When you see an election result like “98%” for a sitting president who is actually a dictator do not assume that this dictator would have lost the election had the election been fair.
I lived in Zaire. Mobotu Sese Seku Kuku Kibombe, the arch-typical syphilitic dictator, the model for all the other African dictators found in real life and fiction, would win by 99% every time he ran. He did that because of two things.
1) The method of election. Everyone could vote. To vote, you pick up a ballot. There are two choices. One ballot is bright Kelly green, the color of the Movement Popular de Revolution, Mobutu’s party. The other was some other color, for the other candidate. Then, you would take this large and visible ballot and walk past some soldiers, then the soldiers would direct you to one of two locations. The first location, visible and right nearby, was the ballot box that you would put the green MPR-Mobutu ballot in. If you had the other ballot, you’d go around the back of the building where there would be a clay pot to put the non-MPR ballot in. Oh, and there would be some drunk solders back there and they would beat the crap out of you.
2) Everybody actually loved Mobutu because he brought peace to Zaire and kept the repressive outsiders out. Remember, Zaire had gone through the worst colonial period of any African colony. The Belgians in Zaire were as bad as Hitler in Poland, except for many decades. Sure, there were small wars now and then, but mostly it was peace. Mobutu brought dignity to Zaire. Most of the Zairois I encountered there, and got to know well and to trust, were either pro-Mobutu because he had stopped the wars and got rid of the whites, or ambivalent, knowing he was an evil dictator, but recognizing that nothing ever happened under Mobutu that was as bad as what happened under the Belgians.
I was once at a party (in the US) where there were about 100 Africans, all academics, many were faculty, many were grad students or post docs. They were part of a one of the largest African Studies programs in the US.
I was there to give a talk on some irrelevancy in African archaeology, but they were all there because they were becoming experts on governance, or already were. The host asked for everyone’s attention to give a toast to somebody (there was a reason for the party, somebody getting hired, or retiring, or something, I don’t remember).
As part of his toast, he correctly said, “right now in this room is all the talent you need to assemble the executive branch including a full cabinet for no fewer than five African countries. If only they’d let that happen.”
Those people would not have voted for Mobutu or any other dictator. Those people understood that having a fascist dictator running your country was bad. Those people were standing by and quite ready to lead and govern and run things in their native countries of Nigeria, Zaire, wherever, as soon as the bad guys could be put aside. And, those people were all in Gainesville, Florida, not their native countries. (Many of them were exiled under pain of death or imprisonment).
But the average person living in Zaire, at the time, was not what we could call today “woke” in any way, or only barely so. Had there not been a threat of violence for failing to vote for Mobutu, there is a good chance that he would have won by a landslide anyway.
Of course, and I fully recognize this, if there was not a threat of violence against opposition to the dictator, there would have been viable alternative parties. People would have gotten political. It would not have been so easy for Mobutu to get a large majority of votes just because he once threw out the whites, and later, put down a bloody rebellion or two.
But, still, most people were not of the mind that the young men and women at that African Studies center were of. Not even close. Most people remained ready to be led by a dictator. Even a bad one. Even one of the worst of the worst, like Mobutu Sese Seku Kuku Kibombe
Today in America, something over 30% of Americans, by my estimate, couldn’t possibly care less about democracy. They would take a Trump dictatorship if it was offered to them. Most of them would probably not fight for such an option, but they would not fight against it, either. And, over time, more and more will probably be likely to fight for it.
I see a lot of talk about people remembering to recognize a dictatorship when they see one, but this talk is fairly useless because it happens among people who care about whether or not we live in a dictatorship. This talk is not happening among the double digit percentage of people (though still a minority) in the US who would not mind, and may even prefer, a Trump-led, Republican dictatorship.
Does this mean that we must somehow convince the soy and corn farmers, the anti-union workers, the white supremacists, and others, that they are dragging themselves, their children, and the rest of us, into a world led by fascists, with no democracy?
I don’t think so. I don’t think they care, I don’t think it is in their culture to even have that conversation, let alone to grasp the salient points, let alone to care, let alone to act.
We are in this fight despite them. We are, in many ways, in a fight against them. Nobody wants to hear that, but closing your ears does not actually work to close off possibilities.
(The photo at the top of the post is the fictional dictator from The Gods Must Be Crazy.)