5 Reasons Horrible Dictators Always Catch Us Off Guard
Hey guys, have you heard? Authoritarian governments are on the rise! A billion more people live under dictatorships now than 15 years ago! We're living through the Shithead Enlightenment, forcing us to wonder how so many people can ignore the lessons of history and cheerily support dictators.
Part of the reason may be that our culture has done an absolutely terrible job of teaching us why the world's worst human beings are able to take power. Well, it's my job now to study those people, and I'll give you a hint right up top: History's greatest monsters were, on a personal level, shockingly normal.
You'd Probably Like A Dictator If You Met One
On the day he was led to the gallows, most of the young American soldiers guarding Saddam Hussein had tears in their eyes. They were sorry to see the death of the kindly old man that they'd come to see as a friend. "But wait," I hear you ask, "how the hell could a genocidal dictator charm the soldiers sent to depose him? Shouldn't they be trying to land some quick kidney punches on him for old time's sake?"
Well, charm is how Saddam rose through the ranks of the Ba'ath Party. The people who supported him on his way to power thought he was a good-hearted moderate they could trust. It was similar for those American soldiers. They ended up actually digging Hussein, and gladly brought him the Doritos he loved so much. They regarded him as a grandfatherly figure who offered them advice on their lives. When one soldier told Saddam his brother had just died, Saddam hugged the man and told him, "I will be your brother."
Maybe that sounds forced and phony to you. How could anyone be taken in by such a transparent act? But nothing about Saddam Hussein, the man who killed 200,000 Kurds with chemical weapons, seemed disingenuous to his guards, many of whom were traumatized by his brutal hanging. So isn't it fucked up that no one at the Pentagon thought, even for a second, "Hey, maybe we should rotate those kids out so none of them get to like their prisoner"?
No one in charge considered that because they didn't think it was possible. The officers who planned for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion thought Saddam was this guy:
But he wasn't. History books will call dictators "charismatic," but they frame it as if charisma is nothing but the ability to hypnotize uneducated crowds with fancy slogans. It's not. It means they're genuinely likable human beings. You'd probably enjoy their company.
Before he was screaming at crowds, Adolph Hitler was charming Ernst Hanfstaengl, a hilariously named German aristocrat whose wealth and social cache were instrumental in Hitler's rise to power, by being a sympathetic buffoon. The first time Hanfstaengl had Hitler over for dinner, it was clear that he had no idea how to use utensils like a fancy aristocrat. He had bad manners, said awkward things, and at one point even poured sugar into fine wine because he didn't like the taste. His goofiness made Hanfstaengl love him: "He could have peppered it, for each naive act increased my belief in his homespun sincerity."
That's right, witnesses tended to describe Hitler like he was Michael Scott from The Office (who adorably put Splenda in his Scotch). And look at the arc of viewers' collective attitude toward that character. It doesn't matter that he's an objectively terrible boss and clearly makes everyone's lives worse; at some point in the series, you start to like the guy, and then root for him. Which is why the writers of the show had his character wind up happy and married despite being cluelessly destructive at every step. By the time he flew off into the sunset, very few of us paused to say, "Isn't this the guy who made Pam sob in the first episode?"
You Can Commit Genocide And Be A Doting Parent
If it's uncomfortable for you to think Adolph "Michael Scott" Hitler and Saddam "Everyone's Grandpa" Hussein, wait until you hear about Joseph Stalin, doting dad. The wonderful book The Court Of The Red Tsar walks through a number of letters exchanged between Stalin and his second wife, Nadya, during the early days of the USSR. Stalin writes about his kids like a sitcom father who's just learned the error of his ways and is now trying to overcompensate.
Stalin, cold-hearted butcher of millions, also couldn't wait to be back in his wife's arms. He regularly mailed her lemons he grew. (He was a lemon farmer his entire life. "Lemon farmer" doesn't necessarily make you more likable, but it does show that he had hobbies outside of mass slaughter and mustache maintenance.) Now, this isn't to say that Stalin was a great dad (one of his sons drank himself to death) or a great husband. But his kids actually considered him to be the "softer" of their parents, and his feelings for his wife weren't political theater. When Nadya committed suicide, Stalin was so distraught that he had to be put on suicide watch himself.
Osama bin Laden was also a surprisingly involved dad. Yes, he forced his family to move to a compound in the desert, and most child development experts advise against that. But he also made sure that his sons had a Nintendo, and since his compound's private school was for boys only, he sat down with his daughters every single day, for years, to teach them math and science. He wrote quizzes for them so he could test their progress and make sure they were learning. The guy who brought down the Twin Towers spent more time on his kids' education than most of the parents reading this article.
If that offends you, well, that's the point. We're conditioned to think these people wake up evil, eat their breakfast in an evil way, and take evil shits in the afternoon. To suggest otherwise is "humanizing" them, according to critics, but they are human. That's how they slip under our radar. And in fact ...
Most Evil Masterminds Aren't Sniveling Cowards
When Bin Laden was killed, one of the first viral stories about the event was that he'd supposedly used one of his wives as a human shield.
He didn't. Bin Laden died unarmed, probably facing the man who killed him. The dude just wasn't a physical coward. There's a lot of debate over how much actual combat he saw during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but it was definitely "some." And more to the point, this was a guy who had the option of being incredibly wealthy his entire life. He gave that up to go fight for a cause he believed in. The cause was horrible, and, y'know, fuck him, but he wasn't gutless.
We need to paint him as cowardly because physical courage in the face of danger is the most virtuous thing in our society. It's why veterans are probably the most respected group of people in the United States. We almost can't imagine that a truly evil human, someone willing to order the deaths of children, could also jump on a grenade to save his buddies.
Speaking of vets, let's talk Hitler! A lot of people know he was a veteran of WWI. He brought his wartime experience up constantly on the campaign trail, and most historians agree that he saw some shit. And while it's debatable just how bad he had it, the Western Front in WWI was basically the worst place to be a soldier in all of history, and Hitler spent four years there. His wartime experience started during the Massacre of the Innocents, which Hitler's regiment entered with 3,600 men. Four days later, only 611 were left alive and unhurt.
After the war, while building his career as a politician, Hitler regularly waded into brutal street fights and bar brawls. His weapon of choice was a hippopotamus hide whip. That sounds super cool until I reveal that it was a dog whip, and Hitler also used it to beat dogs when he wanted to impress girls. See? Someone can be courageous and a piece of shit.
Joseph Stalin was a regular drinker and extremely temperamental before Germany invaded his country in 1941. It's famously said that he had a nervous breakdown after this, but three days later, he quit drinking and became the collected man that you'd want on your side when Hitler is charging at your door. Of course, the post-WWII years of the Stalin administration were like one long, terrible frat party (you can hear about it all on this episode of my podcast). But when history called on Stalin to buck up and face the most frightening military ever assembled, he had the guts and the willpower to do it.
He also once shot two of his bodyguards in the face while drunkenly hunting in his backyard at 5 a.m. He and Dick Cheney would probably get along.
Nearly All Dictators Are Artists
Everybody knows Hitler was a failed painter. What's interesting is that he counts as an outlier, because he failed and gave up. Most of his fellow dictators used their positions as supreme rulers as an excuse to jump-start their artistic careers. Some of them were even successful in their own right.
Chairman Mao, supreme bastard of the People's Republic of China and responsible for 20-45 million deaths, was also an accomplished poet. One of his works, titled "Two Birds: A Dialogue" is (I think) about birds commenting on the madness of the Vietnam War.
Gunfire licks the heavens,
Shells pit the earth.
A sparrow in his bush is scared stiff..
"This is one hell of a mess!
O I want to flit and fly away."
Stalin was also a poet. As a kid, he loved the shit out of Shakespeare and, go figure, Walt Whitman. He started writing poetry too. His work was good enough that it impressed a famous poet in Georgia, who published five of young Stalin's works. Not wanting to be vain, Stalin used a pseudonym. His poems went the Victorian Era equivalent of viral, and in 1907, while he was planning a bank heist, he was able to use his renown as a poet to get the information he needed to carry it out.
Oh yeah, young Stalin was also a bank robber. He used grenades. But that's a story for another day (or for this episode of the podcast).
Muammar Gaddafi was a poet and a writer (and a butcher of human beings). He's most famous for writing The Green Book, a treatise on what he called "Islamic socialism." He also wrote a collection of short stories called Escape To Hell. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il both wrote children's books. Daddy Kim wrote the beloved North Korean fairy tale Butterfly And The Cock, which you can watch here. Jong-il's opus was a little tale titled "Boys Wipe Out Bandits," the ultra-violent story of a bunch of boys murdering bandits and an ogre which I'm sure was meant as a stand-in for the United States.
But the prime example of artist dictator had to be Saddam Hussein, with his fantastic romance novel Zabiba And The King. OK, well, "fantastic" may be the wrong word, but it's obvious that Saddam definitely wrote all of it. The basic plot is that the king, a clear Saddam stand-in, falls in love with a local woman, Zabiba, who represents the people of Iraq. The only problem is that she's married to a terrible man (a stand-in for America). America-Guy hates his wife's affair with the king, and so he raises an army with the help of a stand-in for Israel. Together they invade the kingdom.
So far, it sounds like the sort of self-insert fic you'd expect. But during the invasion, the story takes a turn. Zabiba leads the nation's defense. She dies fighting the invaders, and in her honor, the king establishes a democratic council to take over the running of Iraq. Then he dies out of view while a bunch of old women and peasants run the country. See why I say this book had to have been a Hussein original? No ghostwriter would've been allowed to kill off Saddam's stand-in.
I should also note that the novel contains a scene wherein an elderly woman explains how sexy mouths are to a group of children. It's really something.
Tyrants Aren't Born Sociopaths
Wherever you find a widely hated man, you'll find people calling him a psychopath or a sociopath. A half-second of googling will bring you a variety of articles arguing that Donald Trump has sociopathic traits, is definitely a sociopath, or that hey, he's a psychopath too. No actual psychiatrist has ever diagnosed Trump with anything, as far as I'm aware, but that won't stop mental health experts from doing it at a distance for a book deal.
I don't know our president on a personal level. For all I know, he could in fact be a sociopath. What I do know is that we as a culture have a tendency to throw that label at anyone powerful who does terrible things. Here's an article from 2004 saying Saddam Hussein's doctor thought he was a psychopath. If you actually read it, you'll find that said "doctor" was a plastic surgeon and thus as qualified to diagnose psychopathy as your local manicurist.
This seems to stem from the idea that you have to be a ruthless monster in order to achieve power in the first place. The truth might be scarier. For years now, several groups of scientists have been studying the ways power impacts the human brain. They've found that power causes people to become more impulsive, less conscious of risk, and less able to empathize with others. The effects are severe enough to be comparable to brain damage.
And sure, there's an extent to which Hitler was always Hitler. His best friend as a boy, August Kubizeck, notes that he was prone to rant loudly about politics even as a teen (Hitler also creepily ordered August to stalk a girl on his behalf). But Hitler was not always the man who could order the deaths of millions. At one point, he was a heartbroken young boy who had been rejected from art school and was serving as the caregiver for his mother, who was dying of breast cancer. When she died, her doctor said, "I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler."
You might, understandably, want to doubt any humanizing anecdote about Hitler as propaganda. But Eduard Bloch, the Hitler family doctor, was Jewish. Hitler was so grateful for the care his mother received that in 1938, at Dr. Bloch's request, he put the man's family under government protection and expedited their emigration to the United States. The key to understanding Hitler, and all of the people like him, is that there were bits and pieces of an empathetic person in there. He became a monster in steps, and at no point saw himself as one.
If we write off the worst leaders in history as born monsters, then the solution is easy going forward: Stop them before they reach power. Isn't that the old time travel thought experiment, "What if you could go back in time and kill young Hitler?" But if power itself can smother the humanity in a person, then the problem is more complex. It means that instead of rooting for the rise of a powerful figure who happens to be on your side -- be it a politician, company, or seemingly progressive billionaire -- you have to think in terms of making sure absolute power doesn't reside in any one set of hands. That means a system that is by design complicated, messy, and full of petty squabbling among factions.
There will always be that temptation to let a strong voice come in and take over, to whip it into shape, to "get things done." And there will always be someone willing to take you up on it. They will be a solid, likable, empathetic person ... right up until they're not.
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