The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019. They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.
There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals. There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few. But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.
Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves. A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius. Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage. All were surrounded by sycophants. They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own. With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people. A few became unmoored from reality altogether….
Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics. Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.
‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.] What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.
Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.
In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance. Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor. Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.
Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.
‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’ Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise. ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’
A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….
The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.
They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’
The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program. It was deliberately superficial…
The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]
‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’
He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’. The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.
…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.
[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread. Hitler was the man of the hour.
It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far. He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’
‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.
The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.
…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices. He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch. Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations. He also knew how to bide his time.
He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.
Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.
Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.
Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.
One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.
We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu. We have enough to work on as it is.
Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity. Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others. Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself. Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless. An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed. Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable. Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash. At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted. (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.) Each loved the sound of his own voice. Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings. Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them. Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people. (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)
Not one of them lived or died a happy man. Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil. Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.
What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you. But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.
There is a third element – fear and cowardice. Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses. We see just that now in America. Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid. And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him. If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’ Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza. Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?
There is still nothing new under the sun. Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.