Surrounded by Fearful Sycophants


Did you see the cringe worthy (and binge worthy) scene where Putin lined up his advisors at a long table (always at a very long table to keep the riff raff away from the god) and asked them for their opinions about the war against Ukraine? When one of those advisors was insufficiently obeisant, Putin mocked him and made him retract his slight disagreement and replace it with absolute obedience.  Of course, the only advice Putin wanted was to be told how smart he was. And that is the problem that dictators have.  They cannot accept that they might be wrong. They have no moral humility.


Trump was the same way, when he demanded his “advisors” fawn over him.  The only advice he needed from them was to say how great he was. I wouldn’t call Trump a dictator, but he sure was an authoritarian. And authoritarians—by definition—tolerate no dissent. None. And that is their Achilles heel. And that is Putin’s Achilles heel. And that is the Achilles heel of many Republicans, because they too have given up on democracy. They have become authoritarians. They want to decide what we should do. That is made clear by their brazen attempts to rig the upcoming elections in the US. A real believer in democracy would not do that. And to the extent the Democratic Party in the US has also tried to rig elections, they are not believers in democracy either.


Republicans in the US have lavished their praise on Putin. Trump called Putin “savvy” and a “genius.” Putin was his kind of strong man. A man who tolerated no obstacles to his relentless will.  Now many of us are starting to realize that Putin is no genius. Trump was wrong about that. The problem with Russia is precisely that “it is ruled by a man who accepts no criticism and brooks no dissent.” That is how Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman described him. That is what authoritarians do. It is part of their DNA and that is why it is so unwise of conservatives to bow before Putin.


Why is the American right wing so enamoured of brutal dictators? It is not just Donald Trump either.  This love affair began before the rise of Trump. Part of this comes from the love of strongmen. Paul Krugman described this in the following manner:

“Some of this dictator-love reflected the belief that Putin was a champion of anti-wokeness — someone who wouldn’t accuse you of being a racist, who denounced cancel culture and “gay propaganda.”


Many American conservatives despise what they call cancel culture, even though they are keen practitioners of it. Many of them also see acquiescence to acknowledging LBGTQ rights as an abomination ushered in by the devil. Many believe that it is weak and feminine to cede any rights to them. In fact, conservative attitudes are a product of toxic masculinity which they can’t give up. Putin is their hero. As Krugman said,


“Sarah Palin declared that he wrestled bears while President Barack Obama wore “mom jeans” — and the apparent toughness of Putin’s people. Just last year Senator Ted Cruz contrasted footage of a shaven-headed Russian soldier with a U.S. Army recruiting ad to mock our “woke, emasculated” military.”


That was one of the reasons Trump trusted Russian intelligence more than America’s. They were tough. Of course, many Republicans just plain prefer authoritarian rule. They lust for it. And there was no bigger fan that Trump. As Krugman said,


“Just a few days ago Trump, who has dialed back his praise for Putin, chose instead to express admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s generals and aides, he noted, “cowered” when the dictator spoke, adding that “I want my people to act like that.


Trump actually said that. But we must remember that what Trump admires is not strength, nor is it smart. First, by now it seems that the Russian army is not as powerful as we thought. They have a huge advantage in fire power, but are not translating that into huge gains on the ground. They might still get them, but not yet.


But the real problem for Putin is that he is surrounded by sycophants. Trembling yes men are never a reliable source of advice. No smart business man wants that. And that is what Russia has for political and military leadership. They have all learned to toe the line. None of them seems capable of independent thought. Even though Trump is impressed with meek obeisance it is not a ladder to success. It is a slide to oblivion. That means Putin has to make the important decisions on his own.


Krugman put it this way:

“The invaders were also clearly shocked by Ukraine’s resistance — both by its resolve and by its competence. Realistic intelligence assessments might have warned Russia that this might happen; but would you want to have been the official standing up and saying, “Mr. President, I’m afraid we may be underestimating the Ukrainians”?


We actually saw an example of such cringing meekness to the great leader when the lone advisor who did not automatically tell Putin what Putin wanted to hear, was immediately humiliated by the grand leader. Putin publicly made  him retract his doubts.


For example, Putin thought that his $630 billion war chest would protect the country from western sanctions. He did not believe that the western leaders had the guts to impose them. That was not an entirely unreasonable presumption, but it turned out to be wrong.  Now they have learned that  cutting off Russian from the world’s banking system was brutally effective. As Krugman said,


“It shouldn’t have required deep analysis to realize that Putin’s $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves would become largely unusable if the world’s democracies cut off Russia’s access to the world banking system. It also shouldn’t have required deep analysis to realize that Russia’s economy is deeply dependent on imports of capital goods and other essential industrial inputs.


But again, would you have wanted to be the diplomat telling Putin that the West isn’t as decadent as he thinks, the banker telling him that his vaunted “war chest” will be useless in a crisis, the economist telling him that Russia needs imports?”


Democracies are incredibly inefficient but they have one incredible advantage over autocracies.  The leader doesn’t have to do it all on his own. As Krugman concluded:


“The point is that the case for an open society — a society that allows dissent and criticism — goes beyond truth and morality. Open societies are also, by and large, more effective than closed-off autocracies. That is, while you might imagine that there are big advantages to rule by a strongman who can simply tell people what to do, these advantages are more than offset by the absence of free discussion and independent thought. Nobody can tell the strongman that he’s wrong or urge him to think twice before making a disastrous decision.


Which brings me back to America’s erstwhile Putin admirers. I’d like to think that they’ll take Russia’s Ukraine debacle as an object lesson and rethink their own hostility to democracy. OK, I don’t really expect that to happen. But we can always hope.”


I am not saying the Ukrainians will defeat the Russian bear. After all the Russians have massive military  advantages and are led by a leader with no moral hesitations. I am just saying there are also some significant advantages enjoyed by democracies. And they might make a difference.


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