People & Power: The Lion King's Lesson

Depose the ruler, put someone in power. It sounds like a relatively straightforward task, gather up a bundle of people, march on whatever capital you have (castle, seat of parliament, tribal leader’s hut, etc.) kill the king (metaphorically or physically, depending on the circumstance), sit them on the throne. Job done.

But why would all those people help you, would be dictator?
There’s a simple explanation, money. The people helping put you into power are doing it because they think you are going to reward them, why else would they put their lives and the lives of their families in jeopardy? If you can secure backing, you can secure the throne, but in securing backing you have to reward the people backing you. If you don’t, your rule will be very short indeed.

I want to take a quick look at The Lion King as an example to this (and yes I’m aware of what it’s based off but it is more contemporary and probably a little easier to remember the details of). Also, when I’m talking about this being a good example, it is a good example of coming to power not necessarily keeping it. Scar is the usurper in this scenario, throughout the movie he runs the gamut from schemer to usurper to king to ousted. Let’s take a quick look at the steps he goes through:

  1. Find supporters (and in this case an army), at the start of the movie he has been doing this for some time (feeding the hyenas to get them to follow him and support him).
  2. Remove the current ruler (he does this by killing Mufasa, the current king; this could be a problem but luckily they are the same bloodline so his claim to the throne is much easier to convince people of than if he was truly an outsider, this is probably why the support of the lionesses isn’t immediately withdrawn - that is, not until it is too late).
  3. Remove as much opposition as possible (Simba was meant to be killed, but this is a children’s movie and also, if he was, the story the movie presents ends pretty quickly. Instead he is banished with the threat of “If you ever come back, we’ll kill ya!”, which works for a time).
  4. Introduce more people that can be ‘swapped’ into influential positions (partially as a reward) to help maintain his hold (he does this by bringing the Hyenas, his most loyal supporters into the system, that’s the: “…where lions and hyenas come together…” speech).
    At that point he is effectively in power and doesn’t have any real opposition, the next in line is gone, the lionesses are outnumbered by Scar’s army (the Hyenas) who are now getting paid well (now have food where before they were banished to the elephant graveyard). The populace (lionesses) are unhappy but there isn’t a great deal they can do without fear of reprisal from Scar’s now loyal army.

At this point you might be forgiven for thinking he is in power and will stay in power. In the minds of many people a dictator’s rule is absolute, complete and unwavering, a dictator, unlike a democratically elected representative, isn’t afraid of the populace kicking him out. And this is true, the populace can do little to a dictator in power. But that is the wrong side of the deposing-a-dictator coin. The real threat to the dictator is the ones who helped him to power and help him stay in power. Now let’s turn our attention to his fall from power.

Scar’s fall starts well before Simba ever returns to the scene, Simba is what finally topples Scar’s house of cards, but from a political decision standpoint Scar has been failing for a time. The gold is largely gone (there is no food, the herds are gone, the lionesses are hungry as are the hyenas) and he is ruling on force of will and fear alone. When Simba returns (an eventuality he is not prepared for) suddenly a viable alternative has presented itself. In an extremely short time the people (lionesses) effectively storm the palace (obviously there are no palaces but this is functionally where the now unrewarded army steps back and lets the people riot and depose their leader). The army (the Hyenas) having lost their reward for keeping Scar in power (the hyena army is a key supporter of Scar’s rule) turn on him, they let the people riot instead of keeping the peace, and in fact, they attack their king themselves (there’s a whole scene dedicated to this which is a bit twisted in a children’s movie if you consider what they probably end up doing, it is not quite cannibalism since hyenas and lions are a different species but it might as well be).

The reasons I wanted to write this little look into Scar’s politics is because I’ve been writing a more politically involved book (not real world politics obviously, that’s just nightmare fuel regardless of which side or branch of politics you analyse) and that’s led me to start thinking about the big powerful characters that appear in it. And, by extension, what those characters need to do to remain powerful.

If this topic is of interest I suggest having a read of The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, they give a much more in depth look into the behaviour of people in power and a whole host of real-world examples.

-Mechaquill