One of the Machiavellian principles of power, at least inferred, is that dictators must surround themselves with their enemies. This sounds illogical, but it’s true. Mafia bosses must surround themselves with a protective layer of brutal, murderous thugs, who will willingly carry out orders to kill potential enemies. Yet how many mafia bosses have been murdered by their own supposed protectors?
A dictatorship is nothing more than an organized crime mob on steroids. The head of state must brutally suppress (read: murder) anyone and everyone who poses even a remote threat to his power. Dictators do not get voted out of office. They get carried out, feet first.
Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea (the title of chairman is a euphemism), is exceedingly paranoid. Paranoia in a dictator is not a disorder; it is a necessary survival mechanism. Kim not only murders anyone and everyone whom he even suspects of disloyalty, but takes nonlethal measures as well. He even takes his own toilet with him wherever he travels, in order to prevent his DNA from falling into the hands of analysts who might deduce his physical infirmities.
Kim is terrified to travel by air, knowing that once he is in a metal tube at 37,000 feet altitude, he is helpless, at the mercy not only of a potentially suicidal pilot, but of the ground crew as well. When he flew to Singapore to meet with President Trump, Kim took numerous evasive measures to throw off his many would-be assassins. When he traveled to Hanoi to meet with our president, he went by train through his closest ally, China.
Speaking of China, where Xi Jinping is president for life, Xi is another murderously brutal dictator. While not as flamboyant as the bluff-and-bluster Kim, he is every bit the Machiavellian manipulator. Like Kim, he keeps his accomplices close and his enemies even closer. Dictators, you see, have no friends.
Both Kim and Xi know that their true power resides in playing one would-be assassin against all the others. They keep them guessing, never knowing whom they can trust and who will sell them out. In North Korea, it is not enough for them to quietly nod their heads in agreement with everything the dictator says. They must exuberantly applaud (or agonizingly weep, as the case may be), and do so convincingly. The dictator knows that it is all a show, but that is not the point. It is easier to detect faint praise than to psychoanalyze a calculating plotter skulking in the shadows — and faint praise is one’s death warrant.
The true power of a dictator also requires positive incentives. Those who are loyal must be well paid. They must live in luxury. In other words, they must have a lot to lose if the dictator falls from power. That combination of carrot and stick is the key to dictatorial supremacy.
The dictator, then, must carefully balance his threats and promises. His acolytes must fear him. Indeed, they must be constantly terrorized by the dictator’s ruthless exercise of authority. However, the dictator must be exceedingly careful in how much terror he can impose. Terror keeps him alive. Panic can kill him.
The difference is critical, and every dictator knows what that difference is. People who are terrorized will cower and obey. People who panic lose control and react desperately, heedless of the risk. A panicked person will perceive that he has nothing to lose by acting rashly and everything to lose if he accedes to the threat. Some believe that Josef Stalin was killed by his own inner circle when yet another purge, with its usual firing squads, was perceived to be imminent. The inner circle panicked.
Finally, this is what brings us to the ingenious method by which President Trump is deftly maneuvering both Kim and Xi into their potential death traps. Both men are surrounded by loyalists who are not only terrorized, but also richly rewarded for their continued loyalty. Once those rewards stop, once the dictator shows weakness, once he is defeated by a stronger enemy, the loyalists might panic.
Trump is using this fact to maneuver Xi into acceding to American demands regarding trade fairness. This places Xi on the horns of a dilemma, between a rock and a hard place. If he does not yield to Trump, his economy falters, perhaps fatally (for Xi). If he does yield, he must somehow survive the wrath of his betrayed loyalists, who will perceive him as weak. In either case, Xi is at least diminished.
The same applies to Kim, but in spades. Whereas Xi might, although it would be a long shot, declare himself ill with some physical infirmity and retire into comfort and obscurity, Kim has far too many vengeful enemies to ever contemplate a safe retirement, even abroad.
The diplomatic disaster Kim suffered in Hanoi, to have traveled by train to negotiate with (i.e., swindle) President Trump, only to have Trump immediately reject Kim’s request — and leave Hanoi, with Kim standing empty-handed at the altar — surely dismayed the North Korean inner circle. Almost certainly, some of them considered “removing” Kim, deterred only by their correct assessment of their fellow conspirators as treacherous opportunists, who would kill each other as surely as they would betray Kim.
Even though that removal did not happen, both Kim and Xi have been reminded of the fact that not only could it happen in the near future, but Trump, knowing the score, could make it happen. They live in terror of him, but not panic.
What other American president (other than, arguably, Ronald Reagan) has ever disabled our enemies so quickly, and without firing a shot? What future president ever will?