just as the stunning bride walked down from in between the upright and statuesque palm trees.

Given the generosity and touching humility of Palm Springs, it got me wondering — why all this global belligerence?

After a memorable and exquisite wedding celebration we returned to the beautiful and charming Palm Springs Hotel, I carried on reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant first book, Half of a Yellow Sun. A gripping and unflinching account of the horrific Nigerian civil war in the 1960’s. My eyes could not leave this seminal paragraph:

“If this is hatred, then it is very young. It has been caused, simply, by the informal divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial exercise. These policies manipulated the differences between the tribes and ensured that unity would not exist, thereby making the easy governance of such a large country practicable.

The British had established a tried and tested method of maintaining control in the far-flung outposts of its then sprawling empire.

In times of growing uncertainty, many look to the strong and determined to provide direction and stability — despite their glaring and obvious shortcomings.

Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, is no shrinking violet either. In less than four years, Mr Xi, the son of one of China’s founding revolutionary heroes, had consolidated power from all the disparate councils and party apparatus, which were explicitly designed to ensure that no one person could become an overall supremo.

Mr Xi had already shocked the establishment by unleashing the party’s anti-corruption watchdog to target not just the senior echelons of the party and government, but also the military.

His two day visit to Trump’s personal Mar-a-Lago club, was watched by all, as two titans of the world stage would be challenging each other for global leadership. Trump had been heating up his combative stance on a number of issues that he felt China had taken advantage of due to his “weak” predecessor. Again, playing fluently and loudly to his invigorated and still raucous base.

Xi, on the other hand, was looking to make headlines as a globe-trotting statesman whose nation could now stand side by side with the world’s leading superpower.

Trump shockingly unleashed a barrage of cruise missiles against Syria, a decision made just before he sat down to dinner with Xi. This was a new approach to rapprochement.

Whilst all this has been taking place, perhaps the new age role model of the contemporary ‘Big Man’, Vladimir Putin, has been rolling his risky dice in Syria. He is President of Russia, having held the post before. It is a position that Putin has consolidated with a mixture of canniness and ruthlessness, and which he shows no sign of relinquishing. When his previous term expired, he arranged with the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, to effectively change places, Putin quickly wrapped up the election for the post of president. With opposition virtually non-existent, nobody expected him to lose. Having extended the presidential term from four to six years, Putin could occupy the post until 2024, making him the longest-lasting leader since Stalin.

Along with Duterte in the Philippines, al-Assad in Syria, Netanyahu in Israel and not forgetting Zuma in South Africa, we are experiencing a resurgence of the Big Men, all of them practising the old British colonial strategy of divide and rule. This is not just coincidence. They thrive on uncertainty and in many cases positively fuel it.

The combination of global socioeconomic woes and geopolitical unrest paint a compelling backdrop for the rise of the Big Men. When this is coupled with weak opposition and a disaffected electorate, the scene is almost perfectly set.

The calling for referendums have quickly become the golden opportunity for Big Men.

In March 1975, Margaret Thatcher called referendums “a device of dictators and demagogues”, quoting Clement Attlee, the immediate post-war Labour prime minister. She was criticising the in-out referendum proposed by the Labour prime minister of the day, Harold Wilson.

A prescient sound bite of a bygone era that resonates today.

Now that the circumstances and environment have been made supportive for the audacious takeover, it still requires an individual with outrageous self-belief. They will also have the ability to brazenly face down any form of criticism, no matter how well founded or proven.

They will need to rapidly learn the ‘Dictators Code of Conduct’. This may appear to fly against conventional wisdom, but this is definitely not about convention! Our aforementioned Big Men are testimony to the efficacy of the following method of working:

The Dictator’s Code of Conduct:

  • You need a strong base of unconditional support — look after your base and terrify everyone else
  • Everything good must come through you — starve everyone of everything unless they come to you
  • Never give your supporters too much — keep them just hungry enough and consequently loyal
  • Never ever embark on work for the common good — remember you would never have got to high office with this caring approach
  • Keep your clique on their loyal toes by frequently changing them, and constantly threaten to do so
  • Never be afraid of changing your tune — say whatever it takes to win office. Once you’ve won, then say what you really mean
  • Recognise very quickly who are the real kingmakers, and get them onside with plum jobs and fat perks
  • Personality cults are not mandatory, but they can help to flush out your enemies
  • It’s never too soon to start repressing people — trouble only starts when you start becoming lenient and generous
  • Get hold of the independent media outlets quickly — start by rubbishing them and then close them down. There can only be one voice of truth — yours!
  • Get hold of the independent judiciary, trash its reputation and then fill it with your cronies
  • Quickly redefine the boundaries of ‘free’ speech and hustle the intellectuals. It helps to take on the most outspoken and break them, imprisonment works best

This is all best delivered by the utmost narcissist, with delusions of a special and unique ability, intellect or a growing entitlement to power — ignoring that some may see them as crazy, as long as their base see them as the Messiah.

A necessary character trait is a complete lack of empathy and insight to appreciate the consequences of their actions. This will enable their full array of controlling and coercive behaviour to be mobilised at every opportunity.

Constantly ensure that the ranks of talented ministers are so severely depleted after continuous bouts of cleansings that what is left is always loyal enough due to the sheer fear of being next for the chop.

The inbuilt and inherent cronyism inevitably leads to corruption with you as the major beneficiary.

As early as you can, start being extra nice to the militia, whilst treating the judiciary with growing contempt.

Challenge all independent news outlets by continuously stating that they have hidden agendas and are part of the rotten establishment. Keeping your base listening and trusting only you and your restatement and redefining of the facts. Ignorance is bliss.

Herbert Hoover captured it perfectly, “It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own”.

Build bridges with some fellow dictators, as life can get quite lonely when you have made so many enemies at home. Leave the weak ones alone as you will need to attack them later, just to prove that there are evil dictators that are far worse than you.

Find an extraordinarily wealthy patron who needs you to remain in power to further their own agenda at the expense of your own population.

Once you’ve managed to seriously divide the nation, you’re nearly there. Keep stoking the differences, never stop rubbishing the leaders of the opposition until they wilt. It’s clearly possible to rule with only the support of the minority of a population, if the minority is large enough, united enough and controls the military and the major institutions.

Identifying the scapegoat early will allow a lot more freedom to act and help explain opportunistic crackdowns on any opposition. This always proves popular with your base.

Forget the facts and feed your image. Image is everything. You are who you can convince your base to believe you are. A constantly invigorated base is both your best line of defence and your relentless attack dogs — just keep blowing those dog whistle soundbites.

Make sure you can control something most need, and you are guaranteed to remain in power.

The gold standard is to be always acting in your own self-interest whilst being seen as the saviour of the downtrodden and marginalised.

Now, no matter where you live or where you vote, I honestly hope my nightmare scenario does not ring any bells about your own head of state.

The authentic inclusivity of Palm Springs and the diverse gathering at the unforgettable wedding served to remind us of the better times that appear to be passing us by, but also served as a blueprint of better times to come. As ever, it’s a question of leadership.

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”. — George Orwell