Don’t blame it on Donald Trump alone. Blame his accomplices as well. Those who had the independent authority to check him, such as the Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell and the Chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee Lindsay Graham, as well as those who enjoyed delegated authority such as his Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries in his Cabinet, they all colluded with him.
These people, and there were many, remained silent when he crossed the red line, defended him when he showed disregard for conventions, and submitted to him when he insisted that things be done his way even if they violated constitutional morality. They pandered to his narcissism.
The list of Trump’s lapses is so long that there is no point trying to recount them here, from his statement that if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York he would not lose voters (hardly a statement from a political leader) to pardoning Blackwater guards who killed 14 innocent civilians in Iraq, to asking the top election official in Georgia to find him 11,780 votes.
Let me, therefore, instead just stay with the question: why did such people collude?
Narcissism and toxic regimes
A narcissistic tyrant cannot do anything if the people around him are not complicit. If they withhold their assent, he has no capacity to cause societal harm. He becomes a paper tiger. He can growl but he cannot bite. He may not even be able to growl. So why the men and women around him have allowed him to corrode the vitals of the political system and made his brand of noxious politics the new normal in the US and perhaps around the world.
In such a Trumpian world, adversaries are enemies. Prejudice, viciousness and hate, that had been effectively managed over the decades as a liberal political agenda took root, has now to come to the surface. We see this happening in many polities across the world. From Brazil to Hungary, Turkey to Indonesia, China to Russia, Sri Lanka to India, US to UK, the narcissistic leader has come to dominate politics because of the complicity of many such men and women.
This needs explanation. Since I am not here trying to explain the Trumpian phenomenon, but only use his case to explain why people collude with tyranny, I will not look at how social media gave him a powerful platform to build a support base – Twitter was his megaphone – or how the super-rich, such as the Koch brothers who have big interests in hydrocarbons, gave him unqualified endorsement.
These are the specifics of Trumpian politics that do not concern me here. I want only to answer the general question of why does such a toxic regime get collaborators who help it survive and grow? Why does an ethics of the public good not intervene and stop the collaboration? There are four distinct possible explanations.
Although this is a general story, I shall give examples only from the US. The reader can add their own illustrations.
Pursuers of interests
The most common explanation is to see such men and women as pursuers of interests. These interests may be both personal, or of their class, since occupying office gives them the power, status and wealth to do so. If they are corrupt, then it is an opportunity to convert public decisions into private gain. If they seek status, then office gives them the public recognition, which can be later monetised for writing “kiss and tell” accounts of their White House years. Office gives them the power to promote class interests such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change at the behest of the hydrocarbon industry.
The forms adopted by the pursuers of interests are varied but all of them are united by a pragmatic attitude, the single-minded pursuit of interests. This is all that matters. Issues such as constitutional morality, or common good, or public interest, or even something as mundane as institutional propriety, the Laxman Rekha of decent administrative behaviour that will not be crossed, do not motivate or even distract them.
Like horses, these pursuers of interest wear blinders. They do not see the bigger picture. They do not worry about the larger costs to the polity that their collusion involves.
A second reason why people collude with the narcissistic tyrant is because they are his ideological compatriots. They share his vision of the world, accept his ideological project. When such disruption occurs, they see it as necessary. Disruption rids the world of its undesirable features and sets the basis for a desirable future.
Ideological compatriots, in contrast to pursuers of interest, have a larger picture which inspires them. They are guided by values and principles. But these are regressive such as white supremacy, muscular majoritarianism, suppression of minorities, expulsion of migrants, which they share with the tyrant.
Ideological compatriots are dangerous because they are filled with a zeal that seeks to disenfranchise dissenters as well as opposing world views. The equivalent of ideological compatriots in office are lynch mobs on the street.
The third group of collaborators are the egoists. They collude because they have an unreal sense of themselves and of their capacity to temper the tyrant’s narcissistic behaviour. They think they can curb his behavioural excesses. They think they can make a difference. The egoists either have a poor understanding of the psychology of such leaders, or are unrealistic about their ability to change things, or are naive about the dynamics of politics or perhaps all three.
The egoists do not realise that their relationship with the leader is of a superior-subordinate type, a master-slave. It is not, and can never be, a relationship of near equals. They are mere pawns in his game, servants of his narcissistic whim. When they choose to stay, they become enablers of his urges and, because they are competent, they can deliver outcomes and give him the unrealistic feeling that it is he who has delivered them. They are the robots to his algorithm. Of course, without Asimov’s constraining rule of robotics that the robot shall not harm humans.
The egoists have values, but these get swatted away by the arrogance of the leader. And since they remain with the illusion that they can temper his excesses they do not leave. They collude by staying on.
The fourth group of colluders are the most dangerous for constitutional democracy. They recognise all the signs of tyranny, the trampling of all that is good and fragile in the polity, but they have no courage to exit. They stay on and keep the regime running. They stay on because they are too afraid to leave, not because of the leader’s vindictiveness, but because, through years of not taking principled stands, complicity has become a habit.
These are the ones who when asked to bend, crawl. They are the little men and women of the political system that keep it working, that get inured to the growing danger of tyranny and choose to do nothing. This class of colluders, the moral cowards, see the hazard but prefer to wait for others to protest and storm the Bastille. They are the people watching the protests taking place in the street below from the window on the third floor.
The four groups of colluders, the interest pursuers, the ideological compatriots, the egoists, and the moral cowards, can be found in all polities. I have not mentioned names because I would want each reader to engage with the text and offer their own examples.
In authoritarian societies colluders have less autonomy to act and thus their collusion can be explained away as the result of the fear of penalty. In democratic societies this excuse is not available since colluders have the freedom to limit power by the rules of the system, by the authority of the constitutional order. And yet they collude thereby sustaining a culture of collusion.
This must be broken. That is why the farmer’s movement is so important in India today.
Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. He has recently edited with Rukmini Bhaya Nair a book titled Keywords for India, Bloomsbury, UK. Views are personal.