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Promoted to Scapegoat

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"Well, they were hardly gonna give me the job when everything was going really well, were they?"
Admiral Dönitz, delivering the news of his "promotion" to Reichspräsident to his wife, That Mitchell and Webb Look

A character has just been promoted to a position within his workplace that he is very clearly unqualified for, as part of some scheme by the higher ups or because no one else is stupid enough to take the job. They may even get promoted on their very first day of a new job without having any experience. This may be because the job has a High Turnover Rate, or because it's extremely dangerous, or the character is being used for something more malicious. The person who receives the promotion will usually never suspect that there is anything fishy going on, despite their lack of credentials.

Note that this trope is only for when there seems to be some kind of ulterior motive for the promotion. Somebody who desperately assumes a role because nobody qualified is available if the Closest Thing We Got. A person who is too highly positioned for their level of competence (due to either The Peter Principle or The Dilbert Principle) is a Pointy-Haired Boss. A person who receives a promotion simply to get them out of the way is Kicked Upstairs. Placing a relative in an important position is Nepotism. The effect of the "promotion" is especially bad for whoever was promoted if their new position is known for being a Volatile Second Tier Position.

If the character manages to achieve more with their new position than the higher-ups ever expected, see Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster. If they do even worse, see Reassignment Backfire.

Also contrast The Uriah Gambit, which is putting someone on the front lines during combat in the hopes that they will end up dead, Reassigned to Antarctica, when a person receives a job as a punishment, and You Are in Command Now, when a person in a military position is forced to take control because everyone else is unavailable. This trope is a common tactic in Springtime for Hitler scenarios. Compare with Nominated as a Prank.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • One Piece
    • After Charlos, a Celestial Dragon, thwarts the Straw Hats' attempt to buy their new friend Caimie's freedom and shoots Hachi (a former enemy who tried to make amends with the Straw Hats), Luffy is enraged and punches Charlos out, bringing down the wrath of the Celestial Dragons upon him. When Disco, owner of the slave auction, calls his boss Doflamingo to tell him what happened and that the Celestial Dragons will blame those running the slave auction, Doflamingo gives Disco ownership of the shop, saying it's no longer useful to him.
    • When Buggy is mistakenly believed to be the leader of Cross Guild, Crocodile and Mihawk both are enraged at the idea before they realize it means most of the attention will be on Buggy rather than on them and that they should all roll with it. And then Buggy takes advantage of it. Since he is still the public face and leader of the organization, the organization follows his word, so he declares they are going for the One Piece, despite Crocodile and Mihawk refusing do to so, they're along for the ride.

    Comic Books 
  • During the course of The Boys Stilwell, the Magnificent Bastard corporate executive at Vought, partners with another sharp and ambitious executive, Jess Bradley. The two work closely together and Bradley is promoted and given greater control over their superhero project... all just so when the inevitable happens and the supers go rogue, Stilwell can hang her out to dry and let her be an extremely convincing Fall Guy.

  • Conversations with a Cryptid posits that this is why Shigaraki was set up to be the heir of All for One's criminal empire. All for One wanted to retire, and planned to hand his operation over Shigaraki so he'd go make a big mess, get caught, and be taken for the leader, while All for One slipped away quietly because everyone thought that Shigaraki was the person behind everything. It didn't quite work because of a (canon) Spanner in the Works — a random civilian informed the police of the location of Shigaraki's hideout, meaning that he nearly got busted before he could inherit anything, and All for One had to personally bail him out.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In The Hudsucker Proxy, the protagonist gets promoted to president of a company on his first day working there after the president commits suicide, as part of a stock scheme set up by a member of the board of directors. Unfortunately for the director, it backfires, as the stooge ends up being really successful.
  • The plot of The Flintstones live action movie is Fred Flinstone being promoted to an executive position, chosen solely for his high level of stupidity. It turns out that he is being used by a Corrupt Corporate Executive to embezzle money from the company and leave Fred to take all the blame.
  • Blazing Saddles involves a plot by the state Attorney General to run the inhabitants of Rock Ridge off their land and resell it to the railroad at a huge profit. To this end, he appoints Bart, a black man awaiting execution, as the (extremely racist) town's new sheriff in an effort to sow confusion. To his frustration, Bart actually manages to do his job quite well.
  • The Jim Carrey movie Fun with Dick and Jane has Carrey's character Dick Harper promoted to Vice President of the company just in time to see the company go into a nosedive. He's shoved in front of a camera for a live news interview literally minutes after getting the job. Shortly after starting the interview, the truth of the company's terrible financials breaks, and he ends up as the face of the corporate cover-up, making it impossible for Dick to get a new job.
  • The Limehouse Golem: The gay Inspector Kildare is made lead detective in the investigation by his homophobic superior so that he'll take the blame for failing to catch the serial killer. Instead, he manages to close the case.
  • In Transcendence, the FBI and the military reluctantly work with RIFT to stop Will, planning to use them as a scapegoat when everything goes south. RIFT seemingly remains oblivious to this possibility. Whether or not that actually happened, however, is completely ignored.

  • In the Belleville books by French author Daniel Pennac, Benjamin Malaussène gets a job in a publishing house as an actual scapegoat. That is to say, whenever someone gets into the building to complain, he appears, says it's all his own fault and looks so miserable that the complainer feels sorry for him and goes away.
  • In Dune, Duke Leto Atreides is made lord of Arrakis, the most important planet in the entire empire. He is very much aware that the emperor just painted a giant bull's eye on his back.
  • Professor Mmaa's Lecture: The termite psychiatrist Dr. Sigismund Kraft-Durchfreud receives the honor of providing therapy for the Queen herself. His enthusiasm disappears when he learns that the higher-ups have done so in order to have someone to blame (and shift the termite society's attention away from valid concerns) in case the Queen goes ill or infertile.
  • In Hit or Myth, Skeeve is tricked into this. The king says he wants a vacation, and has Skeeve disguise himself as the king. It turns out that the king was about to be forced into a marriage he had no interest in, and now Skeeve has to take his place. He gets revenge by claiming that the real king is himself in disguise and orders him hunted down and arrested.
  • In Wintersmith, the witches agree that Mrs Earwig's apprentice Anagramma should get Miss Treason's cottage note . Tiffany, who was Miss Treason's apprentice, protests that this is unfair ... on Anagramma who is clearly being set up to fail to prove a point about Mrs Earwig's brand of witchcraft.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire does this a few times...
    • The title "Lord of Harrenhal" should actually be read "Gotcha, Sukka!". Gaining it... rarely bodes well for those "promoted" to it, thanks to the complex sociopolitical makeup of the Riverlands practically guaranteeing you'll make you or your family a handy scapegoat for King's Landing down the line. This pattern repeats: from Maegor and the Lothstones down to the poor Slynts and the Baratheon-Lannister regime. There is also the fact Harrenhal is cursed and every House that gains it ends up going extinct.
    • The Freys manage to get... um... rather more "Shifted Sideways By Slightly More Titles To Scapegoat" than actually promoted, as such. Nothing they've actually "gained" since the Red Wedding actually has a rise in social status attached (financially, they have technically benefited), for all they've won prime royalties to The Scapegoat role.
    • Beware being a promoted Wandering Minstrel in Westeros. Suddenly gaining a position as either a House or Court Bard should come with a bullseye sandwich-board for a tabard. Being a Court Fool or Maester is, generally, a much, much safer position, though not without risks.
    • The Prince of Pentos is a ceremonial Puppet King position that has little actual say in the policies set by the city's magisters, but always takes the blame when things go wrong. And by "blame", we mean sacrificed to appease the gods during hard times for the city.
  • The Wheel of Time: After the schism in the Aes Sedai Magical Society, the rebel faction elects Egwene al'Vere — only a trainee at the time — as their leader. It's ostensibly because she was elsewhere during the rebellion and represents an unbiased opinion; in fact, the senior members want a manipulable figurehead who can take the fall if the rebellion fails. After a stint as an Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster, Egwene openly takes the reins as a Magnificent Bastard with a strong power base.
  • The Dying Days describes the post of Home Secretary as being this, saying the Party gangs up on you whenever anything goes wrong and the public blames you for everything.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: The Freys and Boltons suffer this after the Red Wedding. Their reward of overlordship forces them to deal with the remaining Stark and Tully loyalists, the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Ironborn, and the devastation and crime spawned by the war, while the Lannisters recuperate at King's Landing.
    • Barristan Selmy gets this treatment after King Robert's death in a boar hunt, largely so the Lannister regime backing King Joffrey can get rid of anyone of questionable loyalty. A combination of this and the insulting retirement package offered to Barristan prompt him to storm off and back a rival claimant for the throne.
  • On Halt and Catch Fire, Joe publically trumpets Cameron's role in developing the Lovelace BIOS code... right before staging a very public accident that appears to wipe out the code, and which appears to be a result of Cameron's slovenly work habits, so that he can have her fired and keep the rights to the code for himself (he, of course, kept backup disks of the code in case it couldn't be restored.)
  • In the final season of How I Met Your Mother, Barney's job is ultimately revealed to be to sign documents claiming responsibility for every illegal thing the company does, so if they get caught (again) he will go down and the company will be completely free. Except that he's actually turned informant for the FBI and reports everything he signs to them as part of a 10 year long sting, because his boss stole his girlfriend.
  • I, Claudius. Emperor Tiberius names Caligula as his successor because he figures that whatever mad antics Caligula will get up to will obscure the faults of his own reign in comparison.
  • On The Office (US), Dwight is promoted to a VP position as a reward for overseeing the Sabre Store project. Unbeknownst to him, Robert California is planning to shut down the project and fire him because a store for Sabre products would be an awful idea. Jim manages to keep him from the meeting where it's supposed to go down long enough for Todd Packer to take both the promotion and the fall.
  • Admiral Dönitz from the That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch The New Fuhrer is thrilled to have been promoted as Fuhrer, rather oblivious to his headquarters being under fire, and eager to implement his ideas about pensions and the housing shortage. It lasts until his second in command gives him the items he needs to take his first decision: a tactical review of the dismal position of their armies "summed up in one rude word"; General Eisenhower's phone number; and a written translation of 'We give up' in English. He does get a (half-hearted) "Heil Dönitz" for his troubles, though.
  • Yes, Minister: In "The Bed of Nails", Jim Hacker is giving the responsibility of formulating an integrated transport policy and the title of 'Transport Supremo'. Jim is quite pleased with what he sees as a promotion. Sir Humphrey immediately recognises this for the poisoned chalice that it is, and points out that this means that Hacker is now responsible for every transport screw-up in the country and to be blamed when the Integrated Transport Policy inevitably doesn't work due to the factionalism between the different Transport areas. The two of them join forces to find a way to force the PM to give the job to someone else without damaging the department's reputation.
    • In "Party Games" when Hacker is convinced by Bernard that being Chancellor or Foreign Secretary would make him unpopular he is asked by Bernard if he wants the job in the middle, meaning Prime Minister. Initially thinking he means Home Secretary, Hacker comments he'd be responsible for all the muggings, jailbreaks and race riots in the country.
    • In another episode, the Prime Minister plans to close down the Department of Administrative Affairs and Hacker is told there is talk he may be made the Minister responsible for Industrial Harmony. Hacker comments with horror that this means every strike in the country will be his fault.Explanation 

    Newspaper Comics 
  • One Dilbert strip features Dilbert's company recruiting their competitor's "best manager"— and immediately assigning him to an impossible task (Project Goosefood) whose failure will tank his career. Just like all the other "best managers" they recruited from their competitors.

  • The Magnus Archives: Jonathan Sims gets promoted to Head Archivist, a job he isn't actually qualified for. His attempts to cover up his inadequacy (and general poor people skills) lead to him being manipulated into unwittingly becoming a trauma-eating monster and later ending the world.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Nomine supplement You Are Here. When Jeanne Delarue was made director of the Board of Trustees of Progressive Banking, she was being set up to fail. The trustees intended to declare bankruptcy, blame her for it, split up the remaining money and leave her to face the music.
  • In the setting of Exalted, the incompetent Regent of the continent-spanning Scarlet Empire was appointed because nobody knew what had happened to their vanished ruler, the Scarlet Empress, and nobody else was stupid enough to risk being found in charge if she ever turned up.
  • Paranoia: "Congratulations, Troubleshooter Uwe-R-DMD! You are now the Assistant Squad Leader! Your job requirements are simple!" (Two hours later:) "And so you see, Friend Computer, if Assistant Squad Leader Uwe-R-DMD hadn't led the charge against the rampaging cleaning bot, we might have come back alive. Hmm? I was the primary squad leader, so where was I? Well, sir, I was busy leading a detachment to the rear, which was vitally important to what success we did have".

    Video Games 
  • Defied in Final Fantasy VI. Emperor Gestahl effectively uses Kefka for this, having him arrested so the Emperor can blame the Empire's crimes on him in order to placate the Returners. However, the Returners don't fall for it, and it ultimately ends up making Kefka betray the Emperor after the Floating Continent is revived.
  • In Modern Warfare 2, Private Allen is promoted to a CIA agent from General Shepherd, who is then assigned to a dangerous undercover mission to get close to the Big Bad. Allen is abruptly killed near the end of said mission by said Big Bad. It's revealed that Shepherd intentionally predicted the mission would fail and use the repercussions of the mission as an excuse for America to become war-hungry.
  • The plan of the villainous Leona Humpford and Louis Stoole from The Adventures of Willy Beamish involves hiring and promoting Willy's father Gordon to be the head of HR of the Tootsweet Corporation... right before a plumber's strike sends the company down the tubes.

  • At the end of the Sluggy Freelance arc "Dangerous Days", HeretiCorp research scientist Chen gets promoted just as the corporation comes under federal investigation. In the comic after the actual head of the corporation delivers that line, Chen is shown being arrested.
    Daedelus: You're going places, Chen. All the way to the top.
  • This is the reason people like Advisor Devon get high ranking positions in the Collective of Anarchist States (CAS), in the webcomic S.S.D.D.. The CAS has a system of Challenging the Chief: If you don't agree with the "advise" of a superior you can challenge him with your own ideas, if your peers side with you get promoted to your superior's position while he gets demoted. While ideally the system will only get competent people in leadership roles, often advisors will support the advance of incompetent people with the intention to challenge them later or using them as scapegoats should something turn wrong.

    Western Animation 
  • In Squidbillies, Early was promoted to CEO to fill a minority quota and to act as a scapegoat for the company's many misdeeds.
  • In Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tom took a position of "CEO" with a mining company, only to discover later that the position was actually "Chief minEr On duty."
  • The Simpsons:
    • "C.E.D'oh" is a good example but also a subversion. Homer learns that the nuclear power plant's legal owner is a canary with a name extremely similar to Mr. Burns, so he takes the fall if things go wrong. Homer then releases the canary and convinces Mr. Burns to make him the new which point Homer fires Burns and takes full control. Burns takes it surprisingly well.
    • In "The Ziff Who Came to Dinner", Artie Ziff manages to con Homer into winning his outstanding shares of Ziffcorp through a card game, thus making him the majority owner of the now-failed corporation. Immediately afterwards Artie is tracked down by the Securities and Exchange Commission but when Homer mentions he's now the majority interest in the company, he winds up being the one arrested.
  • An episode of Phineas and Ferb sees Doofenshmirtz put in charge of Danville for the day by his brother in order to take the blame for a supervillain presently on the loose.
  • On Futurama, Zapp's incompetence causes the space cruise ship Titanic to get sucked into a black hole, and while everyone is evacuating, declares that a captain should go down with his ship. He then promotes Kif to captain and flees.
  • On Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula allows Zuko to take credit for killing Aang, which allows him to return home with his honor restored... because she's not entirely confident that Aang's dead, and doesn't want to be the one who gets blamed if the Avatar turns up alive.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "Hare Brush", Elmer Fudd apparently thinks he's a rabbit and switches places with Bugs Bunny, who is "cured" into believing that he's "Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire". After some gags of Bugs-as-Elmer hunting Elmer-as-Bugs, Bugs-as-Elmer gets hauled off to face tax evasion charges while Elmer gets off scot free.
    Elmer Fudd: I may be a scwewy wabbit, but I'm not going to Alcatwaz!
    • Subverted: "A Pest in the House" had Daffy Duck as a hotel porter and Elmer Fudd as the manager hosting a cranky guest who would hold the manager responsible whenever his sleep was disturbed and punch Elmer in the nose, which ended up constantly happening due to Daffy's shenanigans. At the end of the episode, Elmer promotes Daffy to manager and dons the Porter cap. The guest shows up...and punches Elmer again.

    Real Life 
  • In ancient Mesopotamia, a common way for kings to avoid the wrath of the gods was to temporarily appoint someone else king, and if he was still alive when the prophesied danger had passed, execute him. This sometimes backfired, though. According to legendary accounts, the gardener Enlil-bani was temporarily made king to serve as a scapegoat for the gods' wrath, but stayed king when the old king died (some say poisoned by Enlil-bani).
  • During World War One the German Supreme High Command basically took over the country as a military dictatorship, with a two-to-four-man Junta based around Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff serving as the country's de facto leadership. On realizing that the war was lost, however, they handed over power to a civilian government which was forced to agree to the unpopular terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Hindenburg and Ludendorff then promoted the idea that an undefeated Germany had been stabbed in the back by those same civilians, a myth eagerly taken up by the Nazis.
    • The last Reichskanzler of the German Kaiserreich was likewise promoted to a position with little to do except cajole Wilhelm II into abdicating (or, as he did, simply announcing Wilhelm's abdication whether he actually did renounce the throne or not) and then get out of dodge once the revolutionary excrement really hit the fan. When appointed to the job, poor Max von Baden actually thought this would be his great chance to prove his mettle. No dice.
  • Obvious parody elements aside, the "Admiral Dönitz" comedy sketch discussed above is more-or-less how the real situation went down at the end of the Second World War. The real Karl Dönitz became President of Germany upon Hitler's death less through merit and more because everyone else who might have been in the running was either dead or had fled… and the field was pretty small to begin with, as Hitler thought that the Navy was the only military branch that hadn't betrayed himnote . The real Dönitz was, of course, a tad less oblivious to the Battle of Berlin, but for three whole weeks he was the leader of Nazi Germany, and even held cabinet meetings despite having no communications with the outside world, no forces to lead, no resources and being surrounded by Allied troops the whole time.
    • When it was clear that the 6th Army in Stalingrad had been lost with no more chance for rescue, General Paulus was promoted to field marshal. Because no German field marshal had ever fallen into enemy hands, it was basically a subtle order to commit suicide. Paulus decided to not take the clear hint and allowed himself to be taken a prisoner by the Soviets.
  • Likewise, Admiral Kantaro Suzuki became prime minister of Japan in the final days of World War II. He was an octogenarian naval hero from the Russo-Japanese War forty years prior and a long-time moderate politician (which made him the target of several assassination attempts). As prime minister, his only job was to arrange Japan's surrender to the Allies.
  • French Marshal Pétain falls into this trope as well. He was recalled from his post as ambassador to Franco's Spain to become the prime minister only when it became clear that France was hopelessly beaten. In fact, Pétain told Franco in parting that his job was to make the best of the mess that other politicians had created. While he was (pretty fairly) castigated after the war for overseeing The Third Republic's dissolution and replacement with the dictatorial State of France, actively making significant contributions to the German war effort (to the point that the French economy shrank under the strain of reparations and armaments- and food-exports to Germany), enthusiastically participating in the Jewish Holocaust, and ruthlessly suppressing domestic dissent... he had initially been placed in a situation where avoiding some sort of blame would have been next to impossible.
  • In the final months of the USSR, in the aftermath of the GKChP coup, Mikhail Gorbachev was restored to his position as President of the USSR only to find that he had no power and his plans to preserve the Union as a looser confederation were beyond hope. His only job was basically to abolish his own post, but many people still blamed him for accepting the fall of the USSR.
  • José P. Laurel, 3rd President of the Philippines, was this, The Quisling (albeit subverted), The Mole and a Mole in Charge. When Imperial Japan occupied the Philippines in World War II, the Philippines was in the middle of a ten-year transition period from being an American colony to an independent country, having internal autonomy but with foreign and defense affairs handled by the United States. The president of this autonomous government, Manuel L. Quezon, fled for the United States to head a government-in-exile when the Japanese arrived, but ordered Laurel to remain and try to head up any administration the Japanese might install. Quezon reasoned—correctly—that Laurel, who had established links with Japannote  would find it easier to work with the occupation authorities while doing what he could to keep the country from suffering too much.
  • Greek PM Kostas Karamanlis (New Democracy) was accused of calling in the 2009 snap election and doing a poor campaign on purpose because he knew that the economic meltdown was coming, and he wanted it to fall whole on a government headed by ND's main rival PASOK.
  • The glass cliff is a phenomenon derived in part by the exploitation of this trope regarding appointing women (and/or, to a lesser degree, non-white minorities) in higher positions. A male-dominated company finds itself in a crisis and/or having to implement unpopular policies in the future so they nominate a woman to its highest leadership role. If the new leader can navigate the crisis and remain popular, perfect. If she (most likely) cannot, then the company replaces her with another man, thus managing to look more progressive for simply having tried and citing the previous leader's failure as "proof" that women don't make good leaders.
  • As Mike Duncan points out in Revolutions, being given command of the French "Army of the North" in the early revolutionary war never ended well. The post got a bad reputation when one of its first holders defected and later on the pattern was either "people found his tent empty" or "recalled to Paris to account for the bad military situation", which usually ended one way and one way only... The military situation on that front only sustainably improved after the fall of Robespierre by which time "guillotine" was not the French word for "demotion" any more.
  • The Democratic-Republican party officially made Aaron Burr their presidential campaign manager in 1800 (and their secondary candidate) specifically so that they could scapegoat him for anything they did during that election that might damage their PR (such as cutting a deal with the Federalists to increase their chances of winning). It worked.
  • Tidjane Thiam, the former CEO of Credit Suisse, was hired in 2015 to restructure the company and make some painful cost and job cuts. After the company prospered under his leadership, he suddenly found himself under increasing scrutiny, including constant accusations that he was too flashy with his money (to the point that shareholders forced him to take a paycut) and finding out that one of his subordinates had bought a house that was positioned so he could look inside Thiam's house. After four years, Thiam was placed under investigation when the former subordinate accused him of sending spies after him. Despite an investigation determining that Thiam was innocent, he ended up being forced to resign.
  • In political systems without term limits (particularly Parliamentary systems) the succession to someone who has been in office for a long while usually becomes a Tough Act to Follow and is in many cases deliberately handed to a subordinate whom the outgoing leader doesn't particularly like in order to see them fail. Examples include Ludwig Erhard (whom most Germans remember as having been Minister of the Economy, not as having been chancellor) who was reluctantly allowed to gain the chancellorship by his predecessor Konrad Adenauer, when his coalition partner the right-libertarian FDP made it clear to him that after 14 years they'd had enough of him. Erhard lasted all of three years in office as chancellor. Similar things happened to Gordon Brown, long the loyal second in command to Tony Blair who had to run for reelection with the baggage of his predecessor in a country thoroughly fed up with "New Labour" and the Iraq War without the benefit of Blair's charisma or rhetoric talent. Helmut Kohl who ran for an unprecedented fifth term after 16 years in office would've promoted his loyal adlatus Wolfgang Schäuble to chancellor in 2000 if Kohl had won the 1998 election. Instead Kohl's dubious dealings with political donations to his party cost Schäuble even his office as head of the party in opposition. When Angela Merkel stepped in after Schäuble, many thought it would be this trope, instead she turned the party around and outlasted most of her political opponents winning the chancellorship in 2005 and holding onto it until 2021 before voluntarily declining to run for re-election.