History will always be a great teacher . . . or at least it should be. However, man’s past suggests that often the lessons of history are sacrificed on the altar of expediency and convenience. Many are the instances of world leaders who came to the fore because they presented themselves to the masses as saviours when their reality more resembled Hades.
Some leaders offer a worldview of their country and countrymen that oftentimes suggests superiority and entitlement. Joseph Stalin transformed Russia from a farming nation into a superpower but at a severe cost to his fellow Russians. Adolf Hitler sold the idea of Aryan superiority to Germans and it resonated to their initial advantage but subsequently to their devastation and to disastrous consequences for millions of Europeans.
On the other side of the coin, though, the world has seen the emergence of the likes of Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, among others, who also emphasized the greatness and goodness of their people but had at the core of their politics, integrity. If they were seen as ‘saviours’ by their people, it was not as a result of their sales pitch but was due to their personal sacrifice and their willingness to be part of the fight and the suffering in the trenches.
But one often wonders how do both good and bad leaders succeed? How is a populace cajoled and convinced that what comes out of the mouths of political leaders correlates with the intent of their hearts? Some of the most successful world leaders have been keen students of history, voracious readers, willing to apply tried and tested strategies to win the masses. This has worked effectively in both democracies and dictatorships, although with the latter, coercion can come in less palatable forms.
Writing in his seminal text, The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene posits one strategy to win hearts: “People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow. Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking. Give your new disciples rituals to perform, ask them to make sacrifices on your behalf.” Perhaps this explains why some politicians worldwide can draw massive support even though they offer no realistic solutions to the problems of the people who idolize them. They garner support when their words are illogical, even if appealing.
All citizens want better for themselves. It is a natural inclination and political leaders obviously are aware of this. In depressed or difficult times, speaking political truths serves no purpose for persons seeking to gain or maintain power, if the truth is harsh and adds nothing to the natural desires of a people. Greene underscores the need to play to people’s fantasies. “The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes from disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.” It would seem that the greater the obstacles people face in life, the more readily they accept and gravitate towards those who promise them what they want to hear. This is the politician’s creed.
Of course, the effective political leader needs support, cronies, if you may. There are those who can offer something to a political cause because of their social position, wealth, eloquent oratory or slavish mentality. Recruitment from enemy camps also has its place. But there must be a political strategy. Those with damaged egos or persons with inflated sense of worth are easily recruited when snubbed in their previous domiciles. Pandering to their egos is worth more than gold. “Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall. That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure. Either way, once found it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage,” Greene argues. This, perhaps, explains why some would-be loyalists leave their political base and seamlessly join their previous foes while mumbling some philosophical delusion to explain themselves.
But perhaps one of the most critical elements of political leadership is the necessity for leaders, as unscrupulous as they might be, to always suggest that their hands are clean, even when they are fully soiled. Greene writes: “You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency: Your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds. Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s paws to disguise your involvement.” Thus, history has shown where, in the face of overwhelming evidence of political chicanery, some leaders get their allies and confidantes to take the fall, to lead the offence, to shed the crocodile tears.
And there will always be believers. In his political treatise The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli writes: “Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.” Innocent souls and many countries have paid dearly, and frequently, on the basis of this premise.