By Vijay Parthasarathy
Poor Kim Jong-un. As such, next to the golden generation of modern despots—Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hafez al-Assad—he comes off as a mere simulacrum imbued with the personality of ersatz artwork. Now he finds he can’t even slack off for a few weeks without CNN taking breathless notice. Folks ought to realize, Trust Fund legatees like him require alone-time to grapple with profound existential dilemmas: Will I be able to loot the realm more thoroughly than my predecessor? Shall I, like Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, rename the word for ‘bread’ in my language after my mother? How to fully exploit the wisdom of Fidel Castro’s methods so I may live past fifty? Kim Jong-un needs space to discover himself.
Some would have you believe that the world is moving inevitably toward democracy and transparent governance, but I say to Kim Jong-un and his ilk, don’t lose hope! Conditions have never better suited the fortification of dictatorships around the globe. Irrespective of whether your countrymen consumed their shoelaces in place of noodles for lunch, the future is far from bleak for you, Great Successors!
If you tangle with Vladimir Putin, you’ll be drawn into a terrifying contest of one-upmanship with a sexy beast perennially prepared to strip off his shirt and ride on the back of dolphins.
Here are ten tips for tyrants of the Facebook age:
1. Define who you are. Make up a compelling origin story—steal if you must from comic books. Appear commanding. Kim Jong-un, if you want your countrymen to emulate your fashion style, get a better haircut. These days one can’t get away with dressing like Gaddafi. Ravaged by plastic surgery, the man looked like a ragdoll puppet aspiring to bedeck itself in golden finery. It’s imperative that you create a viable brand. The first step of power consolidation is to become a larger-than-life symbol, a rock star. Invite Banana Republic to put out special edition bomber jackets in your name. Raise a cadre of elite bodyguards. But for heavens’ sakes, don’t be a jerk like Gaddafi—don’t get yourself female protectors whom you enjoy assaulting in your spare time.
2. Pick your clique. Depending on your geographical coordinates and geopolitical compulsions, act like you’re America’s best friend or invite the entire Chinese Politburo over for drinks. Don’t be North Korea; don’t blend the opaque menace of a secret society with the grotesque conviviality of circus freaks. It’s not intriguing. Meanwhile if you tangle with Vladimir Putin, you’ll be drawn into a terrifying contest of one-upmanship with a sexy beast perennially prepared to strip off his shirt and ride on the back of dolphins.
3. Administer like a democrat, think like an autocrat. Give yourself a conventional title: something snappy like ‘Prime Minister,’ or ‘President.’ (No, Kim Jong-un, ‘Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission’ is snooze-inducing.) Hold elections on schedule every four or five years, pretend your country is a democracy and that you won, let’s say, 73.2 percent of the vote. Ensure that figure never exceeds 75. This will ensure international legitimacy for your regime.
4. Invent a foreign enemy. Not a proper government, you understand, and definitely not one that could, in the event of war, thrash the bejeezus out of you. Hollywood should suffice. Channel plebeian rage against Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Burnish your authentic-everyman image by outing Lena Dunham as the High Priestess of humblebragging. Make glib pop-cultural references like that in interviews to dazzle the youth demographic, readers of the Daily Mail and other such Thought Leaders.
Raise a palm in stiff salute. Or create something iconic out of a middle finger.
5. Pay attention to buzzwords and trends. Change! Revolution! Occupy! Pour ice water over your head! While those debauched, self-satisfied spawn of elites are busy promoting 1980s dance-move revivals online with ironic detachment, employ their media technologies against them. Think what Goebbels or Stalin could have achieved with social media. With ‘Stalingram,’ for instance, you could have probably photoshopped your enemies all the way across to Siberia. Study YouTube videos of the great communicators of old. Master the art of hypnosis. Give great speeches that resonate widely. As Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might say, one man’s beheading is another’s freedom song. The rest is simply a matter of poststructuralist packaging. Remind your compatriots again and again how awesome your country is. Raise a palm in stiff salute. Or create something iconic out of a middle finger. Appropriate it before the masses can use it against you.
6. Pore over the operations manuals of successful cults, religions and pyramid schemes. What is their shtick? Do they preach about aliens amongst us? Do they cite prophecies from two thousand years ago? Do they assure us that we can take control of our life by selling products to minions? Repeat every lie you concoct at least a hundred times. Watch how that reshapes people’s reality.
7. Dissipate any threat of rebellion by cunningly adopting MTV as the national public service broadcaster. Nothing matches the soporific that is Adam Levine over the airwaves. Whatever you do, don’t persecute old men in Gandhi caps and give them an excuse to undertake fasts on live television, the way it happened in India—a so-called democratic republic. Let them speak. Give them a voice, and ordinary citizens will soon forget someone was protesting something. But…
8. Throw rivals off-balance. Divide and conquer. Let them guess when you’re about to conduct a purge. Surprise them with gifts and promotions when they were most expecting censure. All the same, don’t let anyone mistake your kindness for weakness. Be top dog, be alpha. Like Leonid Brezhnev, seek a broad, collective consensus with your colleagues but know your mind. Use the iron fist, silver tongue approach. Be responsible: commit your fair share of atrocities or nobody will take you seriously. Without your exertion of medium-level tyranny, grassroots factions will grow ambitious, and try to depose you. On that subject, keep in place a succession plan but stay whimsical, or one day your own son might rise against you. Basically, your people are hooked to Game of Thrones. Give them all the entertainment they can handle.
Citizens are less likely to care about freedom of speech on a full belly. Case in point: Singapore.
9. Shut out the past. Execute your predecessor’s closest advisors two years into your rule. Absorb their insights and then dispose of them before they grow wise to your plan. They’ll never treat you as a worthy heir, so replace them with a bunch of young policy wonks who will compete for your approval.
10. Oh, and try and actually reduce poverty. Hell—if you can, go all the way and make your country wealthy. Terrorize ministers and bureaucrats into being more efficient, less corrupt. Don’t play the subsidies game; tweak the economy. Guess what, citizens are less likely to care about freedom of speech on a full belly. Case in point: Singapore.
Stick to this framework and your grandchildren will be able to retain the keys to the National Bank and govern in keeping with your high principles. Their kids will one day write personal essays about you in their Harvard application. Future historians might even anoint you Father of the Nation.
Remember this: it’s all about legacy.
Vijay Parthasarathy is a journalist, essayist and critic. Currently a PhD student at The University of Texas at Austin, his research focuses on stand-up comedy in the context of cultural globalization.