By Karen Kelly
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Early on, the Netflix series How to Become a Tyrant posits that history’s most infamous tyrants followed a similar playbook—a series of tactics used to achieve unimaginable power.

It’s a playbook Prof. Waller Newell has spent decades studying. He’s the author of two books on tyranny for Cambridge University Press and has a new book, Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, due out this year.

Prof. Waller Newell

Prof. Waller Newell

“They probably typed ‘tyranny’ into Google and popped me up,” jokes Newell, who is a professor of both political science and philosophy. “I was flown to New York in June 2020 to record my segments. Being Netflix, I was quite excited about it.”

Newell is featured prominently in five of the six episodes of the docuseries, which takes a wry “how to” approach to topics such as seizing power, reigning through terror, controlling the truth, creating a new society and ruling forever.

“Tyrants do have a kind of megalomaniacal confidence in their own abilities,” says Newell in the first episode. “They often see themselves as liberators. They are frequently convinced that only they can save the world and make the world a better place.”

Making Light of Tyrants

Newell says the show’s tone reflects a long-standing tradition of poking fun at dictators.

“You wonder how you could have a humorous attitude about monsters like Hitler and Stalin, but it goes back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator,” explains Newell.

“Tyrants often have such strange outsize personalities and weird character traits. This disarms our fear of them in a way, to be able to ridicule them, and it lessens their capacity to terrify us.”

Newell studies dictators across human history, from Caesar and Napoleon to Stalin and Mao, and places them in the context of the ancient understanding of tyranny. This includes Plato’s thinking on the honourable way to achieve success by serving the common good rather than exploiting others. But even citing Plato has its limits.

“At the end of the day, all Plato can do to head tyrannical ambition off at the pass is to propose a way to educate young people to prefer the common good over vice,” says Newell. “But I don’t think he imagines a perfect or permanent solution is possible. These are recurring human types. You can be vigilant and identify them when they emerge.  But they won’t simply fade away.”

Newell sees that vigilance in the making of this series as well: by revealing the playbook of tyrants, we have a lesson in identifying them as we go forward.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in ,
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