Commentary

You Want a Strongman? Forget Dignity

In an autocracy no one is allowed to keep their head high and their spine straight. Forget dignity. Even the highest ranking subordinates get routinely humiliated, ministers are not in control of their own fields, and oligarchs’ livelihood depends on the strongman. If you are going to work for autocrats, forget about dignity. Autocrats are natural bullies – and there is always a higher level bully out there.

Our guest author puts Orbán’s recent bullying behavior in international context. 

The below video surfaced on Orbán’s official Facebook page and shows the head of the election committee and rector of the National Public Service University, András Patyi, being emasculated as a mere underling of Orbán, who bullies him for doing his job. The entire video consists of three scenes – each showing Orbán scolding Patyi for a mini-fine. The video has no subtitles, but observe the hysteric and servile laughter of Patyi’s fellow underlings from 0:20…

  • In the first scene Orbán suddenly blurts out “I read in the papers that Patyi imposes fines. That’s what I read.” Patyi can hardly breathe, he looks quite frightened, mumbling in a very low voice, “I’m very sorry, Mr. Prime Minister.” Again, this is the head of an independent institution, talking to the president of one of the parties running at the elections.
  • In the next segment, Orbán talks to his propaganda minister, Rogán, about Patyi, who is also present, so Patyi can hear it: “Tóni, Patyi imposed a fine on me in the election committee, didn’t he?” This time the only word Patyi managed to squeeze out was: “Me?”
  • In the next scene, they are admiring an obstacle course with wires attached to trees. Someone is boasting about his prowess on the wires, and Patyi makes the mistake of confessing that he is afraid to hang in the air on a single wire. Orbán snaps at him, dismissively: “It was not made for you, champion of fines.” (Champion of fines is curiously also what Patyi had called the election committee when he couldn’t stop them to vote against Fidesz – according to the television broadcast of the session.)

Autocrats are natural bullies – they prey on people they perceive as weaker, and the humiliation serves both as confirmation of their superior status and as a power tool.

Orbán’s behavior is also part of an international trend, and shouldn’t be all that surprising. Here is how Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov treats his officials:

Or notice how Putin is talking to one of the richest “businessmen” is in Russia – Oleg Deripaska

Trump openly admires strongmen, and he has been a bully all his life – according to those around him. Some thought that he would become more presidential in office, but after more than a year we shouldn’t have any illusions left. The clip of Trump’s first cabinet meeting is as as cringeworthy as any of Putin’s or Orbán’s performances:

Notice that the praise and the sucking up didn’t save Secretary of State Tillerson the humiliation of being fired by Trump via Twitter.

There is a reason Deripaska or Patyi allow this kind of humiliation. Their position is not of their own accomplishment – but merely a result of the strongman’s will. In an autocracy you can’t control how or whether you get ahead – nor how and when you lose your privileges. You are at the mercy of the strongman and once you fall out with him (or he loses interest in you) you are not a successful businessman anymore. Just think of Mikhail Khodorkovsky or in Hungary, Lajos Simicska.

People who got in their position by their own accomplishments, on the other hand, take their independence seriously when leading an institution. In a democracy their freedom and property is protected by the rule of law, and not by the goodwill of the current leader.

The Trump video is thus strange for two reasons. The first is the fact that it was shot in the US, the second is the participants. These people all had distinguished careers before entering government. Ben Carson is an accomplished neurosurgeon, Rex Tillerson was the CEO of Exxon Mobil, a major oil company.  Why do these people subject themselves to this kind of treatment? Is it because of vanity and the prospect of serving in government? Is it genuine desire to serve their country?

Either way, if you are willing to work under an autocrat, or make your career dependent on him, you should forget about dignity and professional integrity. This applies to both autocracies and democracies. The difference is that in a democracy you have the chance to a decent life outside of politics, even if you step down from your position. In an autocracy – not so much.

Bill Gates and Elon Musk refused to work with Trump and criticized him openly, but it’s unlikely that they will end up in jail or in exile. About it is just as unlikely as, say, Mr. Patyi turning to Orbán one day and tell him: “The law applies to to everyone, Mr Prime Minister, and when you brake the law,  I will fine you. If you brake the law again, I will fine you again.

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