Play #5 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Find a Scapegoat

Every would-be Dictator needs at least one scapegoat in his bag of dirty tricks. Demonizing a marginalized group serves to unify the public against an internal “threat,” rendering them more manipulable. It also provides a good “fall guy” when the regime makes critical mistakes. While it is rare for the whole population of any country to buy into a good round of scapegoating, a Dictator doesn’t need the population as a whole – he just needs a majority to believe or be ambivalent.  He can then demonize the opposition itself, reducing its power. Here are a few characteristics of how scapegoating campaigns work.

1.  Attack a group the public already fears

The key to finding the right scapegoat is to pick on groups that already have some notable and recent “bad hombres.” This enables a determined autocrat to blow those examples out of all proportion and paint them as representative of the whole marginalized group. There is no such thing as an entirely clean scapegoat which is why Muslims work in modern-day America and, say, Mormons do not (despite the fact that both groups are widely distrusted by sectors of the population). Otherwise, the public would not already fear them.

This is a pretty common theme in lots of regimes, and socialists have been a particularly productive scapegoat for many of them, from Hitler’s Third Reich to the Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s. The Argentine military junta got away with “disappearing” an enormous number of suspected socialists  in its “Dirty War”precisely because there was already a Marxist guerilla terrorism campaign taking place in Argentina. Because social democratic and Marxist ideologies were linked, the junta could link the socialists to their Marxist brethren in the minds of the public. In fact, in one of the first rulings on the dirty war after democracy was restored, the judge, in a notably contortionist judgement, said “I sincerely believe that the majority of the victims of the illegal repression were guerrilla militants.” Essentially, he argued that even though the repression was illegal, the people who were attacked were still, legally speaking, criminals, and were therefore not entitled to the full protection of the law. The junta managed to sell its scapegoating to a judge – that’s some pretty successful propaganda.

2.  When a Dictator screws up, the scapegoat will take a beating

Scapegoating will be inversely proportional to success. Every bad news cycle for an autocrat needs a scapegoat to explain it away. The more bad news cycles, the more scapegoating you should expect to see. This is especially true of leaders who have made outlandish promises to get into power. Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution was not short of scapegoats. From the Yanqui imperialists to the wreckers at home (he even threatened to nationalise corner stores at one point), there will always be a foe to take the rap. So look out for a particularly vigorous round of scaremongering when the regime takes a particularly egregious misstep.

3. Let allies sell the narrative before committing the leader

To figure out which marginalized or discredited group is next on the block, keep an eye on the Dictator’s allies and henchmen. In all likelihood, they will be the first to present the test cases for a scapegoat. It has been my observation that most effective scapegoating, at least once someone is in power, starts with advisors, allies in the legislature, and other surrogates raising trial balloons to see if a narrative catches on. This is very different from scapegoating in campaigns, which generally starts with the leader. Once in power its the allies who’ll start the ball rolling – working towards the leader.

These scenarios are when scapegoating heads out of control and gets really dangerous. This is, in essence, the argument that Hans Mommsen has put forward about the way the Third Reich functioned. Each of Hitler’s henchmen devised new ways to sell ideas and propaganda they knew he supported, so that Hitler could then address only the successful narrative, creating a myth of omniscience. Civil servant Werner Willikens’s great but chilling quote holds lessons for all of us: “…it is the duty of everybody to try to work towards the Fuhrer along the lines he would wish. Anyone who makes mistakes will notice it soon enough. But anyone who really works towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his goal will certainly both now and in the future one day have the finest reward in the form of the sudden legal confirmation of his work.” This tactic can lead to seemingly inconsistent statements that nevertheless serve to elevate the leader above internal squabbling, and can lead to increasingly radical “trial balloons,” as subordinates compete to implement his will.  I’d recommend you read the Hans Mommsen link.  It will look awfully familiar.


This entry in the Dictator’s Playbook is brought to you by Apple Pie Politics contributor Mince Pie.  Mince Pie is a Brit with a degree in History from Oxford University. He, like Pie Face, has taken an interest in Dictators ever since they started “studying” for their tutorials on the Third Reich by watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Nazis, he hates those guys.