Cornelius Fudge’s Tyranny Primer

by Robbie Fischer

The behavior of the Ministry of Magic, particularly Fudge and Umbridge, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, makes for a nursery book on the arts and sciences of tyranny. In the year following Lord Voldemort’s return, when the peace, freedom, and harmony of the magical world are under their most deadly threat in thirteen years (if not longer), Fudge models the classic behavior of a power-loving ruler who would gladly trade in peace, freedom, harmony, and everything else pertaining to his constituents’ quality of life, in order to stay in power. Lovers of freedom and good government can learn a lot by observing the many ways Fudge botches it.

How does Fudge love power? Let us count the ways.

1. Grinding justice under his heels. I don’t know how many of us understand words like “subvert” or “suborn” or how many simply run screaming from the phrase “independent judiciary.” But we understand something, maybe, about fair play. And we understand, maybe, that one of the first things citizens of a free society could ask for, is a justice system they can trust. Trust it to assign guilt or innocence impartially. Trust justice to be blind.

Perhaps the basic factor in the concept of Injustice is that it favors the rich at the expense of the poor. When Draco Malfoy says, “It’s not so much what you know, as who you know,” he is exaggerating in that instance, but in many other instances, his father has proven his words. Lucius has connections, he can smooth the way for things he wants to happen, and he can spike the wheels of things he wants to stop. He does it with money, and when money talks, Fudge is one of those who listens. Surely, he does not consciously or directly favor Lucius because of his money, but Fudge is dazzled by wealth and prestige; it does add weight to Lucius’ point of view. And at least indirectly, this influences the way Fudge works the Judicial Branch of his Ministry.

Another big priority for the justice system in a free society is that it be (at least somewhat) immune from politics. Fudge crassly puts his justice system under the sway of politics, firstly by being himself part of the Wizengamot, secondly by sidelining Dumbledore because of his beliefs (a process that goes beyond the Wizengamot, in fact, with outrageous vindictiveness), and thirdly by perverting the judicial process in order to ensure a verdict that is politically expedient. Fudge wants to silence Harry. Umbridge knows this and uses dementors to set Harry up (her towering hypocrisy is later revealed when, at Harry’s career advice session, she makes such a big deal out of Harry having a criminal record – as though she didn’t set him up!).

Then Fudge tries to pass a summary sentence on Harry, which from his point of view is simply a convenient way to silence a disturber of the status quo but from any other point of view is a monstrous act tantamount to murder. It would, in effect, end Harry’s life as a wizard, ostracize him from the world he belongs to, and leave him unprotected for Voldemort to dispose of him for good. In his delusion, Fudge sees only the political advantage of getting Harry out of the way. His politics clearly come in higher than justice because he at first wants to expel Harry and confiscate his wand without a trial (and without legal jurisdiction to expel Harry from Hogwarts), then he decides to throw the book at Harry in a full criminal trial (with the possibility of Azkaban lurking under what would ordinarily be a minor disciplinary matter).

Once Fudge has started twisting the justice system, he keeps twisting. He changes the time and place of the hearing at the last minute, apparently hoping that neither Harry nor Dumbledore will learn of the change until they have missed the hearing, so Harry can be tried in absentia and convicted without a defense. He cross-examines Harry with the obvious goal of keeping Harry from telling his side of the story, then uses sarcasm and malicious insinuations on Harry’s character to throw doubt on Harry’s testimony. He tries a similar approach with the testimony of Mrs. Figg, while also trying to rush the trial along to prevent exculpatory witnesses like Dobby or another interview of Mrs. Figg. He unequivocally questions Harry’s honesty without having any evidence that Harry has ever lied except his own refusal to believe, and he clearly has the political wherewithal to drive people out of the Wizengamot, not to say the International Confederation of Wizards, who do not share his politically motivated views. And because Fudge is both the Judicial Branch and the Executive Branch in wizarding affairs, he can combine outraged executive authority with an implied threat of “contempt-of-court” to shout down anything he perceives as Dumbledore’s meddling with his authority, which really amounts to Harry’s whole defense.

Fudge also retorts Dumbledore’s arguments on the grounds of existing laws and lines of authority. He says, more than once, that laws can be changed. Meaning, if you take these statements in context, that for the sake of political expediency, by the next time he has Dumbledore or Harry where he wants them, he will have changed the rules to make sure he gets them but good. Meaning, maybe it’s time to sweep aside inconvenient niceties and technicalities like the rules of evidence (e.g., Harry can only be convicted on evidence concerning the crime he is charged with, not other supposed crimes), the right to a fair trial (e.g., the ministry couldn’t break Harry’s wand without giving him a hearing first), restricting the jurisdiction of the court (e.g., the Ministry cannot impose school sanctions on Hogwarts students), and so on. It seems Fudge is as much prepared to change these basic tenets of justice in a free society, on short notice and for small political ends, as he was to change the date and venue of Harry’s hearing.

A last observation under this item is that Fudge cut a deal with Willy Widdershins, the toilet bomber, who turned informant for Umbridge. Here, justice is not just blindfolded; she has had her eyes put out, and Fudge is leading her in a merry game of blind man’s buff. The guilty go free so that they can snitch on the innocent, and the innocent get railroaded to prevent them from telling the world their story. It is amazing that Fudge can think of himself in the right when he has deliberately turned justice upside down like this.

Considering how profoundly Fudge has perverted the justice system in the wizarding world, it’s astounding that Harry was acquitted. I guess Dumbledore’s magic is stronger.

2. Silencing free expression of ideas. From the word “go,” it’s clear that Fudge has gagged the Daily Prophet and that the Ministry is feeding an official line to the wizard newspaper – its interpretation of the Azkaban breakout, its blackout on news of Cedric Diggory’s death and Voldemort’s return, its ridicule of Harry Potter, and the totally political article on Educational Decree 23. Then his right-hand woman at Hogwarts puts a similar gag rule on the teachers, and later goes over the top and threatens to expel anyone caught with the issue of The Quibbler that contained Harry’s interview. She creates an oppressive atmosphere of censorship and thought police. With spies in the Hog’s Head, stooges in the Inquisitorial Squad, and other Sneaks at large, Umbridge sees to it that no confidence is safe.

3. Turning the educational system into a nursery for government propaganda. In a place of learning, where ideas ought to be shared, Umbridge makes it impossible to hold free discourse, to assemble without her permission, to teach skills (however useful they may be) that the Ministry feels could be used against it, or to communicate ideas that run against the grain of then-current political orthodoxy. She then begins a purge of the faculty, singling out people she considers too close to Dumbledore, or racially impure, or connected somehow (like Trelawney) to what she considers the dangerous Harry Potter Myth. She strips the headmaster, the teachers, and the prefects of all authority autonomous of the ministry, and ensures that the only authority that counts for anything directly serves the political interests of the Cornelius Fudge administration. This includes hiring and firing teachers, imposing sanctions on students, and (as noted before) putting limits on the topics that can be read and discussed. Umbridge’s regime comes close to the atmosphere of Stalin’s USSR when the most promising and competent people are destroyed because they threaten the security of one man’s grasp on power. History shows that the USSR paid dearly when its defense against the invading German army was left in the hands of safe, unthreatening, and deliberately-undertrained mediocrities. This could be the fate of the wizarding world if people like Umbridge continue sacrificing the school curriculum to political ends.

4. Using force instead of due process. I cite Umbridge’s attack on Hagrid and McGonagall as the chief example. Fudge takes the same tactic against Dumbledore once and later seems prepared to try it again in the atrium of the Ministry. Maybe a subcategory here could be “Looking for Problems, Thereby Being Sure to Find Them, Rather Than Responding to Complaints as Is Usually Done.” Her whole regime as an inquisitor is based on going around looking for things to criticize, which occasionally has the effect of causing such things to happen.

5. Torturing confessions out of people. You could look at the lines Umbridge makes Harry write, in this light. She is forcing him to write, in his own blood, many times over, that he is lying when he is, in fact, telling the truth. Perhaps she thinks that if she brings Harry down far enough, she can turn his truth into a lie. With the same sad sort of wishful thinking, she gives the high hat to a hundred centaurs on their turf. Part of me would like to know what the centaurs did to make her view things differently – did they use her own tactics against her, somehow? The other part, though, says: Best Left to the Imagination.

Not quite rising to the level of torture is Umbridge’s attempt to hit Harry by stealth with a probably lethal dose of Veritaserum. She has no trouble at all drugging a 15-year-old student so she can interrogate him about wanted criminals. What makes it despicable is that she does it by trickery, while pretending to be having a friendly cup of tea with him. Later she goes even further, by preparing to use the Cruciatus curse on the boy. It’s amazing that she can say, with a straight face, that her students needn’t bone up on defense spells because there are no dark wizards out there waiting to attack them… when she herself is prepared to attack her own student with one of the worst spells in all Dark Magic!

6. Putting internal, political battles ahead of the public interest. This refers to the fact that Fudge wastes a year dealing with Dumbledore as a rival for power, rather than Voldemort as an enemy of the entire system in which he holds power. This makes Fudge, unwittingly, more a servant of the Enemy than of his public.

7. The risk of a sudden change of fortune or fall from favor. Civil servants (i.e., those who work for the Ministry of Magic) are put on notice that their political loyalties are being watched, especially those who already have suspicious ties; and they will be sacked the instant they are found to be supporting Dumbledore and his party. Again, I am reminded of Stalin’s USSR, when something like Newsweek‘s “Conventional Wisdom Watch” was a matter of life and death – political, and actual life and death! As your political fortunes rose and fell, as you waxed and waned in the favor of the Man, you could be swept from obscurity to the halls of power and, in a heartbeat, become an untouchable person waiting for a sudden knock on the door in the dead of night. Maybe I’m overdramatizing this, but isn’t this what Fudge means by putting the Ministry on notice that their political loyalties will determine whether they continue to work for the Ministry? There can be no steady, workmanlike, disinterested Public Service when public servants live in constant fear of being caught behind the political curve. Or worse, in the way of the Wheels of Progress.

Unfortunately, as Fudge expands his powers as dictator of the magical world, these conditions also apply to the staff at Hogwarts, whose administration and teachers have lost all control over the affairs of their own school in favor of a political appointee. And wherever Umbridge finds her aims checked by some loophole (as when Dumbledore appoints Firenze to teach Divination), it’s a simple matter to get a new Decree expanding the Ministry’s powers still more.

8. Micromanagement of every aspect of life. Totalitarian regimes depend on complete control over every aspect of every minute of every citizen’s life. At Hogwarts, this policy is represented by the Educational Decree that puts Umbridge in charge of all teams, clubs, student organizations, etc., as well as the decrees on what teachers can say and what students can read and really, the whole idea of an inquisitor peering over the teachers’ shoulders. Umbridge’s great failing as an administrator is that she personally has to put out every fire, has to control what every teacher teaches, has to take a personal interest in what all the students are getting in the mail, has to have the fires watched, and has the last word on punishments handed out to wrongdoers. This makes her vulnerable to afflictions like Peeves and the Weasley twins and lays her open to remarks like the one on which Professor Flitwick closes his classroom door in her face (“I wasn’t sure I had the authority…”). It causes her to spend too much time running around at her wits’ end. But it also means that, when nothing passes without her observation, she can control what people think and know, and single out anyone she cannot control.

9. The end justifies the means. This probably solves the problem of how Fudge and Umbridge can live with themselves. Nevertheless, their ends are pretty small. They are, after all, looking after themselves rather than the public they supposedly serve. Classic example: Umbridge’s little debate with herself as she decides whether to put Harry under the Cruciatus Curse.

10. The bigger they are… My prediction is that Fudge will go the way of all totalitarian dictators. His enlightenment as to Voldemort’s return, as of the end of Order of the Phoenix, does not change what he basically is. His first concern will always be for his own standing, his own regime. I predict his next step will be some kind of appeasement policy à la Neville Chamberlain. Or, at best, he will fight to protect his Legacy. But his weakness as a strategist will always be that he is motivated first of all by self-interest, and therefore, he will not find it easy to make necessary sacrifices or commit sufficient forces to achieve a swift and total victory. He is the sort of leader who will bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s generals, who time after time let smaller enemy forces move freely and larger forces outmaneuver them and let every advantage slip away because they were hesitant to commit.

My prediction, in short, is that the true scope of the disaster of Fudge’s Ministry will not be seen until at least Book 6, when the war is on in earnest. And historically that situation admits of two possible outcomes. Either Fudge will be brought down by his own people, in disgrace (if he lives so long), or he will be brought down by an equally power-hungry rival, which would hardly improve things. I think Fudge’s mismanagement will set the stage for many of the fiery trials to come. But sooner or later, he is coming down.