How Does One Person Take Power Over a Nation?

by Robert Arvay, Contributing Writer

As a young boy, I watched in wonderment on a military base, a single officer giving the command to stand at attention, and dozens of soldiers stood at attention. He gave the order to “left face,” and those dozens of soldiers faced left. He told them, “forward march,” and forward they marched.

I wondered why the soldiers did as they were told. I wondered how it was that this one officer could command them. Why was he the one in charge, and not one of the other men? Of course, my thoughts were not so precisely worded, but the questions have never left me. Indeed, over the years, the questions have only grown larger.

Years later, as I studied history, I wondered how it was possible that millions of Germans were commanded by one man named Hitler. He ordered countless numbers of his followers to their deaths, and they obeyed. Likewise, a man named Stalin sent millions of Russians to their deaths, and they obeyed. On smaller scales, the question is raised again and again and again, as dictators rise in various places around the world, snapping orders that are instantly obeyed. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and Vladimir Putin of Russia are only a few examples.

How do they do it?

At first, I thought that the case of Adolph Hitler would be instructive, so I looked more deeply into it. Here was a person who, early in life, was as close to being the personification of a nobody as one can get. He tried and failed to get into an art school. In World War I, he was an undistinguished army corporal. In later years, he would snap orders to generals, even ordering their deaths if they disobeyed.  An assassination attempt failed because the would-be assassins made their plan too complicated, using a briefcase bomb instead of a simple pistol.

It turns out that Hitler did not really propel himself to power. The infrastructure of future tyranny was already in place for him, as it were, awaiting him. Devious men surrounded Hitler, accomplices in treachery. Chance seems to have played a major role. In short, a complex weave of events occurred. At any moment, those events might have taken a different turn, and had they, history would not even have recorded Hitler’s name.

My theory is that human society, and human psychology, is predisposed toward accepting tyranny. We see this as far back as the days of the Old Testament, when the Jews decided to do away with their divinely ordained system of governance, and chose instead to be more like the ungodly nations that surrounded them. They clamored for a king, and they got one. Their first king, Saul, the bad king, was replaced by David the good king, and then by Solomon, another good king, but after Solomon’s death, rule by evil took over, and Israel was brought to ruin. Had the Jews foreseen the inevitable result of their choice, they would likely have put up with their divinely appointed judges, as corrupt as those judges were.

It is because we are predisposed toward tyranny that tyrants rule.

The great exception in history has been the United States. Having suffered under a tyranny that was by no means as horrible as rule by men such as Ivan the Terrible, the Founders cobbled together an independent government that not only threw off the tyrant, but also, they hoped, would prevent any future tyrants from seizing power.

The Founders understood power. They understood how it is gained, and they understood how it is abused. They understood that the would-be tyrant must first be surrounded by lackeys, by men in the shadows, by opportunists hoping for favors. They understood the complex weave of events that must occur, and they devised a method whereby those events could never conspire to bring to absolute power any one individual.

For many decades, that system prevailed. Then it eroded. Gradually, year by year, the strengths which had under-girded our imperfect society began to weaken. Slowly, the safeguards against tyranny unraveled.

Today, we have in power that single individual that the Founders abhorred in principle. We have a man who came from seemingly nowhere, a man with no previous accomplishments, a man who refuses to divulge his college records – a man who has never so much as run a lemonade stand. He has never signed a paycheck, and indeed, never earned one from private enterprise.

Yet this man orders generals about, firing them at his whim. He presides over failure after failure, and he survives scandal after scandal. He flouts the law, violating the separation of powers, arbitrarily dismissing laws he does not like, and using illegal means to punish his political opponents. Yet, despite all this, or maybe because of all this, Barack Obama snaps orders, and millions of people comply.

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