Autocrats, Real and Imagined

Alan Zendell, September 22, 2022

The two immediate crises faced by everyone on Earth stem from the same source – the trend toward autocrats and the cults that support them. Our future may hinge on the actions of two men, one a vicious dictator, the other a worshipful wannabe, both of whom relentlessly pursue their agendas with no regard for the rest of us.

Vladimir Putin dreams of restoring the empire that was the Soviet Union. Like centuries of Russian leaders before him, he is driven by the paranoid view that the rest of the world wants to destroy his country. Donald Trump is a narcissistic sociopath who would spend his last breath attempting to achieve the kind of power he imagines Putin has. Neither man possesses a shred of morality or humanity. Empathy and benevolence do not exist in their belief systems except as tools for manipulating people.

As a result, the world finds itself at the mercy of two men who would stop at nothing to realize their ambitions, and each is supported by a cult of true believers. Each clings to power by spreading lies and ruthlessly attacking his enemies, whom he defines as everyone who fails to bend a need in fealty. Each possesses the mentality of a thug and surrounds himself with yes people who support his delusionary view of the world. And they’re each desperate to either remain in or retake control of the world’s largest storehouses of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Putin wants the world to believe he would freeze Europe during the coming winter and resort to nuclear weapons in his quest to control and annex Ukraine. Donald Trump has demonstrated that he would undermine the principles on which our nation was founded and destroy democracy to achieve his ends. The United States and Russia, and by extension, the rest of the civilized world, are being driven to the brink of catastrophe.

That Putin explicitly said, “This is not a bluff,” yesterday, shows how desperate he is. That Trump took the Fifth over 400 times in his court appearances leading up to the $250 million lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against him, his family, and his businesses sends the same message. Trump and Putin are on the ropes, with their backs against the wall, and they’re as dangerous as cornered rats, except that these rats might have the resources to take the rest of us down with them.

There are a couple of simple truths that we ignore at our peril. Leaders like Putin and Trump, unprincipled bullies with the mentalities of gangsters, can only be stopped by strength. Our grandparents lived through the nightmare of what happens when we attempt to compromise or reason with these thugs, and at least until now, we and our European allies have realized that standing united against aggression is more important than our individual needs and differences.

The other truth is that a republic like ours, imperfect as it is, has been the most benevolent form of government the world has ever known, but it’s still an experiment. No democratic society has ever survived longer than a couple of centuries, and if we expect ours to, we must defend it against those who would bring it down with the same unrelenting determination that we resist Russia’s attempt to rebuild its empire by force.

To get through this, we must have our eyes open to reality. Our communications media are all dominated by wealthy, powerful people out for their own interests, not ours. We cannot let the extremists who control them dominate our thoughts and opinions. It’s on us to get this right, because there are no superheroes waiting to come to our rescue.

The biggest problem may be that history is not on our side. Power and wealth invariably corrupt people, and human nature includes a nasty perversity that too often leads to death and destruction. Yet, I remained optimistic about the future regardless of having lived through the Cold War, Vietnam, nine-eleven, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’ve looked at Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the threats they represent and always assumed things would work out in the end.

Why? Because I bought into the American dream and the propaganda that sustained it. I grew up believing in the fantasy of our destiny, that we’re the good guys and the good guys always win, except that they don’t. When my resolve weakens, I pull out my copy of Walter M. Miller’s classic 1959 novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz, which I first read just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its brilliantly delivered message is that human beings, whenever they achieve the ability for self-destruction will inevitably tear down everything they have built because we cannot control our baser urges.

Miller makes his point convincingly enough to restore my resolve. When the forces of evil and dissolution rise up, we have no choice but to stand up to them with everything we possess. Joe Biden understands that. If we survive the next few years, history will recognize him as the right leader at the right time, one who put basic humanity and decency ahead of greed and power.

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