Lucid Interview: Dean Haycock

Writing about tyrannical minds and authoritarian personalities

I am pleased to present this interview with Dean Haycock, who is a science and medical writer living in New York. He earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Brown University and conducted research at The Rockefeller University and for Sterling Winthrop/Sanofi Pharmaceutical Company. In addition to peer-reviewed articles describing his research, he is the author of Tyrannical Minds: Psychological Profiling, Narcissism and Dictatorship; Characters on the Couch, Exploring Psychology Through Literature and FilmMurderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain; and other books. His blogs appear on Psychology Today. This interview, conducted March 26, 2021, has been edited for clarity and flow.

RBG (Ruth Ben-Ghiat): What led you to write Tyrannical Minds?

DH (Dean Haycock): When I was ten or eleven years old, I read a book called The Pictorial History of the Third Reich. Like many kids, I was looking at the tanks and the soldiers, then I saw pictures of what had happened in the concentration camps and I saw pictures of Hitler. My 10-year-old mind could not comprehend how any human being could do that. It bothered me for a very long time. I trained in neurochemistry, neuroscience, and neuropharmacology. Psychology was not something I was particularly interested in. But when I saw what was happening in domestic politics [with Donald Trump], I saw the importance of psychology and I guess I was still wondering, how could a human being act that way? Tyrannical Minds asks how we can understand people who have authoritarian ambitions.   

RBG: Your book warns that "it never pays to disregard the personality of a political leader." Did you find a common personality type in the leaders you cover?

DH: They have differences, but there are shared personality traits and commonalities in their psychological profiles. Jerrold Post, the CIA profiler, applied the label of malignant narcissism to these people, they have narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy. They are very aggressive, paranoid - a good survival technique until it gets to be too extreme - and sadistic.

RBG: Many of these traits work for them, for example helping them to get into power. But then those same traits can become a problem over time, and contribute to their fall. Would you say they are their own worst enemies?

DH: I think they all suffer towards the end. But each one is different. I notice a difference between those who last a long time, like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, as compared to Idi Amin, who had many psychopathy traits, including a superficial glibness. He could be very amusing, but he was unable to be as savvy as Stalin and Mao. That might be because, as his doctor [David Barkham] said, Amin showed signs of hypomania. He really thought that all of his ideas were better than anyone else's. He only lasted seven years.

When you look at Donald Trump's authoritarian nature -- he has some traits in common with these leaders, although I'm obviously not comparing him to a mass murderer -- his narcissism is so great that he can't put it aside for his own benefit. Successful authoritarians will use people who criticized them in the past, and make alliances with them, and then, when they are done with them, dispose of them. But Trump isn't capable of that. Trump would tweet about people who bothered him, rather than using his Machiavellian skills [behind the scenes].

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RBG: Yes, Trump's need to be constantly in the spotlight did hinder him.  

DH: It's so inefficient for trying to gain power. We saw what happened in the election. But the problem is that authoritarians and dictators don't always get into power the first time. I am worried about what will happen in the future. If someone comes along who isn't going to tweet at someone who irritates them or insults them, and instead is going to scheme, then the U.S. could be in real trouble.

RBG: Looking at the flip side, which personality traits are conducive to good leadership?

DH: Some traits are resilience, the ability to find positive aspects of situations, sharing, giving, having remorse and regret when you hurt someone (the lack of these two traits is a key feature of psychopathy), the ability to form emotional bonds, being productive in society rather than acting as a parasite, being loyal and responsible.

RBG: I had to immerse myself in the mindset of authoritarians to write Strongmen, and it was not much fun. Having a regular yoga practice helped. What was your experience in writing about these individuals, and what do you do personally to keep perspective?

DH: I'm fascinated by these people as a neuroscientist. I'm interested in how their brains are different, so that's a scientific shield or divider between me and them. But there were times it got me down, like reading about what Stalin did in Ukraine, or the 300-500K people who died in Uganda under Amin.

I had not donated much to political parties before, but Trump got me doing that. The people we gave money to actually won, in Georgia and elsewhere, so that was empowering. In the U.S. we've had some very bad histories: slavery, McCarthyism, and more recent threats. The idea is to fight through them. It's part of being an American.

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