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Ritual Humiliation: The Favorite Sport of Autocrats

Ruth Ben-Ghiat taps into how public shaming and divide-and-rule tactics used by autocrats create toxic environments of fear and insecurity, where opportunists thrive at the expense of individual dignity and the good of the people.
Published:February 15, 2024

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Perhaps Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) thought he would gain favor with former president Donald Trump by showing up at Trump's January 19 campaign stop in New Hampshire. Instead, the former GOP presidential candidate set himself up to be a foil for one of Trump's favorite activities: debasing others, preferably in front of an audience of millions.

"Did you ever think [Haley] actually supported you, Tim? And you're the senator of her state...You must really hate her," a smirking Trump said, referring to Nikki Haley's pledge to support Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee. Scott intervened in the only way he knew to end this embarrassing spectacle: giving Trump what he wanted. "I just love you," he told Trump. "That's why he's a great politician," Trump declared with a self-satisfied smile.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) listens to Trump humiliate him, Jan. 19, Concord, New Hampshire. Fox News.

A world away in Moscow, former Fox anchor Tucker Carlson may have thought he would earn points with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their February interview. Putin, a busy warmonger and kleptocrat, had granted Carlson two hours of his time. Surely this would further Carlson's ambitions to be the Joseph Goebbels of today's global far right!

Instead, Putin burst his bubble, revealing to the world that years ago Carlson had tried to join the CIA but had been rejected.

"Maybe we should thank God they didn't let you in... [T]hey have always been our opponents," Putin "joked," implying that Carlson would not have been available for Kremlin propaganda services had he gone into the intelligence business.

The look on Carlson's face shows that he neglected one key area in whatever background research he did: Putin's love of taking down others, using his knowledge of their secrets and weaknesses to deflate them and throw them off guard.

Tucker Carlson listens to Vladimir Putin humiliate him in their interview. X.

These two episodes introduce us to a favorite strongman sport: ritual humiliation. Autocrats are fragile and insecure creatures who are always looking over their shoulder to see who is after them. To build themselves up and deter others from challenging their power, they take others down in public, letting them know exactly where they stand and how much they scorn them.

Ritual humiliation also translates into governmental practices which create an environment in which no one feels safe, no matter how much of the leader’s dirty work they do and how many compliments they bestow on him. And yet these leaders never lack a steady supply of opportunists and profiteers who are all too willing to play his game to the detriment of their dignity. The GOP is the latest example.

Divide and Rule

Divide and rule is one way that autocrats maintain an atmosphere of insecurity among their enablers and collaborators.
Officials are pitted against each other for the affections of the leader, and frequent upheavals of cabinet positions keep elites in competition with one another and loyal only to him.

Divide and rule is a window into the dysfunction of authoritarian governance. Every few years Il Duce fired more than half of his cabinet and undersecretaries to make sure no official felt too secure in his position. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet reshuffled his cabinet 49 times (ministers lasted an average of 10 months). Adolf Hitler was an exception in this regard in keeping collaborators such as Goebbels in place for many years.

Personnel changes are prime opportunities for public humiliation. Officials might learn they have been fired by seeing a headline in the newspaper, as happened to Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party secretary Giovanni Giurati in 1931, or while on camera at a government rally (a favorite Mobutu Sese Seko tactic). Pinochet loved to order his ministers to resign en masse and announce on television which ones would remain. Social media adds another dimension: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson learned he had been fired in 2018 while scrolling through Twitter.

Over time the upheaval created by divide and rule produces a political class too weakened by rivalries to conspire against the leader and too cowed to tell him unwelcome truths. It also encourages dependency on the leader and participation in his corruption schemes, which then makes subordinates even more vulnerable. At any moment they could be accused of corruption and punished. Putin knows all about that.

Trump Brings This Autocratic Tradition to America

Trump has used ritual humiliation and divide and rule to make the GOP his personal tool. His administration had a record 68% turnover of high-level positions and the list of Republicans he has mocked publicly is long. In classic autocratic tradition, the more loyalty Republicans show Trump, sticking with him through impeachments, indictments, and a coup attempt that sent them running for their lives, the more he scorns them, losing few opportunities to cut them down. Nothing they can do, even undermine their power as GOP candidates by pledging support for him, a rival candidate, on live television during the first GOP debate, can make them immune from this treatment.

As willing accomplices in their debasement, GOP politicians likely don't want to know that it is only by taking the opposite tack, standing up to the strongman and exposing him as a fearful individual, that the humiliation will end. If they were ready to disengage from the Trump cult they could take advice from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was a veteran of many attempts by Putin to humiliate her publicly. He kept her waiting to see him for hours and once unleashed his dog near her to trigger her fear of canines.

“I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness," said Merkel of this last episode. "Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”