The word “totalitarian” – as in totalitarianism, or totalitarian leader – was once in fashion. Now we hardly hear it anymore, but in the 1950’s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, it was used with some frequency, certainly by political scientists, especially when referencing Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Hannah Arendt’s classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, originally published in 1951, gave the word a certain currency, which for decades thereafter it maintained.
However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and obviously the defeat of Nazi Germany, the word has lapsed in our lexicon. Seemed almost obsolete. But, it is not. Just because Great Dictators no longer control so much of the earth’s surface does not mean that they are extinct.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin controls what he can, though he cannot be a totalitarian leader without risking his neck. And China’s Xi Jinping controls what he can, though he cannot be a totalitarian leader without risking his neck.
There is, however, one totalitarian leader without question – one leader who violates the general rule. Who has total control over every aspect of civilian and military life in the country in his grip. I refer, of course, to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. His father, Kim Jong-il, ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death, in 2011. Since then North Korea has been ruled by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, with no less than the proverbial iron fist.
How is a totalitarian leader distinguished from an authoritarian leader? Or from a despotic or dictatorial leader? The answer is as the word implies: the continuous capacity to exercise total control over everyone and everything. How is this accomplished? The shortest answer: through terror. It is not the only answer. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written about the phenomenon of totalitarianism. But the easiest way to understand why followers submit so completely and obsequiously to a single leader is that they are scared to death of doing otherwise.
For good reason. When the most serious threat to Jong-un’s authority was thought by him to be his uncle, he arranged for his father’s sister’s husband to be seized by uniformed guards in front of hundreds of high-ranking officials. After being denounced as “an ugly human scum worse than a dog,” Jong-un’s uncle was summarily executed by a firing squad. Many of his followers were similarly killed, others sent away to labor camps. I could go on – but you get the idea. Evil leadership takes many forms – totalitarian leadership typically is the most extreme.
Bad leadership – it’s worth regularly reminding ourselves – is a slippery slope. It can go from bad to worse. And from worse to worst.