Skip to content

Against Tyranny: An Interview with Waller R. Newell

Propaganda posters of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © Date Unknown.

Tyrants: Power, Injustice, and Terror

By Waller R. Newell
Cambridge University Press, 276 pp, September 2019

The following interview with Professor Waller R. Newell took place via Skype on Thursday, October 31, 2019. His book recounts the history of tyranny from the Bronze Age of Homer to the contemporary transnational white supremacist factions spreading across the globe.

Tyrants is not a work of scholarship. It is intended for a general reader. Newell constantly draws on pop culture references and is especially fond of television, though this accessibility does not render the book’s substance superficial. It is the kind of book one wishes more academics were willing–or even able–to write. What shines through is a deep, democratic commitment to knowledge and learning.

Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University, where he helped found the College of the Humanities, Canada’s only four-year baccalaureate in the Great Books. As I note in the interview, the ideal that shadows the entirety of the project is the centrality of a liberal arts education to the wellbeing of democracy. The price we pay for its abandonment may be worse than we care to imagine. We live in an age where the Western Canon, or the Great Books, are maligned, often by people who have never and will never take the time to read them. We also live in an age where technical, data-driven knowledge is fetishized in the name of progress and profit. Tyrants is an old-fashioned tale in the sense that it is the kind of tale that only a well-trained, well-read humanistic mind could tell. Its story is a testament to the value of the generalist–who thinks far and wide–and not the specialist–who knows ever more about less and less.

Could you detail for us the typology of tyranny in your book?

First is what I call your garden variety kleptocrat. This is a person who runs an entire country somewhat akin to a mafia Don, as if it were his own personal property to exploit for himself and his cronies. That’s a very old form of tyranny. It would have been recognizable to Plato. It goes back as far as you can go in human history. And it’s still around today. It’s the hardiest breed, you could say, of tyranny.

The second kind of tyranny is more interesting to me. I call it reforming tyranny. This is the case of people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the Tudors. All of whom are absolutely ruthless people. Yet, they really want to do something good for the people at large. They want to improve the lot of the common person. They want to make government more meritocratic. They want to expand trade. Sometimes they want to expand empire. They want to relieve the financial burden of the less advantaged. They’re more complicated because it’s not as straightforward a matter to condemn them outright.

The third kind is what I call millenarian tyranny. This, in my opinion, is unique to the modern era. It’s the attempt to create a utopian collective in which the individual is completely submerged in the community. It begins with the Jacobins in the French Revolution. It reappears in the Russian Revolution, National Socialism, and in some versions of Third World Socialism–Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, and some elements of the international Jihad such as ISIS. I regard ISIS as having attempted to make a kind of utopia in its worldwide Caliphate. These form a separate class of tyrants. The scale of their destruction is far worse than anything that the other two forms of tyranny rack up. They’re often accompanied by genocide because they usually identify some race or class standing in the way of the Great Nirvana that they want to create for the rest of us. So there’s a great deal of potential for really methodical, diabolical violence that is aimed at this outside group that they believe has to be exterminated.

It doesn’t seem that Trump fits neatly, if at all, into your framework. How do you read Trump in this longer history of tyranny?

I think there’s two approaches that you can take for a figure like President Trump. The first is that you can ask as a straightforward matter: Is he a tyrant?

There the answer would have to be no, simply because the United States is not structured as a one-party state dictatorship. The division of powers was intended by the Founders precisely to thwart the rise of tyranny, whether of one person, the majority, or of a minority. That system is still holding. It’s under a lot of strain. Trump may wish to do certain things that the other two branches, or at least one of them, are not going to let him do. And so, that’s the simplest answer, descriptively.

Now, a more complicated issue is whether he harbors the desire to be a tyrant? Would he like to act on those impulses if he could? That’s very difficult to answer. It’s very difficult to see into anyone’s heart and know their secret motives. But there is some evidence that he is attracted by these strong men leaders like Putin, Xi, and Erdogan. He often speaks as though he regrets the fact that he doesn’t have their absolute power to do what he thinks needs to be done. He proclaims that they’re his friends. I find this puzzling. Could they really be one’s friends in a truly personal way? There’s something about Trump that always comes back to himself. One of the roots of a tyrannical personality dwells there because everything is personal. Everything in public life is personal. I think when you put all these things together, you’d have to say: “Undecided.” If you want to go back to the traditional way of looking at statesmanship, I think the category that Trump would arguably fit most closely into is what the ancient writers would have called a demagogue.

A demagogue is a person who often emerges in a democratic or constitutional system and puts himself forward as the leader of the dispossessed, of the outsiders, and claims to be their champion against the entrenched privileges of the elites. Julius Caesar was regarded as an archetypal case. The twist is that these men are often from the upper classes themselves. Their own class often regards them as class traitors. Roosevelt was often regarded as a class traitor by the propertied orders from which he sprang. Guys like this don’t always rise all the way into open tyranny. Sometimes they’re content with being the number one honcho in the state. But they can still do that through regular offices. They don’t necessarily have to go all out. So they’re kind of in an in between statesmanship and naked, obvious tyranny.

The figure of the demagogue was especially worrisome to the American Founders, especially Alexander Hamilton. He warned that a republic like the United States has to beware of men who come forward as the champion of the common people, but who aim to become, as Hamilton put it, a Catiline or a Caesar. That’s why he thought the American form of government was the best form of government that had been devised. Because you didn’t have to make assumptions about whether people’s character were virtuous or not. You could always be wrong about those judgements. A charismatic leader can seem like the embodiment of virtue. Then they throw off their cloak and you discover they’re aspiring to be a despot.

You write in the new introduction to your book on the often-discussed question of whether Trump is a fascist. Do you see him as one?

I don’t think he rises to the definition of a fascist, if by that you mean leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. “Because Hitler was a xenophobe and Trump is a xenophobe, Trump is like Hitler,” is a really bad syllogism. Not only that, but whatever Trump intends, the blood on the hands of these men was immense. Hitler had killed hundreds of thousands of people before a shot was ever fired in World War II. He had thirty-thousand German children euthanized at his personal order. Mussolini was also covered in blood. Just because Trump may share certain retrograde opinions about immigrants, or even the tastes he has for the strongman style, it just doesn’t get you there. In certain ways, it does a disservice to the victims of genocide of genuine fascism because it so cheapens the currency of that word as a term of denunciation. It almost trivializes it. I’m not trying to whitewash Trump. I just think we need a bit of clarity of language when we use these terms. I have no problems with someone branding him a demagogue. That’s a debate you could have. You could bring some substance to that. You can say there’s a fascistic tincture to some of Trump’s style. But I wouldn’t go further than that. I really think that has distorted the debate really badly.

The book covers an immense history. You begin in the classical world and spend a fair amount of time on Homer. Can you ground for us why it’s so important to begin there?

It was the ancient Greeks who invented our whole lexicon for making distinctions between tyrannical government and free government. Homer is really talking about theories of Bronze Age kings along with their fellow warrior aristocrats. And yet, Homer’s Achilles was a greatly admired figure in that culture. The political world of Homer’s poetry is very different from that of the Greek city-states. They saw themselves as a form of popular, free self-government. A part of the way the Greeks evolved our lexicon for distinguishing between regime-types was from the fruitful clash between the Mycenaean Bronze Age heroic code, which they co-opted and tried to make their own, and the way the Greek city-state were always pulling in the more popular but limited form of government.

The longevity of tyranny illustrates well your thesis that the propensity towards tyranny is an intrinsic part of human nature. It’s very difficult to argue against this. How do you see the relation between human nature and power?

I do subscribe to the view that tyrannical ambition is a recurrent feature of the human and political landscape. There are those who would argue that as the balm of modern prosperity and individual liberty spread, the root causes of the desire for domination will melt away. I would say that is and can be true, to a certain degree, but not one hundred percent. I believe there will always be types of human beings who love to dominate for the thrill of doing so or have a fervent conviction in their own judgment and virtue and believe they have been denied the eminent place they deserve.

The need to take revenge is so common to these dictators, either kleptocratic or millenarian. If you look at their background–Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao–you’re almost always going to find some deep sense of grievance that they formed at a very early age. Whereas most of us would just stomach that and get on with life, there are these rarer people who fashion this plan to destroy and rebuild the world to avenge themselves.

I’m not completely pessimistic about the exportability of Western style democracy. But I do have real reservations about its reliability, or how quickly or assuredly that can happen. If you see the world the way I do, forewarned is forearmed. Since you’re always aware of this possibility, then the hope would be that from understanding the history of tyranny in the past, then you would be able to spot it on the horizon. And that’s really the most that one could hope for.

When we ignore that history there’s something about the general success of our way of life that contributes to a kind of amnesia. We begin to believe that that’s just old-fashioned, barbaric behavior from the past. No one wants that anymore. And then, boom, we come across someone like Kim Jong-un or ISIS and it looks as if it’s not quite that way. I’m really telling an old-fashioned kind of story. It’s the way people used to look at it in a pretty widespread fashion. In recent times, for some reason, the social sciences in particular, it seems to me, kind of flinch from engaging this kind of issue. They place all their hope in some kind of economic globalization or liberalization that will dissipate these roots of aggression. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t.

I just thought that a toxin had to be sounded, especially for young people. I’m a teacher. So I don’t mean to knock young people. But they do often seem curiously uninterested in the past, even the fairly recent past. That’s why I felt that I couldn’t write a book like this within the constraints of academia. I would really have to write it like an old-fashioned man of letters, or maybe a concerned citizen. I’m not claiming to write as an expert in the academic sense because I’m not. I’m not an expert in international relations or comparative government. I know something about those fields. I’m not appealing to the reader on those grounds. I’m appealing to the reader who has an interest in history in general.

It does seem that the long view of history has been lost. This takes us to how you close the book. The last two pages are quite moving. You argue that there is a kind of homeopathic antidote to this dilemma of a movement away from history. I fear that I don’t share your same degree of optimism. But I want to be persuaded.

To give credit where credit is due, I derived that notion from the late Connor Cruise O’Brien, who wrote a brilliant little essay about the dawning of the year 2000 called “On the Eve of the Millennium.” He talked about the sometimes fatuous optimism of the belief in the progress of history. That it would always bring good things rather than bad things. It was he who said that liberalism has to get in touch with its own dark side. In other words, we need to spend less time reading Locke and Hume and a little more time reading Rousseau.

There is something in Rousseau that is deeply perplexing and psychologically strange. It leads in all kinds of aberrant directions. It was O’Brien who suggested that young people in particular need an exposure to the dark side of modernity. I coined the term a “homeopathic cure” because he was implying that you actually need to feel that temptation in yourself so that it is real to you.

Socrates says something much the same in Plato’s Republic when he says that we have to train citizens to prefer virtue to vice. But they have to kind of know what it feels like to be tempted by vice. Otherwise, how will they ever present us with convincing portraits of virtue? People have to take this journey inward and flirt psychologically with what it is that makes tyranny appealing to these people. What’s the glory? What’s the thrill they see in it? What’s the exhilaration? And how do they get other people to share these exhilarating visions? I really believe that’s terribly important.

You rightfully signal to the importance of the Great Books, or the Western Canon. I was very happy that you end with such a strong belief because these books merit it. Your choice to do so implies how necessary the role of a liberal arts education is to the survival of democracy. I think this is an idea that shadows the entire work. It goes hand in hand with how the evils of tyranny you portray in the book are very real and concrete. And they feel all the more so as your narrative moves out of the classical age. The transition to modern millenarian tyranny happens in your reading of Machiavelli and culminates in the French Revolution. But you describe this transition as beginning in St. Augustine’s City of God. Could you walk us through that arc?

I believe that in Augustine you get a kind of dichotomy between the life of divine salvation and the life of political excellence. The life of political excellence seems shabby and hollow compared to the City of God. And that’s very different from the classical viewpoint, or the pagan viewpoint which extolled worldly political virtue as very high. What I suggest is that Machiavelli basically takes this dichotomy between the City of God and the City of Man and says, “Ok, that’s right, the City of Man, that is the way we are. Domination, power-seeking, lust, greed. That’s it. Why don’t we just go with that? And we’ll just expel this concern with the City of God.” The imaginary republics, as he calls them. And we’ll just run with human beings as they really are, appetitive beings driven by power and the desire for wealth. I think that is the watershed moment when modernity emerges. It turns its back on both its classical and its pagan antecedents. There’s even a certain way in which the modern prince, as Machiavelli sees him, might exercise a kind of godlike power himself to master nature and human nature and build a better world. As Bacon says, the purpose of science isn’t contemplation. It’s the creation of power for the relief of Man’s estate. So then you’re off and running. It’s the early modernity of classical liberal thinkers like Hobbes and Locke.

But then with Rousseau you get another great counter-movement which becomes disgusted with what it sees as the spiritual degradation of this obsession with materialism and worldly power. He begins to long for some sort of recovered era of ancient virtue with this kind of nostalgia for the ancient past. Out of that combustible mixture, you get ever greater demands for not just equality of opportunity but for literal overnight equality of conditions and the creation of a kind of heaven on earth harkening back to Rousseau’s general will, the Golden Age, or what the Jacobins called a return to the Year One.

There is an emergence there of a utopianism that you argue is outright dangerous. We see this most clearly in your reading of the French Revolution. But this is perhaps most fascinating because of the way it connects to your reading of modern-day terrorism. Could you expound this concept for us?

The French Revolution began as a Lockean liberal revolution in its earliest stages. Its leaders were people like Talleyrand and Lafayette. They were admirers of Locke. They were admirers of the American founding. That’s all they wanted for France. They wanted France to have the same kind of revolution as the English Revolution and the American Revolution. But then, under the influence of Rousseau, you get these much more radical collectivists who have this vision of a restored world of perfect virtue and happiness. Not just equality of opportunity but equality of condition. And that the world has to be destroyed and remade. Often inspired by these legends of the ancient Spartans and Roman virtue and the submersion of the individual in the collective. Sometimes it’s called political romanticism or political existentialism. I call it a kind of yearning for a lost community. The effects of early modernization often provokes a reaction of disgust, such that before the benefits of modernization have truly taken root, people begin to think that our old way of life is being taken away from us by these secular, shallow atheists, enemies of God. They begin longing for a fictitious version of this past that they now idealize into something that was absolutely flawless and so ancient that it’s been almost completely obliterated in the present. So they’re striving, paradoxically, to blow the world up in order to recapture this lost golden age of harmony. I think that’s a motif as evident in ISIS or Al-Qaeda or Hamas. The whole Islamist movement to allegedly restore the pure community of the Prophet, to me, is in the same category as these equally illusionary visions of the past like going back to the Year One. Millenarian tyranny isn’t reducible to either of the other kinds.

You regard the modern terrorist as…

…a tyrant in waiting. The way that terrorists differ from someone like a rampage killer, ordinary criminal violence, or even politically motivated violence, and anarchism is that they want way more than these spasmodic upsurges of violence. They have a coherent vision of the future. It’s a collective enterprise. And the cadres are working together toward building that better world. They don’t have to know each other. They don’t have to meet. The distinction between a lone wolf and someone who isn’t is evanescent because when you believe that you are a soldier of ISIS, in say the U.S., you can carry out these acts completely on your own and not know anyone else. But you know you’re working for that better world to come. I think this is a very important distinction between authentically terroristic revolutions and other kinds of violence. It doesn’t mean that somehow terrorism is “more bad” than other forms of violence. That’s not the point. It’s just that it’s not the same as other kinds of violence. Wanting to build a worldwide Caliphate is not the same as smashing store windows at a G8 protest. This is what I’m really getting at. I know that’s not a conventional way of thinking about it because we think, “Oh, tyranny is so rigid, whereas terrorism is so passionate.”

Yes, that’s true. But think of someone like Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler began as the leader of a revolutionary movement: the National Socialist Revolution. It employed terror widely for the sake of creating a totalitarian state that would implement the Nazi blueprint. In fact, it makes perfect sense that people like Hitler and Lenin begin as what we would call revolutionaries. They call themselves that. But then the end goal is to institutionalize permanently the totalitarian power that you need to carry out this vision. That, to me, is what authentically distinguishes terrorism from other kinds of violence.

In that sense, their violence is not a perversion of an ideology but its logical conclusion.

I firmly believe that. I hasten to add that I have become convinced by some of the most recent episodes of white supremacist terrorism in New Zealand and in the United States, that they are now taking on some of the structural similarities to Islamist movements like ISIS. They are starting to assemble their own ideology of a lost community. The lost community of our race and the need to identify certain enemy groups that have to be targeted. This is very much something to worry about in the future. Political extremists with ideologically opposite views may start to say, “The ISIS model works pretty good for those people. Maybe we should start employing it as well.”

It’s a case where ideology appropriates method. White supremacist groups are obsessed with returning to a painfully mythologized, ahistorical European isolationist understanding of the past and the tribe. There’s no reference point for it in actual human history.

It’s completely made up. They’re invoking these glories in which they had no part whatsoever in creating. It’s also becoming more internationalist. I’m struck by how it’s aping the Jihadist internationalist as well. These are no longer like the Minutemen, Lincoln Rockwell, or the survivalists. It’s now aping the internationalism of the left. And the invocation of this lost people is becoming more transnational as well.

Would you describe it as imperial?

That’s a very good question. I think, not surprisingly, that many elements of the alt-right in Europe look to Putin as the great hero. He has this vision of Russian greatness that has to be restored. It implies a wider revolution of what his chief ideologue Aleksandr Dugin calls the “revolution of archaic values.” Dugin implies all of Europe could also join Russia. Russia could be the leader and clarion call for the dispossessed conservatives of the alt-right in Europe and the United States. Dugin wrote a letter to the working people of the United States basically saying, “We’re not your enemy. We’re the enemy of the capitalist plutocrats. You’re working men and women like us. We want you to enjoy your own native traditions.” I think Putin would be the only one, as of now, that would have that magic combination of the right values and a mighty state that he could deploy to conceivably bring that about. I don’t see another candidate currently. But we don’t know what’s going to happen with European electoral politics in the near future. They may take a sharp right wing turn.

Do you think we are on the verge of the rise of illiberal democracies?

Yes, I think that’s a definite danger. I do. I don’t think it’s inevitable. But I think there is some kind of international dyad that you can invoke in various ways. You can call it the global elites versus the deplorables. It seems to be assuming a kind of transnational character. I can’t offer more than that because, to me, we’re on the verge of this epoch that is coming. I can’t see through it either. It seems dark to me. It seems like something new.

I wonder if some of the difficulty we are having in naming these potentially new political phenomena is that we lack the language to describe it.

But if there’s one thing we can be certain of is that whatever new vocabulary we have to evolve, it will have deep roots in the older one. One hundred years from now people will still be discussing tyranny versus freedom.

* This interview has been edited for readability and with the intent to preserve, to the best of our judgment, what the speaker intended.


Ronmel Navas

Ronmel is trained as a literary critic. His specializations are in modernist literature and Western cultural history. He is invested in historicizing the politics and aesthetics of representation under late modernity. He lives in Washington, DC.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: