Appearances can be deceiving. Just ask those who unwittingly serve the Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster.
When the game of politics is played with daggers and poison (and worse), sometimes the most advantageous place to be is off the board entirely. Playing the part of the witless, raving lunatic is a useful (and life-extending) tactic when surrounded by murderous schemers: rather than waste their energies eliminating the idiot, they spend their time instead betraying and sabotaging their more obvious rivals, leaving the Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster free to turn the players into pieces in his own game. When he makes a move, everyone assumes it's one of the other players manipulating him. Once the deception is complete, he can act with impunity.
There are two main variations on this trope:
- The character is in a position of authority, but plays dumb so that his "loyal underlings" and political rivals believe he can be easily swayed in their favor.
- The character is in a position of no obvious authority at all, but which allows him to exercise influence over others regardless.
A subtrope of Manipulative Bastard. Compare Not-So-Harmless Villain. Compare also with Decoy Leader, when a real leader uses an impersonator to literally take their place and feeds them instructions; and Obfuscating Stupidity, when someone is actually smart or competent but pretends to be stupid for several different reasons. Contrast with Authority in Name Only, where someone insists they have authority when they really don't, and Puppet King, where a character really is in a seat of authority... it's just that someone else is pulling his strings. When this trope is combined or overlapped with the Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster also being in a seemingly minor or easily overlooked/disregarded position within the organisation, the Almighty Janitor might result.
- Nineteen-year-old Emperor Shi Ryuuki in Saiunkoku Monogatari is initially called "stupid emperor" by members of his court disgusted by his complete lack of interest in ruling his empire, and his habit of spending his days hiding from court officials and spending his nights sleeping with other men. When properly motivated, however, Ryuuki reveals that he has a much defter hand for political intrigue than anyone suspected, and that there's a very good reason that he is the only one of six brothers to survive the imperial court long enough to take the throne; he cultivated the "stupid emperor" image as a survival mechanism, and refuses to rule in the hopes that his exiled older brother Prince Seien will return to take his place.
- Prince Zorzal in Gate believes himself to be this, giving off the appearance of idiocy while hiding a razor-sharp mind. His brother thinks that if this really was ever the case, Zorzal has Become the Mask and gone full dumbass, as evidenced by assassinating their father.
- Touch: Cooper seems like just the business manager of the heroes, but he controls everything, and has th power to take it all away from them with just a touch.
- Discussed in Axis Powers Hetalia fanfic Sold To The Highest Bidder:
- A.A. Pessimal's Discworld fic The Beginning deals with a very young Lord Vetinari consolidating his position right at the start of his rule, carefully giving the impression he is nothing more than a grossly fat youth who is bored with the fine details of running a city. But carefully cultivated surface impressions deceive...
- Persona: The Sougawa Files has Yuudai Honda, the true villain of the story. He appears as Nobuyuki's bumbling underling who doesn't even fight the Freedom Fighters, but is hiding a dangerously brilliant mind that he puts to good use once his boss is out of the way.
- Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars counts because he engineers the Clone Wars in order to assume power. No matter which side wins he also wins as he gets emergency powers from the Republic Senate, which he holds on to indefinitely and is also in charge of the Separatists as Darth Sidious. In his original conception, before he was introduced as the Big Bad for the original trilogy in its second movie, he actually was a powerless puppet as Emperor.
- In My Fellow Americans, two former Presidents were battling a conspiracy which led all the way up to the current President. After they exposed the conspiracy and forced the President to resign, they found out the real ringleader had been the apparently incompetent Vice-President, who had used this as an opportunity to get the top job.
- The Green Hornet: In the movie, anyone who hears Britt Reid speak for five minutes realizes he is a buffoonish Manchild. He is the heir to the Sentinel paper, but obviously Britt is a Rich Idiot With No Day Job who cannot do anything for himself. Then you realize he doesn't need to do anything for himself: he continuously and successfully manipulates people much more intelligent than him (Kato, Casey and Mike Axford) into doing exactly what Britt wants them to do.
- In Midnight Run, Jonathan Mardukas is a rather mild-natured accountant who spends most of the movie handcuffed and being dragged around by Jack Walsh (or whatever bounty hunter, cop or mobster has his hands on him at that particular moment), apparently subdued and incapable of any kind of meaningful resistance. However, he has a habit of passive-aggressive needling and asking awkward Armor Piercing Questions that gradually wear down Jack's defences without him even realising it.
- In his Himself album, this is how Bill Cosby describes fathers' use of Obfuscating Stupidity to make sure everything works out right in the end. All he wants is to sleep in, but his wife wants him to go down and cook breakfast for the kids. He instead gives in to their request for chocolate cake "since it has eggs, and wheat, and milk! That's nutrition!" Oh, and he needs a breakfasty drink, so they get grapefruit juice. And they sit around the table eating chocolate cake and listening to music and having a ball, at which point his wife comes down and "has a conniption fit" that sounds more like Demonic Possession. After she bellows in rage demanding to know why they're eating chocolate cake, his children turn on him, saying he forced them to eat it. So his wife comes to the conclusion that he's utterly useless and can't be trusted with even the simplest task, makes a real breakfast herself, and sends him back to his room. "Which is where I wanted to be in the first place." They are dumb, but they are not so dumb, indeed.
- Who's the most manipulative human puppetmaster in the cut-throat world of British magicians' politics in The Bartimaeus Trilogy? Quentin Makepeace, the prime minister's favorite playwright. He's primarily known for writing popular plays for the unsophisticated public and amusing the Prime Minister with his flamboyant, jolly ways. He also has a serious axe to grind against the British government and ultimately succeeds in kidnapping them all at the premiere for his last play about the Prime Minister's life.
- The scholar Hopkins also deserves an honorary mention for manipulating the Resistance into robbing a dangerously well-guarded tomb and unknowingly stealing a powerful artifact for his patron in the process. In fact, he deserves bonus points because he has the uncanny knack for being so blandly ordinary that, lacking any distinguishing characteristics, he is very hard to describe or even think about for long.
- The Wheel of Time:
- Egwene, upon being made Amyrlin Seat, engages in this trope to avoid being removed immediately when the Sitters realize she isn't as weak as they think. It's one of the first hints that she's a Magnificent Bitch.
- Rand also utilizes this trope when he points out to Perrin that a split White Tower is in his interests since they are too busy plotting against each other whilst trying to win him over to risk the backlash of interfering with him. He goes so far as to say that he wouldn't be able to get away with half of what he does, since with a United White Tower he'd be forced to bow and scrape to the Aes Sedai and ask their permission for everything!
- Governor Grice in the Ciaphas Cain novel For the Emperor. Everyone thinks that he's merely a puppet being controlled by the Tau, or just plain incompetent, but he's really a member of the Genestealer cult that thrives in Gravalax's underground, which is trying to play the Tau and the Imperium against each other to soften them up for the coming wave of Tyranid invasions.
- Emperor Sarabian of David Eddings' The Tamuli. The entire court in Matherion was convinced he was either an utter dolt, a harmless fop, or a simple fool easily distracted by his silly hobbies. He reveals the truth to Ehlana, Sparhawk, and the others, and eventually proceeds to overthrow his own government, take proper control of the empire, single-handedly remove all the corrupt courtiers involved in a failed coup, and become a wise and effective ruler. And he has such a delightful time doing it.
- I, Claudius:
Pollio: Do you want to live a long and busy life, with honor at the end of it?
Pollio: Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I see, you would know that this was your only hope of eventual glory.
- A not-uncommon strategy in A Song of Ice and Fire, in which most rank-and-file nobles are quick to discount any source of power other than military force:
- Lord Varys, the Master of Whisperers, is a lord only by courtesy (the title being applied to anyone who sits on the Small Council), not because he actually holds any lands or commands any men. As a commoner, a foreigner, and a eunuch, he's seldom viewed as a serious threat by the heads of the major Houses, and he has a way of making himself indispensible to whatever party is currently in power, while secretly playing them all for his own ends.
- Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish uses much the same strategy. He's of the lowest possible nobility, being lord of a rundown keep, a flock of sheep, a handful of peasants and some rocks, and many see the Master of Coin as just a glorified tax collector. But his financial wizardry makes him a very useful ally, and while everyone knows he's dishonest, only the savviest characters realize the true heights of his ambitions or the danger posed by his Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
- Many Hands of the King are this: on paper they are little more than a particularly trusted assistant, in practice many of them rule in all but name.
- This is nearly the mission statement and business plan of the Iron Bank of Braavos. Officially, they are merely usurers and market facilitators: wealthy, but without true physical or political power of their own as many rulers judge these things based on arms, land and vassals. Indeed, neutral financiers just interested in the interest are just what they actually are... unless and until you cross them. Then you'll find your liquidity mysteriously hamstrung as the debts of your past (and that of your vassals) suddenly are called in, all credit is withheld and foreign merchants suddenly evaporate while yours suffer new and interesting obstacles abroad. Meanwhile, your opponents magically find financial support and material backing beyond their wildest dreams. That is if you're lucky; you could simply suffer a regrettable heart attack care of a Faceless Man if you're not so lucky. Smart rulers know that "they own us all, whether we know it or not" as Tywin Lannister says in Game of Thrones, but smart rulers are the exception, not the rule.
- In the Mordant's Need novels by Stephen R. Donaldson, this is a trick used by both King Joyse and Adept Havelock. In Joyse's case, he's spent years pretending to be completely senile to test his allies and lure all of his enemies out so they can be destroyed in a single decisive blow. In Havelock's case, while he really is insane due to a magical accident, he has a number of moments of greater lucidity during which he can make his own moves and support Joyse's plans. Both work together quite effectively, with almost no one catching on until it's too late.
- It's suggested that Lord Vetinari was this early on; later his power had become secure enough that he didn't need to. His entry in the first Discworld Companion says:
Technically, Vetinari seems to have given in to every demand of every Guild for years, so the Guilds are driving themselves mad wondering why he is therefore still in charge.
- In Small Gods, two Omnian officials are described as among the more powerful members of the hierarchy, because they're far enough down it that it's still possible to get things done. In particular, one of them is Secretary to the Congress of Iams (equivalent to the College of Cardinals), and if that doesn't sound like a position of power, you've never taken the minutes for a meeting of deaf old men.
- It's suggested that Lord Vetinari was this early on; later his power had become secure enough that he didn't need to. His entry in the first Discworld Companion says:
- The Dresden Files reveals in Turn Coat that the Big Bad of the novel is in fact the Council's secretary, who had laced the inks with a specialized mind control potion. Using certain key words, he has control over younger members and can somewhat influence the Senior Council. It's quite clever how he does it: instead of changing decisions outright, which would've gotten him killed, he influences decisions very slightly to avoid detection. For example, no-one would blink when a traditionalist makes a traditional decision, even if that's not what he wanted to do before he got mind-controlled. And keep in mind that wizards live for centuries...
- The figure of Prentin, the mysterious Man Behind the Man in The City of Silent Revolvers covers the identity of one of these, in what is probably the most unexpected cases of The Butler Did It.
- In the New Jedi Order, Onimi is Supreme Overlord Shimrra's court jester and personal slave, remarkable only for being an obnoxious Cloud Cuckoo Lander prone to lecherous behavior and speaking in Rhymes on a Dime, and who even lives only at Shimrra's sufferance. Most of the Yuuzhan Vong court try to ignore him as much as possible. Which works great for Onimi, since it means nobody suspected that he was actually telepathically controlling Shimrra, and through him, ruling the entire Yuuzhan Vong empire.
- The Inheritance Cycle: Nasuada pretends to be naive and easily manipulated in order to trick the Council of Elders into supporting her as her father's successor. Of course, it's a facade she drops as soon as she's officially chosen.
- Earth: Final Conflict has most everyone believing Ron Sandoval is in the back pocket of Taelon leader Zo'or, shackled by an alien implant. The truth is that Sandoval's "motivational imperative" hasn't been working since at least the top half of Season 2, he's playing every angle in the conflict (Taelons, Jaridians, human supporters, La Résistance) against one another, and he's letting Zo'or think (s)he's in charge so that Zo'or takes the fall when it all blows up.
- Hogan's Heroes: Hogan is a prisoner of war in a German POW camp, and doesn't appear to be resisting the Germans in any way. In reality, he's in charge of a massive sabotage and subterfuge operation that's been giving the Germans hell, and he is adept at manipulating the camp staff to get what he wants.
- Played with in regard to Corrado "Junior" Soprano in The Sopranos. After a brief power struggle in the first few episodes, he winds up under house arrest and, now that he's removed from direct power, his nephew Tony allows him to believe he's The Don while Tony is the de facto boss. However, Junior still tries his best to leverage his seniority and the loyalty of his underlings to run things behind Tony's back, undermining and even attempting to organize a hit on his nephew. To the feds, of course, he plays the part of a bemused senior who doesn't know anything, while simultaneously trying to act tough and in-control around Tony and the other gangsters; the truth is somewhere in the middle, and as he gets older he begins to show signs of genuine dementia.
- Season 3 of Daredevil (2015) puts Wilson Fisk in a similar position to Junior Soprano. He manipulates the FBI into letting him out of prison and putting him under house arrest in a Manhattan hotel penthouse. To Ray Nadeem, he paints himself as a man wanting to atone for his criminal deeds, and who is willing to give up information on other criminals in exchange for criminal charges against Vanessa being tossed. But to everyone else, Fisk is 100% in charge of everything, as he secretly owns the hotel, is able to remotely order an attempt on Matt when Matt visits the prison looking for information on Fisk's time there, and the FBI agents guarding him are all on his payroll, serving as his enforcers to extort other criminal organizations into paying him protection money.
- Regent Tepet Fokuf from Exalted spends his time masturbating to religious texts and rubber-stamping any proposal someone puts in front of him. Strongly implied to be pulling a Claudius (see above), as actually exerting any kind of power would get him assassinated and probably trigger a civil war.
- The Viscount in Dragon Age II is universally regarded as a weakling when, in fact, he is one of the few Reasonable Authority Figures in Kirkwall who has kept violence in the city at bay for many years through subtle manipulation and maintaining the balance of power. However, due to Meredith's influence he can't directly act out, in which case he gets Hawke to try and stem the trouble.
- Gul'dan from World of Warcraft is a master of this trope. He overthrew his mentor Ner'zul and took his plans to take over the Horde, and then when the warlocks of the Shadow Council are ousted and killed at the start of Warcraft II, he feigns helplessness and pledges fake servitude to Doomhammer, only to betray him and cost him the entire Second War at the eleventh hour. He only perishes after his plans culminate and he meddles with powers far too strong for him.
- His Alternate Timeline version introduced in Warlords of Draenor follows in the same vein spectacularly; even after Garrosh meddles with the timeline and convinces Grommash to throw Gul'dan to the dogs, Gul'dan manages to plot his escape and work behind the scenes, acting as if he's helplessly outmatched and on the run...only to reveal he was waiting for the Alliance and Horde to deal with the Iron Horde so he could sweep in and summon the Burning Legion, bringing their forces to Draenor en-masse and convincing the Iron Horde to throw their lot in with them as they did in the prime timeline.
- In The Elder Scrolls series, Downplayed in the latter portion of Emperor Uriel Septim VII's reign. While he was still Emperor of Tamriel, the Imperial Simulacrum severely fractured and weakened the Empire, with extreme unrest in the provinces. With his Imperial Legions no longer the fighting force they once were, his Empire was only maintained through his elaborate schemes, shrewd diplomacy, and political maneuvering, up until his death which kickstarted the Oblivion Crisis.
- Ace Attorney
- In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Phoenix himself takes the reins of the overlaying story while Apollo works on his own cases. To wit, a lowly piano player with no actual skill whatsoever who appears at first to be homeless and partially also relies on his adoptive daughter's income joyrides his own trial concerning a murder case. He arranges the true culprit as his defense attorney to lock him in court and indict him, and spent the last seven years gathering evidence and upheaving the entire legal system just to clear his name over a Frame-Up with the usage of forged evidence despite the fact that he's shunned from the legal world for that. He seems to still have a lot of clout there.
- The Big Bad of the second Ace Attorney Investigations may as well be the poster child for this trope. Literally everything in the game turns out to be all part of their plan. Who do they introduce themselves as? A perpetually nervous apprentice animal tamer and clown at the local circus. They did such a good job of Obfuscating Stupidity even Edgeworth was fooled!
- The Order of the Stick: Lord Shojo is possibly one of the most triumphant examples to date. He rules a kingdom with an extremely corrupt nobility and, more importantly, he knows it. It's implied that it took a few assassination attempts for him to realize he couldn't just throw his weight around and expect to live very long. Instead he pretends to be old and senile and continually refers to his cat for advice, pretending he gets useful advice from him and is following it. He eventually reveals to Roy that the nature of the situation is such that if he acts old and senile, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. It helps that the nobles are actively screwing each other over so much that they assume he's just being manipulated by everyone.
Shojo: Ever since that day, I have found it easier to let them believe that I am senile and easily swayed. When I ruled in their favor, they assumed that they controlled me. When I ruled against them, they assumed that one of their rival nobles controlled me. I can make the decisions I feel are necessary without worrying about being killed over them.
- In G.I. Joe: Resolute, Cobra Commander admitted to his troops that he played this role in the '80s because he hoped it would motivate them "to think". When he realized that it wasn't motivating them to be cleverer henchmen, but instead motivated them to try to take over, he dropped the act and made it very clear to them and the world what a dangerous and competent commander he actually is.
- The first historical example of this trope takes place during the founding of The Roman Republic. Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Republic, had feigned dim-wittedness for years to avoid distrust from the King of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (often referred to as Tarquin). Brutusnote , which translates to "dullard", expelled Tarquin and his family from Rome and founded the Republic.
- Claudius, Emperor of Rome, managed to stay alive through a series of purges and assassinations during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula by seeming too dumb and useless to be a threat. When Caligula was finally assassinated, he became Emperor (by virtue of being the only man in the family still breathing) whereupon he turned out to be not so dumb after all. This was helped by the fact that he was sidelined by his entire family to the extent that he had more or less given up on running for public office on account of his limp.
- Boris III of Bulgaria is arguably this as when he rose to power he was the target of no less than two assassination attempts and a few years later was reduced to a puppet ruler by a military coup. He subsequently planned a counter-coup that placed him in sole control of Bulgaria. He then gave aid to Germany and with Nazi help got back territory previously lost in exchange for use of a single railway.
- Oda Nobunaga acted like an irresponsible fool from the moment he inherited his father's domain until his closest adviser committed seppuku in protest. He earned the epithet "Fool of Owari", but he had to in order to survive having several dozen powerful warlords surrounding his tiny fiefdom. The rest of Japan fell for it — those who knew were either on his side or dead — until the Battle of Okehazama, albeit that may have happened because of one of those warlords falling for it.
- Abraham Lincoln used this tactic to some extent to get control over his cabinet, whose members each at least initially tended to think they should be running the show. Later on, he dropped this tactic when it was no longer necessary.
- Josef Stalin was originally thought by most everyone to be extremely harmless in his early years in the Bolshevik Party. He eventually got himself put in charge of the Party's newspaper and given nearly unlimited control over the organizational side of the party. He used this influence to get himself promoted to General Secretary where he used this power to appoint centrists and people he had influence over (generally because he had dirt on them) to the party congress (which technically had power over the standing committee and politburo). He was elected to the leadership by those centrists and with the general approval of his potential rivals, who thought that Stalin could be easily manipulated. They mistook his coarse, unrefined crudity and indifference to ideological principles or intellectual arguments for stupidity. More importantly, he didn't seem to have a 'real' power base like Mikhail Frunze's Red Army or 'Iron Felix' Dzherzhinsky's OGPU/NKGB. The joke ended around 1929 when, with Stalin no longer tolerating open dissent within the politburo and Frunze and Dzherzhinsky dead of natural causes, people realized that he had become a de facto dictator. From then onward anyone who looked like opposition, or looked like thinking about looking like it, was killed or sent to break rocks in the Gulag. The rest is very bloody history.
- Current President of China Xi Jinping followed a pretty similar career path to Stalin. He entered the Communist Party at the bottom and spent most of his life carefully cultivating an image as a party loyalist and competent administrator, but also someone who was unambitious, cautious and thoroughly bland, racking up seniority and influence until he was strong enough to make a play for the top. Apparently he was so good at being uncontroversial and forgettable that to this day people he worked with for years can barely remember him. When the Communist Party voted to put him in charge, probably assuming he would just sit quietly at his desk filling out paperwork, he immediately cast off the guise and starting purging his rivals, including the chief of China's security services. They never saw it coming. And now he has amended the constitution to remove the term limits on his presidency, effectively becoming President-for-Life.
- Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is showing signs of this. One day, you're seeing him at his daily press conference indulging in spurious ramblings and actions unanimously panned by even the most sympathetic press outlets, such as hating wind power because windmills are ugly or going out of his way to kiss, shake hands and hug people in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. Then you find out about ruthless and carefully planned political moves performed during his administration such as sending the governor of the state of Puebla on a ride in a malfunctioning helicopter followed by one of his closest political lieutenants scoring a landslide electoral victory, punishing the governor of Jalisco (who is a political rival) by putting the very person he ran against as the Federal Superdelegate, shuffling the Supreme Court's ministers and the councilmen of the National Electoral Institute with obedient lackeys with very close historical ties to him, or simultaneously setting up a bill that allows for asset seizures with scant bureaucratic controls and a government office for auctioning off seized assets grandiosely named "Institute for Returning Stolen Things to the People", and he starts looking like someone who intentionally makes sure to look like an idiot to manipulate his rivals into dropping their guard and let him reshape the country to his whims with a side serving of leaving themselves open to surprise attacks.