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Why Autocrats Can’t Be Appeased – Neither by Peers, Nor by Victims

Bullying happens because bullying works. Once you understand the dynamics, you will also learn two priceless lessons:

  1. That bullying can not stop by itself. There is no point at which a bully stop pushing deeper because he had reached some kind of target. He will keep pushing until he hits the wall.
  2. That bullying does actually stop when the bully hits the wall.

Bullying is the same thing as political oppression. It works by the same logic and the same lessons apply:

  1. There is no such thing as appeasing an autocrat and making him stop on some sort of stable level of oppression – because he hit some sort of oppression target and he doesn’t wish to go any deeper.
  2. He will actually stop when there is (credible) pushback.

This is why benevolent dominance is a myth and why unfettered dominance always leads to abuse.

For those who are not experienced with the inner logic of oppression, these things don’t sound logical. But bullies and abusers apply them instinctively. Maybe because they grew up as victims of oppression and bullying – and thus remember how they themselves have complied and submitted to it. And victims easily make future perpetrators.

We went all the way to the wall”

We went all the way to the wall – Fidesz headlines proudly announced once they got the memo on how to cover Fidesz’ suspension from the conservative European party group, EPP.

The term “going all the way to the wall” may sound odd to you, so let me explain it. In Hungarian it is “Elmentünk a falig”, and what they mean by it is that it’s some sort of virtue to push the boundaries until there is a pushback. In this case, shedding the pretense of civilized politics until there is some (lame) pushback from EPP. “OK, we have tried,” it says, proudly that he was a good, hard-working boy. Even is the object of his hard work was the destruction of core values upon which post-WW2 European peace was based.

For a Hungarian, this attitude is nothing new. Orbán has once famously said “I only understand power/strength” (“Csak az erőből értek”) and that means the flip side of the “hitting the wall” comment: That a bully only understands a punch in the face, an unmovable obstacle. But that he does.

Orbán (and his ilk) will not be stopped by gentlemen’s agreement or civilizatory concerns. He will certainly not be stopped by legal obstacles. He doesn’t have an endpoint at which he had amassed enough power, eliminated enough limitations on his rule, stole enough public money, after which he feels content and the political decline stabilizes on a lower point.

The very logic of authoritarianism dictates that a strongmen can never stop on his own accord. He will have to keep moving downward, shed limitations, eliminate opposition and dissent, create and fabricate enemies, steal more and more – because his system cannot stabilize. What would he do if not fighting dragons?

This is also the reason why appeasement can never, ever work against an autocrat. Appeasement, or hoping that he will cool down, be tamed, tames himself, stops doing whatever he is doing – without any credible pushback – is futile.

I almost said that politicians who try to appease autocrats are naive – but I know better. Politicians, of all people, know best that leaders without limitations on their power have no reason to stop. In fact, they can not stop, because it’s unsafe. The deeper they sink, the more they steal, the bigger trouble they cause – the more they need the immunity that comes with being a limit-less dictator. It is thus not naive but criminally negligent to allow things to go in a certain direction without pushback.

Autocrats never meet consequences

And their victims can never avoid them

A strongman starts with doing one or two outrageous moves – and when there is no resistance, or only mouth power or lame diplomatic “concerns” are issued, he moves on.

To take the Hungarian example, Orbán eliminated checks and balances and the idea of a market economy from his constitution as early as 2010, using his destructive supermajority, but no one really stepped up. His opposition was too small and Orbán freed himself of the earlier gentlemen’s agreement that informally required an all-party consensus for constitutional changes – and it worked. Everyone in his place would have looked for other rules to breach after that, this kind of heady sense of triumph and spite back at the people he resented.

It was all downhill from that. Gradual, but ever-growing like an avalanche: The end of central bank independence, the independent prosecution, the independent media, attacks on the courts, civil society, academia, teachers, healthcare, the banking, energy, retail and telecom sectors, the cronification of entire industries and economic sectors, and the uninhibited bonanza on appropriating EU-funds of family allowance, to name just a few… And with every new step, his dissenters found it harder to strike back, and his followers found it harder to start condemning.

While a strongman is learning that nothing he does meets any consequence or resistance – his victims are internalizing there is nothing they can do against him.

In fact, dissenters face negative consequences even if they try to appease the strongman’s system and fit in. Every bully is unpredictable – lashing out intermittently and with no discernible reason takes less effort and has bigger paybacks than practicing consistent enforcement. It works like a charm to push the bully’s victims into the sense of hopeless helplessness, the belief that there is nothing they can do to avoid pain – let alone to stop the autocrat.

On the other hand, every day the victims don’t get punished is a reason for gratitude, so it only makes sense to fit in if one doesn’t see emigration as an option.

If you don’t understand (learned) helplessness, human behavior will never make sense to you, political behavior or otherwise

It doesn’t sound logical that beating a wife would make her obedient and less likely to leave – but it works painfully often.

It doesn’t sound logical that a thoroughly unpopular policy would make the strongman even stronger – but it does.

It doesn’t sound logical that the more cruel the bully, the less likely it is that his victims would speak up – and yet it is true.

The problem is that our logic is based on invalid assumptions, such as:

  • people walk away from unpleasant things (exit),
  • or the fight back (voice).

But what happens when neither of those options seem to be available for the victims?

What happens when the wife is financially dependent – or just terrified of social disapproval from the divorce? What is she cannot even imagine divorce because she comes from a particularly bigoted and anti-human family background that places zero value on individual lives?

What if she is simply terrified of the bully’s anger if she pushes back? That does sound logical, even by our faulty standards of logic. She might have voiced her resistance – and got beaten even harder. She might have tried to escape – and met with even worse consequences. She may have made efforts – but concluded that nothing she could do could get her abuser off her case. Either because her abuser is unstoppable – or because she is stoppable.

The answer in the literature is clear: when neither voice, nor exit is conceivable for the victim, the remaining option is loyalty – however dysfunctional. When fight and flight are both ruled out, submission is applied to improve the chance of survival. Survival, not living. Avoiding negatives, not prosperity.

Once a victim of domestic violence, for instance, internalizes that abuse is unavoidable, inescapable – at least with her available tools – her oppression becomes really cheap and easy to maintain. Constant effort is not needed to keep her in submission, the occasional unpredictable abuse will do. And because she didn’t push back early – the chance of pushback is declining as time progresses.

Every bully, abuser and autocrat knows that. Because schoolyard bullying and gender-based abuse work the same way as political abuse. Just as people are capable to abuse a spouse, a politician is capable to abuse a population into submission, servitude and self-abandonment – and with the exact same tools. Abuse and bullying are time-tested tools – and they only ever serve the dominance of the top dog. Freedom is a new concept, and it serves every person’s prosperity.

Abuse can not stop. It is in its nature

There is an oft-assumed (but unspoken) fallacy that strongmen will stop gathering power (or hurting people, bullying their country, eroding your liberties, murdering people, stealing public money, etc, etc…) at a certain point.

These assumptions are, however, better left unspoken because they don’t make a lot of sense. When are strongmen and oppressors supposed to stop misbehaving?

  • Once they have stolen, say, one billion per family member?
  • Once they have eliminated every pesky minority?
  • Once they have eliminated all opposition and everyone sings their praise? Then they will start rewarding the remaining, well-behaved flock?
  • Once they had enough will they finally move to the Maldives and leave their victimized countries to recover?

The assumption that a political strongman only wants to achieve something specific – and then he will somehow get tamed or even retreat – makes as much sense as expecting an abusive spouse to mend his ways when a certain milestone is met.

What can that domestic milestone be?

  • A well-served household?
  • His own sexual needs?
  • A certain number of children gained out of his captive wife?
  • An unusually brutal injury sustained?
  • Will a possessive wife-beater ever feel secure in his wife’s devoted love and that she will never look at another man?
  • Will a poor, troubled husband ever heal himself and stop hitting people in his household?
  • The day he had enough beating-based exercise?
  • When his manhood is finally big enough?

When is that new, stable point of uncivility supposed to arrive, when standards will stop sinking and victims can breathe a sigh of relief? When can they stop looking behind their backs and expecting attacks – and start looking forward and figure out what they would do with their lives if it weren’t for the need to survive?

When can a citizen stop worrying about attacks and start using his freedoms for something? The freedoms he had let go because who needs them when he feels helpless?

But your strongmen are not as brave and unstoppable as you assume them to be. The post continues…

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One thought on “Why Autocrats Can’t Be Appeased – Neither by Peers, Nor by Victims

  1. An excellent review! Loved the identifying of freedom as a novel strategy in nature.

    May I add to the voice-exit-loyalty trio that translating the latter, darned, locally much-depended-on loyalty to Latin — probs no news to you–, you get “fides”…


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