An entire literature devoted to these last twilit weeks of the Trump presidency is on its way. But when it comes, we should be so lucky if anything captures the mood of impending collapse as well as Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, an account written more than 40 years ago of the mental atmosphere that prevailed during the last days of the reign of Haile Selassie, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia.
To the world, Selassie was the man who had stood up to Mussolini, who had won back his country and his throne, and who wanted to take Ethiopia into the modern era. But, in the postwar period, another image was emerging, Kapuscinski writes, of “the monarch as a ruler committed to defending his power at any cost, a man who was above all a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite that he has created and coddled.”
Selassie’s court abounded with yes-men, flatterers, and hangers-on who nonetheless knew they were aboard a sinking ship. “There was such a fear of the precipice in the Palace that everyone tried to hold on to His Majesty, still not knowing that the whole court … was sliding towards the edge of the cliff.” In the “stale air of hatred and fear” that hung over his Golden Hall, Selassie operated by one principle, and one alone: “Let him enjoy his corruption, as long as he shows his loyalty!”
Loyalty was vital to Selassie, not merely as the means by which he could prolong his rule but as proof of a universe in which every higher calling or principle had been subverted to the cult of personality—his personality. “His Majesty, the highest person in the state,” one courtier says, “was above the law, since he himself constituted the only source of law, and he was not subject to any of its norms and regulations.”
Selassie reveled in corruption, in part as evidence of human frailty, in part because it gave him a kind of ownership of the men around him. “The King of Kings had everyone in his hand, and everyone knew it.” Selassie saw decency as a direct threat to his rule. When a great patriot and war hero (read: John McCain) shunned his gifts and “never showed any inclination to corruption,” His Charitable Majesty threw him in jail and cut off his head.
Selassie operated by one principle, and one alone: “Let him enjoy his corruption, as long as he shows his loyalty!”
Selassie was a populist, the enemy of the old Ethiopian aristocracy, even as he fostered a new military elite loyal only to him. When you rob men of the ability to answer to a principle greater than that of their own self-interest, you end up with “a nest of mediocrity,” as Kapuscinski describes the palace. But “mediocrity is dangerous: when it feels itself threatened it becomes ruthless.”
In his final days, Selassie was isolated and alone, living “among shadows of himself” and prey to magical thinking. Like Trump, he demanded a self-abasement so complete that few were capable of it. “The condition for remaining in the Emperor’s circle was practicing the cult of the Emperor. Only those who could satisfy “his vanity, his self-love, his passion for the stage and the mirror,” could survive. As men such as General John Kelly, H. R. McMaster, and many others discovered, “whoever grew weak and lost eagerness in the practice of this cult lost his place, dropped out, disappeared.”
A bunker mentality was in force. “Life inside the Palace seemed strange, as if existing only of itself and for itself.” Outside, Ethiopia was crumbling. The Emperor’s vainglorious development projects had come to naught. The country was starving, corruption rife. In the end, it was a faction of that very same military he had nurtured that forced his abdication one September day in 1974.
Judging by these first two weeks, this infant year seems determined to best its predecessor on the horror-and-surprise index. But if there is one thing the Trump presidency has prepared us for, it is our own version of the Agence France-Presse headline that appeared months after Selassie had been deposed and imprisoned in the hills above Addis Ababa: HAILE SELASSIE STILL BELIEVES HE IS EMPEROR OF ETHIOPIA.
Those who live solely for a cult of personality leave no legacy. Not for any great moral reason, but just because they die and the world moves on. Of the man who had once towered over his country nothing remained save the memory of “whims of power, labyrinths of Palace politics, ambiguity, darkness that no one could penetrate.” In what might serve as the political epitaph of the unknown demagogue, Kapuscinski writes:
“He condemned innocence to death and pardoned guilt.”
Aatish Taseer is the author of, most recently, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges. His documentary, In Search of India’s Soul, was released last year