It’s closing time. The bar’s about to shut up and you’ve got to get out. But there’s that one guy, sitting over there in the corner, who’s been alone the entire night. You can already tell he’s super drunk. When they ask him to leave, he tells them to shove it up their asses. A scuffle ensues. He’s tossed out. You go home and thank yourself privately for not being such a dick.
Why would someone refuse to leave a bar when he must have known that eventually it had to close and that people would stop serving him? Why would he pick a fight with the staff when he must have known that he was outnumbered and would eventually lose?
It is the same kind of question people ask when they think about Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, or Saddam’s management of the Kuwait war in 1991, or any of the other various madmen who have at one time or another done really goddamn stupid things.
We can understand the guy in the bar; he’s a drunk asshole and that’s how drunk assholes act. It’s incredibly easy to make a single person behave badly. But it becomes progressively harder to replicate that behavior from person to person. No matter how many drunk people there are in the crowd, the more there are, the harder it is to get them to all do the same thing.
So how then did Hitler and Saddam manage to convince millions of people to do eminently and clearly stupid things?
States are easy to make nutty, but nations are not
A state, remember, is a government lead by typically one or two top dogs. Different states give these top dogs different levels of power. It’s pretty easy, when you get a nutter in charge, for the state to go right down the rabbit hole as well because the entire structure of a state is based on following orders. Individuals who refuse to cooperate can easily be expelled, arrested, or killed, because typically their office is down the hallway from their bosses’.
But nations can be made up of millions. Their dissidents are harder to corral. When they bother to organize into protests, they outnumber their states’ security forces. States can convince their nations under them to follow them using incentives. These incentives typically are rational – that is, the nation gets something out of following that directive. At least a plurality of people must benefit in some way for a nation to give the state the stability it craves.
To make people follow a crazy leader, one must make a crazy nation
If you woke up tomorrow in the cargo hold of an unknown ship, surrounded by naked people of similar intelligence level and background, and were told that the only way to escape was to commit a single act of barbarism, how long could you hold out? This is essentially the unpinning of the entire Saw series.
Rational you might be, everyone has a limit. Environment counts for a lot in our making good decisions. The safer, healthier, and better fed you are, the saner you can be.
So if you want to make millions of people lose it and follow you into your stupidity, you must change their environment
You must make them feel less safe, less healthy, or far hungrier, and you must offer them solutions to these primal problems that would otherwise be unappealing. Most dictators in human history have emerged from nations in chaos; Hitler took over the Weimar Republic in the midst of the Great Depression; Stalin emerged during the power struggles of the early Soviet Union; Saddam was toughest when the threat from Iran was the greatest.
The greater the adversity, the more powerful you can be. Dictators love wars because they make their citizens feel less safe, less healthy, and far hungrier. But they also thrive in times of foreign interference, economic depression, or terrorist agitation. All of these contribute to making a nation make less rational choices out of desperation.
Irrational leaders and states, by their very nature, make bad calls that result in their destruction
North Korea and Iran are not irrational, though people like to think they are. If they were, they’d do all kinds of stupid things that would have annihilated them long ago. This is not to say they cannot become irrational. Nutters could start running the show at any time.
Saddam was a good example of a man who started off as a relatively rational power player, especially during his time fighting Iran, who became a real crazy as time went on. A rational human being would have withdrawn from Kuwait when faced with a massive coalition, as he was. A rational human being would have, years later, done everything possible to stop an invasion. But Saddam went unhinged. His nation, under sanctions, bombardment, and war, went with him.
Syria too is now a rational state gone irrational. A rational government would have negotiated their way out of the protests. But something snapped and they started shooting, provoking a civil war. For some reason, emotion got the upper hand over reason. Syria is now in the throes of madness.
Conditions are possible in all countries to create irrationality, but few are actually currently present
In 2012, Greeks, despite their shitty economy, voted in favor of continued rational governance. This was because the economy depression, bad as it is, has not yet warped thinking into nuttiness. But the Golden Dawn, Greece’s far-right party, is a symptom that within the Greek nation lies a current of madness that will grow if the social and economic environment continues or worsens.
But few other countries in the developed world face the same conditions. As bad as it can seem, no major power is suffering the same level of hardship that would propel large groups of people to do really stupid things, like go to war with one another or exterminate minorities. The rise of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party is a sign that things are rough in the UK, but their failure to achieve a big electoral win is proof that British citizens are not yet ready to go down the well-worn path of bad decisions.
The worse off places are those closest to the margins of survival – many African countries, for example, experience genocide, war crimes, and other barbarisms because of their bleak conditions.
Don’t worry! We’re not crazy yet
So no great power is about to march off and follow Hitler. Remember that it took thirteen long years of hyperinflation, political stagnation, and the Great Depression to push Germany into Hitler’s arms. The Great Recession is five years old now, and more importantly few places have suffered the same level of damage as Germany in the 1920s. So sleep well for the next decade! But watch places like Greece in 2020.