The Myth of the "Dictator Trap"

Of course Putin won't be in power forever; don't misunderstand his downfall.

The Myth of the "Dictator Trap"
Photo by Jørgen Håland / Unsplash

News broke yesterday that everyone knew was coming, though nobody knew when. Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed, along with 10 others, when his private plane crashed. The initial assumption was a missile strike, though US intelligence suggests that an explosion took place inside the plane. As the head of the notorious Wagner Group, a mercenary company that supplied bodies to the Ukraine meatgrinder and extended Russian support to various African war lords, Prigozhin led a loud but unsuccessful mutiny in late June.

At the time, Prigozhin’s convoy turned from the Ukrainian front and made whirlwind speed toward Moscow—supposedly to overthrow military leadership, and not Putin—though fizzled out after a few hours with Putin offering a deal of exile in exchange for peace. At the time, many were surprised by the apparent decency of not having him killed on the spot, though most agreed that he was a dead man walking. (Jokes abounded about Prigozhin not standing near windows for the foreseeable future).

The insurrection signified a deep chink in Putin’s armor—a self-inflicted wound due to his bolstering of a 3rd party military power. Western media, as usual, offered excited but muddled takes. Putin first looked weak keeping Prigozhin alive. Now, Putin looks weak for having him killed. Brian Klaas, a rotating flavor of the month for The Atlantic, revived his “Dictator Trap” theory. The crux? Authoritarian quests for power lead to the seeker’s undoing. At face value, it makes sense. Every society is fundamentally democratic, and no governing style can suppress the public completely. Despotic or not, the population will revolt if necessary. Machiavelli taught us this in The Prince—as did Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Dewey, and countless others. 

Yet, Klaas’s argument has flaws. First, all political reigns end. Klaas is right to point out that leaders of attempted coups rarely die of old age; ditto dictators. Though losing one’s political life is true of nearly every political leader. Some are fortunate to term-out, or die peacefully in office, though most are victim to the ballot or the bullet. Secondly, and more importantly for the conversation here, I’ve chosen to focus on Klaas's analysis because it follows the uniform and consistently wrong liberal/neoconservative analysis that autocracies aren't stable because they aren’t just. Let’s go through his original 2022 article, “Vladimir Putin has Fallen into the Dictator Trap” before getting into the updated version. 

First, I’ll credit Klaas’s simple and lucid writing, and thus quote the summary of his thesis directly. On Putin and dictators in general, he writes:

The strategies they use to stay in power tend to trigger their eventual downfall. Rather than being long-term planners, many make catastrophic short-term errors—the kinds of errors that would likely have been avoided in democratic systems. They hear only from sycophants, and get bad advice. They misunderstand their population. They don’t see threats coming until it’s too late. And unlike elected leaders who leave office to riches, book tours, and the glitzy lifestyle of a statesman, many dictators who miscalculate leave office in a casket, a possibility that makes them even more likely to double down.
Despots sow the seeds of their own demise early on, when they first face the trade-off between allowing freedom of expression and maintaining an iron grip on power. After arriving in the palace, crushing dissent and jailing opponents is often rational, from the perspective of a dictator: It creates a culture of fear that is useful for establishing and maintaining control. But that culture of fear comes with a cost.

There are common sense, theoretical, and empirical problems with this perspective. We’ll overlook that he offers generalizations (for his sake and mine). But that dictators “only hear from sycophants,” or that “they don’t see threats coming until it’s too late,” are faults difficult to pin on dictators alone. Practically, it’s challenging to find top leadership of major countries that do not think they are God’s gift to humanity, or frequently ignore the more sensible in the room in favor of vanity.

At the start of the article, Klaas starts by attacking the total “myth” of the “the savvy strongman, the rational, calculating despot who can play the long game because he (and it’s typically a he) doesn’t have to worry about pesky polls or angry voters” by citing the above. Well, of course not every strongman is savvy. However, being a strongman does not preclude one from savviness. Likewise, democratic mandates do not guarantee competence.

At the theoretical level, Machiavelli best shows the flaws of logic in the position. If we replace “political leader” with “prince,” we’ll get some clarity. Machiavelli sums up the success of sovereigns in saying that a prince’s responsibility is to stupefy and satisfy the masses. The means vary based on sociocultural factors and tolerance for governance systems. In his time, the public execution of political scapegoats could help keep the state intact, stymieing resistance through both fear and assuagement. Again, this is true for all leaders, though the actions to take depend largely on the culture and system of governance. In democratic nations with strong institutions, satisfaction and stupefaction can come from regular election turnovers, high profile prosecutions, and relentless ad/PR campaigns. 

There is also something to be said for differences in levels of satisfaction correlated with the strengths of institutions. In countries with extremely strong ideologies or institutions, often the importance of the politician sometimes comes second to the institutional framework. Regular elections can help the public think politics are changing when only their appearance does. Liberalism is the prime example of this, where a country can go through presidents from across the spectrum like Kennedy, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama to mire the country with military aggression in lands that don’t deserve it for the sake of “spreading freedom.” Meanwhile, dictatorial states that are weighed down by coups and revolutions express stupefaction and satisfaction in grander, albeit, far more dangerous ways, with dictators sometimes killing civilians without cause and civilians sometimes killing dictators with extreme cause.

The concept of danger is a major theoretical issue that Klaas acknowledges but skims the gravitas. Indeed, he writes, “And unlike elected leaders who leave office to riches, book tours, and the glitzy lifestyle of a statesman, many dictators who miscalculate leave office in a casket, a possibility that makes them even more likely to double down.” 

It’s difficult to argue that dictators don’t know this. While we can’t jump into the minds of Putin or Xi or anyone else, it seems unimaginable they don’t realize that their only two options in ending their political lives are to peacefully turn the position over to someone else or be killed. 

The stakes are very much flipped than how Klaas has it in his mind. For most leaders of democratically elected world leaders, losing an election can be devastating, but only to one’s pride. Often usually one gains substantially after leaving office. H.W. Bush, a one-term president, reportedly doubled his net worth from before his win to after his loss. This is a trend among every living president

Meanwhile, dictators have to worry about their murder, and such risks tend to lead to seeing threats and understanding their populations much more astutely than the liberal West tends to think. Miscalculations are far more dangerous to leaders of non-democracies.

That dictators are not long term thinkers is Klaas’s weakest stance. It’s broadly understood that dictators have substantially more leeway in the long term than do democratic leaders by virtue of having more power, no tangible rivals, and no election cycle. Klaas seems to rely on pop psychology and conjecture than substantiated reasoning.

Now we enter the empirical level, which shows the silliness of the framing. To suggest that Putin has fallen into the dictator trap by making myopic, ignorant, and vain decisions—all from a place of short-term thinking—over the course of 24 years is laughable. Putin took power in 1999 and has comfortably held it since. 

Ironically, five months after the publication of Klaas’s piece, the New York Times published a mirror op-ed called “Xi Jinping Has Fallen into the Dictator Trap,” citing many of the same theories. This latter position reads even more ridiculously given that Xi’s power currently dwarfs Putin’s. China’s economy is struggling now, though only relatively from explosive growth over the past decades, and its international influence verges on unrivaled. Again, Xi falling into the dictator trap in year 11 and after having unanimous support to amend the country’s constitution to have power for life seems at odds with the spirit of the trap. 

Putin and Xi know well that what faces them if they fail, and that’s a strength in favor of dictator’s longevity. Let’s look to our wannabe authoritarian, Donald Trump, for some differences. Trump whose rap sheet is filling miles of paper, is only now facing prosecution and on relatively minor charges. The courts are moving slowly and federal prosecutors are exercising absurd levels of caution in their case-building. He turned himself in to an Atlanta jail today, with bail set at $200,000. He is still the runaway lead to win his party’s nomination for the presidency. Trump was in power for four years, before losing reelection due to egregious “miscalculations.”

Meanwhile, in an extreme counterexample, the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi was reportedly sodomized with a bayonet before being shot to death by NATO-backed rebels. We can also easily point to the slew of missteps, however, most were overstated given that Gaddafi was in power for a cumulative 42 years.

Klaas published an updated article following the death of Prigozhin, arguing that the assassination will be a hallmark moment in Putin’s demise. Though of course, to offer himself some defense, Klaas qualifies his conclusion: “None of this is to say that Putin’s murderous regime is now in its death throes. But once the long-term costs of today’s apparent assassination have been accounted for, the late Yevgeny Prigozhin may yet have the last laugh from beyond the grave.” Again, this is a difficult idea to swallow. The man who took pleasure in literally butchering civilians and was killed as a traitor in exile can’t feasibly get a laugh if Putin’s demise is 15 years from now, or even, really, in a week. Though, I suppose, Klaas gets to be right both ways now. 

I focus on Klaas’s piece because the misconception of the ideologically wrong, thus politically insecure correlation must end. We should note that after Putin famously imprisoned a prominent oligarch in 2005, the Guardian, the New York Times, and think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claimed that Putin showed potentially fatal weakness. Talk about a miscalculation.

The Western media still remains confounded by Trump’s popularity, and it makes sense when it doesn’t understand any other authoritarian either. Liberal conflation of moral rightness and security endlessly leads to misunderstanding and often, devastating policy. Absolutely none of this is to say that Putin’s or Xi’s governance are not horrid and unjust, though to count on their downfall fails to make sense. But of course, it’s almost certain they will fall out of power eventually—again, everyone does. 

I’m reminded of one of the early common sense lessons one learns in investing which is that while you can’t predict the stock market, it doesn’t stop people from trying. The famous short investor, Michael Burry, (of The Big Short fame, he predicted the 2008 housing market crash almost perfectly) has incorrectly predicted a market crash 9 years in a row. Of course, such a crash is inevitable in the ebbs and flows of a market economy, and being wrong for nearly a decade doesn’t matter when he’s finally right. 

In essence, while theories like the "dictator trap" are enticing, they tread a dangerous line between oversimplification and reality. For every authoritarian regime, the dynamics, cultural nuances, and political landscapes vary widely. Generalizing such diverse systems under one umbrella term and predicting their trajectories with unwarranted certainty is not just logically flawed, but also politically naive. We are back in a world of complex geopolitics and vies for regional power. It would be prudent for analysts, policymakers, and scholars to resist the allure of one-size-fits-all theories and instead strive for a more nuanced, informed understanding. After all, in the grand chessboard of international politics, superficial analyses can lead to miscalculations with consequences that reverberate across generations.

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