Why do we love dictators?
I believe that from time to time, men are created whom I call volunteers of providence, in whose hands are placed the destiny of their countries. I believe I am one of those men,” wrote Louis Napoleon, the elected dictator who would dominate mid-19th century France until his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians in the Battle of Sedan (1870).
Megalomania, it seems, ran in the family. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of the original Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte, who almost singlehandedly changed the course of modern history. Ambitious and audacious, Napoleon Bonaparte believed he could “Make France great again” with his military genius. At one point, his Grande Armée consisting mostly of conscripts did come dangerously close to conquering the whole of Europe, had he not foolishly invaded the freezing mega-plains of Russia. Two hundred years after his death, France is still struggling with Napoleon’s controversial legacy.
And so are we, besieged peoples across the postcolonial world, who have repeatedly elected poor imitations of Napoleon with varying degrees of disastrous results. So, the question is: Why do we love “strongmen” so much?
It’s undeniable that Napoleon, in life and in literature, cut a glamorous figure. And there is also no denying his unparalleled military acumen. Following the French empire’s defeat during the Seven Years’ War, and the ensuing revolutionary chaos throughout the twilight years of that century, Napoleon also stood as a symbol of national rejuvenation.
But despite his many achievements, including the partial emancipation of minorities under the Napoleonic Code, the French emperor was ruthless and tyrannical. The great Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich lamented how the Napoleonic Wars were traumatic with all “the killing, the pain, the piggishness, the pillaging, the corpses, the amputations, the dead horses—not to forget the rape.”
When asked about the immense suffering his wars caused, the French emperor boasted, “I was brought up in military camps, I know only the camps, and a man such as I am does not give a [expletive] about the lives of a million men.”
It was also Napoleon who crushed Haiti’s revolution, led by the “Black Jacobins,” and restored slavery in the tortured colony. In the end, Napoleon’s megalomania led him to permanent exile, with his once-glorious nation left in ruins.
Psychologists often talk about the “Napoleon complex,” a neurosis whereby deeply insecure men, often not so tall in stature, tend to overcompensate by engaging in domineering and aggressive behavior.
Napoleon is also seen as the best representation of the “great man theory,” a distorted historiography that tends to romanticize megalomaniac men as supposed heroes.
Fortunately, most advanced nations have been mature enough to keep megalomaniacs out of power; or, in the case of America recently, to vote one out of office. And if one looks at “success stories” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries that come up are “strong societies” with either liberal democratic leaders (Taiwan, New Zealand) or party-led regimes (Vietnam) where leadership is exercised collectively.
But across the postcolonial world, where the pandemic has been most devastating, it seems many people can’t still shake off their collective fascination with despots, even the most tragically disastrous and visibly incompetent ones.
Studies show that throughout the past decade, close to 60 percent of Filipinos have expressed openness for a leader “who does not have to bother with elections.” This broadly tracks with Pew Research Center surveys showing that as many as 8 out of 10 Filipinos are willing to support authoritarian leaders, even if generic support for democracy and press freedom is high.
If anything, the latest surveys show that Filipinos will likely vote for another scion of our local version of the House of Bonaparte in the 2022 elections. Perhaps what draws countless people to poor imitations of Napoleon are the certainty and drama these leaders bring to the otherwise placid and inscrutable nature of modern politics.
Decades after this country declared formal independence, too many of its citizens seem more eager for paternalistic leaders than to become full participants in democratic politics themselves. But perhaps it’s also because many fear competent leaders and strong institutions, which can bring about truly transformative change at the expense of our long-cherished prejudices. Perhaps we just refuse to learn from the facts of history, because we love the myth of “strongmen” too much.