A glance at world politics suggests that Machiavelli, the crafty Italian Renaissance diplomat and father of modern political theory, might still roam the halls of governments, urging rulers to act unscrupulously to attain power. His ghostly hand still guiding the autocratic leaders’ manipulative and amoral tactics to suppress, punish and intimidate political foes. Intoxicated with power, they are inclined to behave in arbitrary and self-aggrandizing ways, belittling others, and using retaliatory punishment as a tool of control.
Authoritarian leaders are gaining power around the world by appealing to ordinary people who feel forgotten and forsaken by established governments. The emergence of populist leaders such as Trump in the United States, Salvini in Italy, Orban in Hungary, Le Pen in France, and Bolsonaro in Brazil is the obvious sign of how, in the name of the “people,” deceptive measures are adopted that restrict citizens’ civil and political rights.
Exploiting social discontent, populist politicians reap votes by resorting to deceptive propaganda while deftly bending the rules of democracy. Populists argue that solutions to the most urgent and complex problems of our time are easily solvable. To make the country great again, their simplistic rhetoric claims, it only takes a loyal and strong leader to defeat enemies and apply common sense solutions. If jobs are transferred abroad, the populist leader must prevent other countries from selling their products, if immigrants cross the border, a wall must be built.
Anyone who disagrees is considered unpatriotic and any opposing institution that refuses to do the government bidding is ruthlessly attacked. When the democratic system of checks and balances is compromised; when independent electoral commissions try to secure free and fair elections but fail; when authoritarian presidents dare to thwart the legislative institutions to push their private agenda; or when the supreme court is pressured to rule constitutional a president’s illegal actions, the way for authoritarian regimes is paved.
It is said that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Corrupt rulers, whether monarchs or democratically elected officials, tend to behave in cynical ways in matters of policy and politics. Paradoxically, many of the latter not only become corrupt, but their criminality is often more abhorrent than that of despotic rulers, the very embodiment of Jekyll and Hyde.
Factors such as professional incompetence, poor interpersonal skills, lack of ethical principles, and personality disorders such as narcissism, paranoia and megalomania certainly exacerbate abuses of power. Delusional leaders make evil masters of deceit who frequently lie and cheat to protect themselves from dissenters while serving their selfish ambitions, even if it means violating the law or professional ethics.
Acting on the distorted belief that one is chosen or anointed, corrupt politicians believe they possess an absolute moral mandate and a monopoly on the legal perception of right. Blinded by arrogance, they manipulate and harm their subordinates as they exhibit a habitual haughtiness and superiority associated with the bearing of power.
Nowadays political domination is less commonly imposed by brute force, but rather perpetuated by conniving power-holders who gain the consent of the dominated without their awareness. Passive consent still remains “the tyrant’s best friend.” Machiavellian leaders create a scenario of “psychopathic fiction” where positive information about themselves and negative information about others is manufactured. Their manipulation produces a network of pawns groomed into accepting fallacious and deceptive agendas.
The truth shall set people free, while the lie creates only slaves; that’s why power strives to spread deceit. Given the pervasive impact of modern media the lie today spreads faster than lightening and louder than thunder. Mass lies provoked the war in Iraq, the financial meltdown of 2008, Brexit, and the arrival of Trump to the government.
Populist leaders claim to speak for the people, but the stewards of democracy will remember that “the people are often the last refuge of the villains.” They spread fear and despair to convince the disaffected that the solution to their discontent is a return to the false securities of nationalism, that road that leads to repeating many fatal mistakes of the past.
The dangerous falsehoods fabricated by Machiavellian leaders engender social hatred, the sap for populist and racist governments. Americans continue to be a welcoming people; if anything, it is those who govern that blow on the fire of hatred and fear. People remain much better than the political class that represents them. Another America does exist, one that welcomes and crosses walls, one that sends a message strong and clear against those who sow dread and discord.