Charlie’s Tuesday’s podcast had him talking with Brian Klaas, political science professor at the University College London and columnist at the Washington Post (Nov. 16, 2021).
Brian comes on to talk to Charlie about his new book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. I have not gotten a chance to read this book, but I want to and want to even more after this interview and talk.
Before getting to the book and its discussion of corruption, particularly as to how power attracts and can affect those who have it, Charlie and Brian talk more about Monday’s arraignment of Steve Bannon.
Charlie calls it Bannon’s “cry of defiance” and he showed it by livestreaming his turning himself in to authorities all while ranting about how he’s the victim.
Brian, who has studied authoritarianism and despots, points out that what Steve Bannon is doing is a classic authoritarian tactic, a systematic attack on democratic system and the rule of law. Bannon is one of the major figures in this approach.
Bannon is the role model now for the victim complex central to Trumpism. He lashes out at AG Merrick Garland and President Joe Biden as being “out to get him.”
This victimhood is a classic part of authoritarian playbook according to Brian.
The strategy aims to make one’s followers feel like they are victims too. This is used to create the “us versus them” dynamic rather quickly and can be, and is by people like Bannon, framed to undermine, to be weaponized against Democratic institutions, making them the enemy.
The reality is that Bannon is behaving like an absurd clown, he’s raging against phantoms and against his own bad decisions. He wants to evade consequences, but he doesn’t want you to see that or pay attention to it. He wanted this spectacle; he knew he was very likely going to be arrested and he wants to use it to his advantage and stoke victim outrage.
It’s just bogus nonsense.
However, the really dangerous element at work, an undercurrent in our culture that can be observed in Bannon’s livestream audience is who and how many are watching. Brian brings this up by noting that he is less worried by those diehard fans of Bannon who tuned in, but the others. Particularly, those who tuned in for the entertainment. That is the really dangerous part here.
Because it has a corrosive effect on our cultural and political system.
It’s an outgrowth of our larger issues with people’s engagement caring more about sensationalism and entertainment. I’d like to not turn in to Imperial Rome, but most of the news media is already going there because it is WHAT WE WANT FROM THEM. It is symbiotic.
There is a danger in the way that media is blending us into lump groups when it comes to how we are perceived. It is a real wicked problem.
The challenge is that when looking at Trump supporters, or looking at those who voted for Trump in 2020, it is a mistake to assume they are all the same. That is being guilty of the same stereotyping many of them do.
Really, as Brian sees it, and I agree, many of Trump’s supporters really fall into one of two categories, minimally. The first are those ride or die supporters who revere Trump like some reincarnation of Jesus on Earth. Those folks are beyond persuasion. However, there is a marginal group, significant enough, who can be reached.
Not just “can be reached” but essentially “need to be reached.”
Those persuadable Republicans out there are ones that Democrats, being the mainly and only sane national party right now, need to pull out the stops to win over. Doing that is how you turn the tide back against the craziness of Trumpism that is currently consuming much of the Republican party.
On a microcosm, as it pertains to Bannon having to go now before the Jan. 6 Committee, Democrats need to actively seek the truth and depict Bannon as the clown he is without engaging in his level of tactics. Do NOT stoop to his level because that is what he wants. Show the American people that you are in pursuit of serious truth, not grandstanding. Paint the contrast.
At the end, this is about bringing people who are guilty or commit offenses to account. Show people this, the persuadable ones that you are seeking real justice and those people can be brought back.
Charlie and Brian now finally move on to talk about Brian’s new book: Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us
For me, this is where the conversation gets even more interesting and really gets me excited to read it. I read his previous book, The Despot’s Apprentice (2017), and this one really appeals to me because of his socio-political research combined with scientific studies about the impact and effects of power on human individuals. It hits a sweet spot for me in terms philosophy, persuasion, politics, sociological issues, etc.
Charlie called the book, having read it, a meditation on the corruptible nature of all power and what it does to people. Again, love this.
They turn to playing a video commercial of types that Brian created to promote the book and explain it a bit that is awesome, take a look:
The video is unfortunately, as I was unable to find just “it”, on Twitter for those who may not be able to access it but the podcast with Charlie they do play it so you can listen to the audio at the podcast for the show linked below.
The book centers on power and who is attracted to power, what power does to those who have it, and the ways it effects people.
One story that Charlie notes is an interview that Brian did with the daughter of a former cannibalistic dictator from Africa. Needless to say, without getting into details, it was fascinating to note how exposure to power affected the daughter and raised questions about the desire for power being something in our DNA.
Even though she was repelled by what her father had done, it did not completely put her off to the idea of one day seeking power too. In fact, she was quite proud of the power and prestige of her surname, she had pride in it.
Of course, scientists have power that a power gene does exist in the human DNA and make up.
Despite this, Brian was drawn to a lot of this because of how little study in the social science has focused on role of people in general for the gaining and application of power.
Speaking of pride in a surname, Brian points out that one cannot go the last 5-6 years in American politics without talking about Trump. In particular, Brian is fascinated by how little attention has been given to Trump’s personality and make-up in that quest for power. It has not been completely ignored, but a lot of academic focus has gone elsewhere.
This is a point where Brian and I are in simpatico on the matter, because as my own book (based on my dissertation) explores, the personality and disposition of models is exponentially moer important than most realize.
Brian notes that with power and those who use/abuse it, there are really TWO kinds of personalities involved.
1. There is the example of the HOA official, the petty tyrant, who engages in petty behavior from their position of power because they can. On this low level, there is often no competition for that kind of position, so it’s like “rolling out the red carpet” to those who are eager and hungry for power.
These kinds of people are power-hungry for the sake of being able to dictate how to do things or what rules to enforce on others.
2. Another story from the book talks of a psychopathic janitor from synecdoche New York. In that case, one is witnessing the other type of power craving, those who have the traits referred to as the Dark Triad.
Brian points out the basics of the triad as consisting of:
Machiavellian designs + Narcissism + Psychopathy = Dark Triad.
These are the kinds of people who possess the skill at obtaining power, they are VERY good at it, but they are also REALLY bad at wielding it for anyone other than themselves if that. They are though, these types of power seekers, absolutely obsessed by it.
Charlie and Brian discuss how his book spends a lot of time focusing not just on interviews but specifically on building systems that might repel and keep away those types of people who possess qualities of the dark triad.
Our current system does not do this, in fact, it attracts and promotes these kinds of people.
Brian offers up a common example, an analogy of the microcosm of how the wrong people obtain power: a 30-minute job interview.
The objective in such a case is to charm your interviewer who is hiring, to get that job. It is absolutely perfect for someone who is a psychopathic narcissist. They are masters of charm and charisma.
When hired and in a position of power and responsibility, these same people allow their “lizard brain” to drive their decision making. It often drives many of their decisions. They usually fail to be fair and just in decisions and lack empathy of any kind.
Brian’s book attempts to try and seek out ways and ideas for pushing back against these people who are attracted to power and dangerous. These people are self-selecting themselves to seek out leadership and power. They are also many people who are currently in leadership roles now.
This leads to the question, a kind of chicken and the egg conundrum.
Are power seeking people who are corrupt attracted to power or are the institutions that attract them corrupting them?
The answer is both.
The challenge is discerning which is doing which.
Is the person who has psychopathy attracted to power and gets into the system and therefore corrupts the system or does the system bring down somebody who might be inclined or susceptible to the power.
The answer is different because both are possible issues and both require unique solutions, there is no one solution for ALL situations.
Brian points out what is going on in the Republican party right now. It is problem of the power of models. Models inspire emulation in others. So, those who are rising up in the party now are looking to those models, men like Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, etc. and becoming more like them. They are following the zeitgeist in the party.
Members of the Republican party who appear to base their leadership on principles and not just for the sake of power, like Adam Kinzinger and Anthony Gonzalez, are joining a long string of Republicans who are leaving national office because the Republican party no longer has a place for them. They feel they don’t belong anymore.
The party system, particularly the Republican party, have become corrupted. As a consequence, they are attracting corrupt people who will play along with the new zeitgeist. It has become a self-selecting process.
It’s terribly dangerous for American politics going forward.
How do people push back against this?
It starts by simply enforcing the rules and having accountability. Where accountability is absent, think about Steven Bannon right now and the Paul Gosar who are being blindly protected by their partisan allies. The consequence is that their bad behavior not only is no longer taboo but is moving towards normal, even desired, because of the absence of accountability and enforcement of rules.
The people who don’t yet adhere to this new standard, this new model, will over time come to view it as acceptable and will slide towards the same inappropriate behavior because there is no incentive to do otherwise.
It’s more about the system of accountability and the normalcy of how you see the behavior of those around you that become endemic and systematic. The ghost is that people often fail to recognize their own place in the process. They sit around waiting for a savior instead, as Brian notes that his last chapter of his book is called “Waiting for Cincinnatus”. This is a fun inside Roman history joke because Cincinnatus was the true Roman noble who had great power and when the crisis passed, the put that power down and went back to his life. In America, this is the same mythological status we place on George Washington, our American Cincinnatus. The problem is that such men are not common, they are incredibly rare. We cannot wait for them.
People need to reorient themselves and realize that, assume, that power-hungry, abusive people are systematically and exponentially more drawn to power than others.
Brian is a strong proponent for having the conversations about holding our leaders accountable but we also should be having conversations about those who are not seeking power and who might be better suited for power.
What drives them away?
Many face and weigh the probability of death threats and all kinds of horrible things that are going to be hurled at them because that is the current common place in our society right now.
When one considers that, many would say “no thank you” and pass.
America needs to make power more palatable and acceptable and friendly to those who don’t want it because honestly we do need them in power. American and the world needs them in lieu of rolling out the red carpet for the worst among us who actively seek that power.
Society needs to want people who want to serve, not people who simply want power.
If you don’t do this, if you don’t make the system more attractive to them, those people won’t get involved and if they do, they won’t stay. Again, this crisis is playing out right in front of us in the Republican party. Those who believe they serve and are in service it the nation and principles are being driven out, pressured to resign, or face retribution for not following the leader (Donald Trump). Instead, those who think they serve the nation and have principles but are simply there for the power stay or fill in when the others who were genuine leave because they are tiered of the horse crap.
Part of the big problem, the seduction for people to authoritarianism is based on a fallacy. That fallacy is the assumption that authoritarianism and authoritarians are the ones who get things done. The reality is that they are not that good once they’re in power as seeking it, many actually make things worse rather than beeter than the democratic institutions they sought to replace.
The catch comes from the fact that authoritarian leaders are masters of deception. A great example is that of Mussolini. He promised to “get trains running on time” and in fact, he didn’t make the trains run on time the way people think he did. Instead, he took credit for previous investments and actually made things worse. Sound familiar?
So, what can we actually do about all of this?
An answer: Actively recruit incorruptible people, people who don’t crave power and screen out corruptible ones.
Charlie: How do we do that?
Answer: There is need for lots of competition and need to make power palatable to everyone. The system should create competition. This is where gerrymandering and other rigging of the political landscape is becoming self-inflicted wounds.
But what are the most important things we can really do to limit the corruption of power.
Americans have to think more creatively about how we engineer the systems that govern us.
The reason we have so many awful people in charge is because we have had a failure imagination to think of ways that would help put better people there instead.
Consequences are supposed to matter and we are a society in general are losing sight of that. It’s been degraded and this takes us all the way back to Steve Bannon and his live stream of his arrest.
Why did he do that?
Because he doesn’t believe the consequences will affect him.
If we want better people we need more visible good people more models.
They need to telegraph that doing good and being good matter and that virtue matters.
BA in History from Northwestern State, MA in English from Northwestern State, and PhD in Rhetoric from Texas Woman's University. Big into comic books and visual rhetoric. Assistant Professor of English at Claflin University, Orangeburg, SC.
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