This is the third extract of a chapter from my book, Stitch by Stitch: The Unraveling of the Western World. (If you’re confused, it’s because I’ve given the book various titles as I’ve worked on it. I think I’ve settled on Stitch by Stitch, but in the past I’ve called it Brave Old World and The New Caesars. It’s all the same. If any of those titles seems to you much stronger than the others, let me know. It’s still not set in stone.)
14 rules for destroying a liberal democracy
The game: to amass as much power as much as possible within the formal parameters of a liberal democracy.
Rule number one: Rewrite history. The early warning sign of Caesar ascendent is the deliberate fostering of nostalgia for an authoritarian past. If the lessons of history suggest this path leads to disaster, then history, not the path, must be changed.
The revisionist storyline is in essence always the same. The people have been robbed of their greatness by a series of catastrophes and betrayals. An authoritarian or tyrannical past is bathed in nostalgia. The acknowledgement of responsibility for historic crimes is detested as self-hatred, or a lack of patriotism that is dangerous to the health of the polity.
Revisionist Russia: The catastrophe was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now Stalin has been rehabilitated, and the liberation of central and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union has been recast as an amputation.
Revisionist Hungary: The catastrophe was the loss of territories and populations to the 20th century’s predators. Hungary has been recast as the victim—as opposed to a full-fledged member of the aggressive axis—and the Nazi-collaborationist regime of Admiral Horthy has been rehabilitated.
Revisionist Germany: Lawmakers from the Alternative for Germany party have sought to diminish or deny the Holocaust. The party’s co-leader Alexander Gauland shrugs off the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in the otherwise soaring drama of German history. The AfD chairman of Thuringia state, Björn Höcke, calls for his country to have a more “positive” attitude towards its history; he new history books be written to focus on “the German victims.”
The Berlin Holocaust memorial offends him: “They wanted to cut off our roots and with the re-education that began in 1945, they nearly managed,” he says. “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”
“This laughable policy of coming to terms with the past is crippling us,” he said of the memorial. “We need nothing less than a 180-degree shift in the politics of remembrance.”
Berlin’s memorial for the murdered Jews is grey, somber, and quiet. Were you to revise it by 180 degrees in emotional tone, you would have a joyful memorial to German pride in the Holocaust. Something like Oktoberfest, perhaps.
Consider that for a moment.
The most charitable way to interpret his words is as a call merely to forget the Holocaust, for surely he could not mean he wishes to see young Germans singing and dancing over the memory of murdered Jews?
Nonetheless, his language is replete with Nazi allusions: normal Germans do not so casually use such words as entartet, Volksverderber, and Lebensraum in political contexts, nor do they speak of the inherent “cleanliness” of Germans and the “nightmarish” sexual threats dark-skinned men pose to blonde German women. “Wir stehen für Ordnung und Sauberkeit. Wir leben nicht auf Kosten der Gemeinschaft, sondern wir leben für die Gemeinschaft,” he says. We live for the community. The opposite of the liberal sentiment.
“Ich will, dass Deutschland nicht nur eine tausendjährige Vergangenheit hat. Ich will, dass Deutschland auch eine tausendjährige Zukunft hat,” he has said. Does anyone in America recognize the word Tausendjährige? Or understand its associations? The Tausendjähriges Reich—the thousand-year Reich—lasted twelve years, three months, and eight days. If you’re American, it is quite possible that your grandfather or great-grandfather died to ensure that it lasted not one day longer.
Steve Bannon is keen to work closely with this political party. He sees in their esprit something inspiring. (They see him as a pathetic hanger-on.)
Revisionist Serbia: The same instinct prompted Serbs to emblazon a train with Christian Orthodox symbols, the colors of the Serbian flag, and signs reading “Kosovo is Serbia”—and to send it from Belgrade to the Kosovo border. (It was received as one might expect.)
Revisionist Britain: A fringe among Brexit’s supporters sincerely believes Britain is now in a position to return to a place in the world much like the one it enjoyed in the Empire as they imagine it. As Eleanor Newbigin rightly remarks,
From the phrase “take back control” to UKIP’s adoption of the Trump-esque “make Britain great again,” the call for Britain to leave the EU has been saturated with nostalgia. These slogans invoke a sense of our past so familiar that it seems to need no dates or references: they bring to mind the late-Victorian/Edwardian period, when most of the atlas was pink; they celebrate Britain’s courage and fortitude in the Second World War and its alliance with 1/4 the US and USSR – the “other” superpowers at the time. In this story, membership of the EU emasculates Britain by rendering it equal to the European nations it liberated and defeated, affronting its hard-won status as a global power. Inspiring perhaps, but as history, this story is deeply flawed. It misunderstands two important things: how the empire related to British power in the early twentieth century on the one hand, and the nature of the British imperial state on the other.
Sally Tomlinson of the University of London and Danny Dorling of the University of Oxford see the same nostalgia at work:
Only a couple of generations or so ago, Britain was in control. It was in control of more people in an empire larger than any other there had ever been in the history of the world. The disappearance of this empire led inexorably to a loss of control of land, labour, wealth and also to what sustained an imperial identity. Clinging to fantasies of empire, a group of people – led by those mainly educated in schools designed to produce the rulers of empire – are today in the process of creating an era of misrule and mistakes that will have serious consequences for all the people of the four nations that currently make up Britain, those in many connected European countries, and well beyond.
A major consequence of the misrule of Britannia is possibly the further dissolution of the UK (most of Ireland having left the Kingdom a century ago). Polly Toynbee rightly pointed out in 2017 that the Irish border was “a road block to the fantasies of Brexiteers, reviving deep-dyed contempt for the Irish” who at that time were dismissing it “with an imperial fly-whisk.” Ireland, the first country to be colonised by the English in 1169, was divided in 1922 by a hated border. During the 30-year long Troubles from 1969 to 1999, the British army blockaded country lanes, and the Provisional IRA booby-trapped roads. Could no-deal lead it again into violence, or even into a vote for a United Ireland?
The misplaced nostalgia for a British empire—a time when by force and violence Britain did indeed “rule the waves” for a long period—has been used by the small number of influential people we have documented in our book, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the end of empire, who have a dangerously imperialist misconception of the country’s place in the world. These misconceptions often began in childhood. Where else do the ideas of taking back control of a mythical country come from? Once upon a time the “Romance of Empire” book series told children that “England was a gallant little nation whose power and conquests are obviously the rewards of merit since all her opponents are bigger and uglier than she is” (cited in JS Bratton), and the world map had large pink bits which we were told “belonged to us.” The Brexiteer master manipulators used such memories to take control of the opinions of some voters through a campaign notable for lies and misinformation.
Revisionist Ottomans: Erdoğan has cultivated a longing among Turks for a kitsch version of the Ottoman era. I have written of this elsewhere:
….the AKP’s senior figures grandly imagine themselves as the heirs to Ottoman statesmen. They promote this understanding of their behavior at every opportunity. “You forget,” many an AKP spokesman has said to me, “that we’ve been in this region for years. We know it better than you do. Trust us.”
But the Ottoman Empire to which they are appealing exists in their fantasies. They do not, in fact, know much about the real Ottoman Empire. Nor do they possess the Ottomans’ knowledge of the region, nor do they exhibit the Ottomans’ diplomatic sophistication. If they did, the lessons they would draw would be entirely different. …
The Ottomans Empire had settlements throughout the region, but not in Persia. And it is important to remember that Turkey experienced a profound rupture from its own history in 1922, when Atatürk purged the bureaucracy of its Ottoman elements, Westernized the education system, and replaced the Ottoman script was replaced with a Latin one. Every Turk born thereafter has been cut off from Ottoman culture. No one in the AKP leadership can remotely claim expertise on Persian culture, history, and negotiating strategy—and no one appears to have any deep familiarity with more than a millennium of Turkic-Persian rivalry. The Ottomans, by comparison, were intimately familiar with Persian culture, not least because they understood Persian. Persian was the first language of bureaucracy in Seljuk and early Ottoman Anatolia. Of course, to prevent the encroachment of Shi’ite ideas, the Ottomans were not taught Persian until the age of six—by that age, it was hoped, one’s Sunni identity would be strong enough to withstand the corruption. But from the age of six, literate Ottomans were steeped in it.
Not so, today. As Ambassador Loğoğlu put it, “Even today there might not be a single minister in the Foreign Service who speaks Persian. There may be some who have taken courses. I know for sure that when I was in the Foreign Service, the number who spoke Arabic was maybe one. I don’t think there were any who spoke Persian.” He thought there were perhaps one or two in the Turkish intelligence services. No one in the foreign service wishes to study Persian: competence in the language, after all, might result in being posted to Iran.
“Turkey has not one fluent Farsi speaker,” another diplomat told me, “except in the low administrative staff. It has none among career diplomats.” When meeting their Iranian counterparts, the Turks rely on local Iranian staff of Azeri origin for translation. In technical meetings, they use English. “I cannot know or disclose how many people speak Farsi in the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selçuk Ünal wrote to me. “But not very much.”
If you look at the ranks of pro-AKP think tanks—USAK, SETA, TEPA—you will likewise find no Persian experts. Even if there were, they would probably keep their counsel to themselves. Ambassador Loğoğlu claims that Ulker, a company close to the AKP, withdrew its financial support from the Eurasian Studies Center out of displeasure with his warnings about the trajectory of Turkish foreign policy; this is probably true, and would have to weigh on the minds of other think tanks.
Indeed, by what means could the Turks deeply understand Iran? Gülen schools are forbidden there. The only avenue for regular Turkish contact with Iran is trade, and while this is considerable and growing, there is an obvious conflict when it comes to policy-making: You will not get dispassionate advice about the Iranian’s intentions from very the people who stand to get rich from the assumption that they are benign.
Iranians, on the other hand, know this region’s history exceptionally well. As Volkan Vural—Turkey’s former ambassador to Iran—remarked, “Iran has cultural continuity. That gives them an enormous advantage—they remember what happened centuries ago, We need a translator.”
Turks of our generation can for the most part no more read Ottoman than a Latvian could. There is no special reason to think Turkish policy makers know Ottoman history intimately. There is no special reason to think they know recent history intimately. “Turkey’s regional knowledge is new,” said another journalist here. “It was cut off during the Cold War. The AKP is trying to recreate a lost past, but it’s a past according to them—a fantastic narrative. They don’t want to know why the Ottoman Empire collapsed after 200 agonizing years. ‘Trust us, we know Iran?’—that’s total bullshit.”
There are many more such cases. In every case, central—key—aspects of the country’s history must be forgotten for this nostalgia to take root. It requires of Turks that they forget the causes of the agonizing, slow death of the Ottoman Empire and its collapse. Hungarians must forget that they didn’t mysteriously lose their Jewish population to some external predator, they themselves shipped the Jews to the gas chambers.
These regimes rest on revisionism because they must. They would otherwise seem too closely to resemble regimes that had led to disaster. History must be obscured, or changed outright, lest the public begin to suspect that an experiment that led once to catastrophe might do so again.
This kind of revisionism relies upon public ignorance of history. It can’t transpire without it. Politicians who casually disparage international institutions—such as Trump, Le Pen, and Orbán—will only persuade people who have no sense of history, or a twisted one. It can only sound reasonable to imagine abandoning institutions such as NATO, for example, if you have no idea why they were built in the first place. Nostalgia for the Confederacy can stir your heart only if you have no idea why we fought the Civil War and no special feel for the way things looked on Civil War battlefields looked after a lively exchange of artillery fire.
Rule number two: Exploit ethnic, racial, religious, and class divisions.
Rule number three: Magnify fear of foreigners and outsiders.
The above follows roughly sequentially, although some stages take place simultaneously. It is only after the essential work of rewriting the past and inculcating the populace with hyper-nationalism and irredentism that the rest of the work can be done—
Rule number four: Enter Caesar—the voice of the “real people” in their struggle against a nebulous class of “elites.”
—and that work is winning the election, rewriting the constitution, centralizing power in the executive, empowering a loyal oligarchic class, turning parliament into a rubber stamp, awarding tenders for major construction projects to loyalists, neutralizing enemies with charges of tax evasion, arresting journalists, harassing civil society, and reorienting foreign policy toward Russia.
You don’t mind if I put up the paywall of honor here, do you? It’s been perfectly free up to this point. If you’d like to finish it, would you kindly contribute? Otherwise, thank you for visiting!
Having achieved this, you are now in the regime-maintenance phase. It can get quite tricky here, but it gets easier with every election.
Rule number five: Conflate entertainment and politics.
Rule number six: Create chaos, confusion, and a sense of permanent emergency.
Rule number seven: Destroy confidence in the idea of objective truth. Muddy the waters so thoroughly with lies and counter-accusations that, as Peter Pomaranzov described the new Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Train people to believe they’ll never figure it out anyway, it’s all too complicated, and who knows who’s telling the truth—so they may as well go back to watching the game.
Rule number eight: Humiliate or destroy people who are better fit to be leaders. (Call it “taking on the oligarchs,” or “draining the swamp.”) Associate the opposition with foreigners, associate foreigners who keep banging about “human rights” with spies, George Soros, Israel, or the United States—as appropriate.
Remember: Foreigners are meddling in your “internal affairs” and the opposition are traitors.
Don’t forget: Your country is always under attack, from without and within.
Rule number nine: Gain complete control of the media and turn it into a non-stop propaganda machine. Transform public media into a partisan cheering section, harass and fine private media into a shadow of itself and then have the carcass purchased by regime loyalist oligarchs. Starve your adversaries of access to the public. Demonize journalists to the point that no one much minds if, in extremis, they disappear under mysterious circumstances.
Rule number ten: Spread it around! Reward loyalists with juicy government contracts, tax loopholes, and tenders. Investors will always prefer profits to political fights.
Rule number eleven: Punish the unsubmissive with punitive taxes and spurious lawsuits.
Rule number twelve: Stack the courts.
Rule number thirteen: Take control of the central bank and make foreign banks absorb the losses for your bad policy decisions. (Everyone will appreciate this: Everyone hates the bankers.)
Rule number fourteen: Jigger the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. (Call it “much-needed constitutional reform.”)
Snap referenda, by the way, are superb for this. It’s the will of the people.
And voilà: You’re done. Elections still happen, but they are denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.