I keep hearing people say that "throughout history" the first thing every despot/tyrant/dictator does is silence the voices that oppose them, including discrediting any form of free press. Then today I saw the following:

enter image description here

Besides the obvious question of the accuracy of the above list, this got me wondering in larger terms if there are any historical studies of the sequence of steps taken by various authoritarian leaders prior to imposing an an autocracy onto a society? Is there in fact a specific pattern?

I am not looking for a list of horror stories but rather a list of specific strategies employed as a means of rising to power.

  • 1
    You might be interested in The Arab Tyrant Manual (warning: PDF)
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 27, 2017 at 15:44
  • 2
    That list is for free societies. Normal autocracies develop from brute force, like military coup, conquest or revolution.
    – Santiago
    Jan 27, 2017 at 15:59
  • 2
    I like this question but isn't it asking for references which used to be reason for closure? Jan 28, 2017 at 8:34
  • 2
    The sequence of the steps seems historically inaccurate. Hitler was fairly open about how he wanted to deal with minorities right from the beginning. Also, he did not have to discredit the media: 1920s Germany was a politically loaded environment with a multitude of radical nationalist movements that were already working hard on accomplishing that before Hitler gained any significance. I guess this is a political parody of recent events that should not be taken too seriously.
    – 0range
    Feb 24, 2018 at 16:24
  • 8
    Any time someone says "throughout history" it's an immediate red flag. Its rarely possible to generalise history to the extent and level of specificity like this. For the imposing of autocracy, for instance, I would say the trend only goes as far as chaos / unrest -> charismatic leader rises to power -> autocracy imposed as order.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 24, 2018 at 17:33

1 Answer 1


The way this question is phrased it looks more like a request for a recipe to follow, like in the "steps to take". But this is of course very hard to generalise. Turning this on its feet again is the part of "is there a pattern?"

Is this more about becoming a tyrant, that is increasingly doing tyrannical things, being a tyrant? Is this more about becoming a tyrant, rising into a position the enables one person to do tyrannical things, being a potential tyrant?

Ignoring the oxymoronic framing of time arising from the juxtaposition of "throughout history" and "free press", there seems to be a very simple pattern, identified as early as Plato and Aristotle wrote about ethics and politics.

Hence the road to power in Greek commercial cities was simple: to attack the aristocracy, defend the poor, and come to an understanding with the middle classes. Arrived at power, the dictator abolished debts, or confiscated large estates, taxed the rich to finance public works, or otherwise redistributed the overconcentrated wealth; and while attaching the masses to himself through such measures, he secured the support of the business community by promoting trade with state coinage and commercial treaties, and by raising the social prestige of the bourgeoisie. Forced to depend upon popularity instead of hereditary power, the dictatorships for the most part kept out of war, supported religion, maintained order, promoted morality, favored the higher status of women, encouraged the arts, and lavished revenues upon the beautification of their cities. And they did all these things, in many cases, while preserving the forms and procedures of popular government, so that even under despotism the people learned the ways of liberty.
(Referenceing Aristotle, Politics, 1310a by Will Durant: "The Life of Greece" Simon & Schuster: New York, 1939 pp. 122–123.")

The main pattern to observe is:

  1. An economy produces too much inequality and discontent, whether most of the time real or sometimes just imagined (usually this is thought to appear in a severe downturn, but it is just as likely in a recovery period or even a statistically flourishing economy; these statistics do not cover the distribution or feelings about it)
  2. Then a charismatic champion emerges that unifies the support of the lower and middle classes against the current leadership.
  3. If the current leadership resists its own overthrow with violence, the equally violent response to this gives the charismatic rebel his means to attempt to seize power. That includes both volunteers and a general wish of "restoring order".
  4. Once in power former supporters need and receive, at least initially, something to show for their effort and support, some promises have to be kept (in brackets are examples of how a well known modern tyrant might compare to this):

    • real share of wealth (Hitler raised employment)

    • imagined share of community (Hitler defined a Volksgemeinschaft, "us against them", conveniently also serving the wealth goal above, for some)

    • imagined share in political decisions (Hitler claimed to represent the Volkswillen, a Rousseau-like general will

These are of very basic patterns, but they might be traced in Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao or even in less negatively viewed characters like George Washington as well.

It is therefore distracting to just look at the oppressive things a tyrant does. If they are not directed at the direct enemies the future tyrant sees as obstacles in his path to power, they are negligible. Oppression measures develop slowly, over time, when the tyrant is already in power. Note that in the modern tyrant example case the ground work for oppression and censorship was handed over to his control just like the office itself. When the modern tyrant attempted a coup in 1923 by sheer force, it failed, quickly, because of the key missing ingredient: popular support.

Further reading:
Randall Collins: "Weber and the Sociology of Revolution" (2001)

  • 6
    This pattern may fit a set of tyrants, but we should be aware that a lot of tyrants raised to power doing the opposite than siding with the poor against the rich. Franco in Spain and a lot of Latin-American dictators would make good examples.
    – Pere
    Feb 25, 2018 at 18:01
  • 1
    I see quite a difference between siding with the poor or promising to side with the poor. "Poor" is in modern times quite an ambivalent category. Burt compare Trump "I am your voice" with his policy so far. – Franco was greeted by jubilations in front of the palace after his proclamation. (cf Payne (87) "Franco Regime, p123." Feb 25, 2018 at 18:33
  • 3
    Franco was greeted, and he has a program promising things, as any politician - he also had an army actually waging war which is an efficient tool to gain power. However, he didn't promise to side with the poor against the rich. In fact, he claimed to be saving Spain from the revolutionaries who did claim to side with the workers and the poor against the rich and the Church. In this point Franco (and others) didn't follow your pattern, although he followed it in other points, as the claim of "restoring order" or impersonating the "real" community will and legitimacy.
    – Pere
    Feb 25, 2018 at 20:50
  • 1
    LangLangC, this is very interesting, thank you. It most definitely is a pattern I was unaware of. I really need to explore more of the ancient/classical authors. PS: A minor request: Could you please edit your "main pattern to observe" item 1 above for clarity? There is something odd in the grammar that makes it slightly confusing (without the parenthetical clause it reads "that economy produces too much inequality ..." ??)
    – O.M.Y.
    Mar 9, 2018 at 14:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.