The citizens of a free republic should always be alert to threats to their liberty. Such threats may come in a variety of forms; one of the most dangerous is that posed by a fraud or con artist who appears in the guise of a “people’s champion.” Skilled at manipulation and demagoguery, such men know how to take the measure of a crowd, or the tenor of the times; they know how to cast their voices so as to appear sympathetic to the legitimate aspirations of their people; and they are practiced at dangling before their gullible audiences the enticements that could be theirs, if only they agree to throw in their lot with him.
It is a game as ancient as the advent of the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse. One particularly instructive example is found in the pages of Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People. In the 1340s there came to power an ignorant, corrupt, and venal ruler in Florence known to history as Walter VI of Brienne. He liked to call himself “The Duke of Athens,” not because he had earned this title meritoriously, but because of his noble family’s interests in Greece. He thought that cloaking himself with the ancient glory of the city would somehow confer honor on himself; Bruni scornfully refers to Walter in the following way:
Walter was a Frenchman, born of aristocratic background, whom people were in the habit of calling by the empty and maudlin title of “Duke of Athens.” [Gaulterius erat gallus, claro natus genere, quem nudo inanique titulo Athenarum Ducem vocitabant. (VI.111)].
He had an undistinguished background, notable only for his talent at constantly presenting himself as a success, even though the actual record of his achievements was meager. The Florentine nobility brought him into Florence in 1342 to rule the city, thinking that he would prove a useful front man whom they could control. Like all frauds and con artists, he had an innate belief in his own abilities, and this assurance often passed as genuine to those who came into contact with him. He had little respect for others; what mattered to him was his own infantile desires and those of his family. But he was aided by certain circumstances in Florence that made his path to power easier: first, the factionalism and discord that existed in the city at the time; second, the stupidity and avarice of the ruling elite, who thought they would be able to control him. He made a special effort to appeal to the poor and the dispossessed:
He believed that it would involve little effort on his part to convert to his side the poor, the common laborers, and the entire mass of the citizenry; he understood that they cared little for concepts like dignity or liberty. [VI.112]
In this, of course, his instinct proved to be correct. For the masses are generally immune to the lessons of history; their attentions are fixed only on entertainments and on how they can profit from any given circumstance. The nobility of Florence should have known better; on their shoulders must fall most of the responsibility for what was about to happen. Bruni considers it a matter of first importance to describe how the despot insinuated himself into control of the republic. He believed the subject was “something worth recording, either as an admonition to citizens, or as a reprimand to those who would rule.” (VI.117). Citizens, the historian believed, should fear nothing more than a loss of freedom; and the nobility should realize that nothing “tends to ruin more than unrestrained and irresponsible arrogance.”
As soon as he was elevated to power, Walter took steps to consolidate his rule. He made the security forces loyal to himself personally. An overbearing mountebank, he denigrated or attacked men of integrity and honor to excite the laughter of the crowd; but his secret goal was always to wear down the sanctity of institutions, so that he could ride roughshod over them more easily. So there was a purpose behind his behavior. He concluded a peace treaty with the city of Pisa on mediocre terms; but this did not trouble him, because the responsibilities of office did not trouble him. He acted more out of a desire to consolidate his own power than to advance the interests of Florence. He brought in French knights who would be loyal to himself personally, men who could be counted on the carry out his corrupt designs. He took steps to disarm the people; abolished civil offices he could not control; and he felt unrestrained to help himself to the public treasury.
What mattered to him was self-enrichment. His duties as leader were seen by him as a way to advance the cause of what would today be called his “brand.” People who attempted to criticize him were exiled, tortured, or ridiculed into silence. As might be expected, the citizens of Florence were not so blind or unconscious as to accept this kind of treatment for long. Fear eventually evolved into hatred, and hatred into plans for action. But Walter was suspicious, and had his contingent of foreigners to protect his person. He got wind of one of the conspiracies against him, but when he tried to punish the plotters, a public revolt was triggered. Walter belatedly tried to make concessions to pacify popular anger at his conduct, but the virus of revolt was already abroad. People who had had relatives jailed or killed by Walter and his henchmen now saw their chance to expel the despot, and he was eventually forced to step down and flee the city amid a cacaphony of popular rage. He had been in power for less than a year.
So ended the brief career of the “Duke of Athens.” No matter the age, no matter the epoch, such personality types litter the pages of history. They are consummate seducers, always promising what they had no intention of delivering. They tend to make their appearance during times of factionalism, strife, and public apathy or exhaustion; and, backed by the ruling elites, such frauds even seem successful for a time. They now have the ability to harness resources that the tyrants of old could never have dreamed of: social media, the surveillance state, and militaries of unimaginable might. For a time, they strut the world stage, basking in their own munificence and fueled by their on arrogance and greed; that their edifice might be built on a foundation of sand never occurs to them until the very moment their world of illusion evaporates like the morning mist.
Yet the thoughtful student of history will remember that moral corruption can never be harnessed to good uses; nothing good can result from lies, corruption, and greed. Wicked actions remain wicked, regardless of the filter they might be passed through. The pursuit of unchecked power, contempt for established institutions, scorn for the rights of others, and a willingness to put his own interests before those of the republic he is tasked to serve: these are the hallmarks of the aspiring tyrant. And those who enable and praise such leaders must count themselves just as morally bankrupt as the venal frauds they seek to serve.
Read more on the consequences of hubris in Sallust: