How Hayek Predicted Trump With His 'Why the Worst Get on Top'

It is in this context, the context of newly resurgent demagoguery, that I thought of Hayek’s analysis of “Why the Worst Get on Top.” His subject is how democratic principles succumb to totalitarian impulses. There is a common assumption, he notes, that the toxic nature of the totalitarian regimes of the last century were due to the fact that they were established by “blackguards and thugs.” What if such systems were run by nice people, Colonel Sanders instead of Colonel Gaddafi? Hayek suggests that that wouldn’t much matter. “There are strong reasons,” he writes, “for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products, but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce”:

Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending towards totalitarianism.

It is the possibility that we are living through such a tendency, embodied in the spirit of a character like Donald Trump, that gives anti-Trumpers such pause. Hayek describes “the position which precedes the suppression of democratic institutions and the creation of a totalitarian regime”:

In this stage it is the general demand for quick and determined government action that is the dominating element in the situation, dissatisfaction with the slow and cumbersome course of democratic procedure which makes action for action's sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough "to get things done" who exercises the greatest appeal ...

[I]t is the ineffectiveness of parliamentary majorities with which people are dissatisfied. What they will seek is somebody with such solid support as to inspire confidence that he can carry out whatever he wants. It is here that the new type of party, organized on military lines, comes in.