To write my 2020 book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, I had to learn how authoritarians think. This was not a pleasant process. A quote I included in the book by Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi-- “Some people will die and people will forget about them, but the result will be that right will triumph, good will triumph, progress will triumph" -- sums up the strongman's brutality, disregard for humanity, and fanatical drive to bend his country to his will.
To immerse myself in that bleak mentality, I wrote the experimental prologue presented below. I knew it would have no place in a work of non-fiction, but it helped me to channel the way autocrats see themselves, and it references real events. It anticipates this week’s interview with Tyrannical Minds author Dean Haycock. Every writer has her own creative process, and her own way of preparing to write about difficult subjects. This Strongmen "outtake" is a window onto mine.
They sit in a grand salon, at an enormous banquet table. They have commandeered the best space in their area of the afterlife -- hell, rather than heaven, given who they were on Earth. The social planners have separated men with stormy relationships. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler sit at opposite ends of the table, as do Muammar Gaddafi and Mobutu Sese Seko. Mao Zedong is annoyed that he’s been placed near Joseph Stalin. Mao has not forgotten the miserable weeks he spent in a freezing dacha near Moscow in 1949, waiting for Stalin to summon him for a meeting. Luckily, that sycophant Nicolae Ceausescu is on hand to soothe his ego.
Stalin’s paying Mao no attention. He’s thinking about his protégé, Vladimir Putin, who has been busy restoring his reputation. What a joy to see statues of himself back up in Russia! There’s no denying that Putin delivers. Look at his success in annexing Crimea and gaining influence over the American presidency! Stalin raises a glass to the man who made the latter accomplishment possible: Donald Trump.
Mussolini irritates everyone by reminding the group (while looking directly at Hitler) that he was the original dictator, but as the drinks flow, many of those present start to relax. How often was one in the company of so many men who understood what it took to change the course of history? Ordinary people had no idea about what it meant to be chosen by destiny to save an entire civilization -- or to create a master race.
Our detractors never admitted that we took the hits for the nation, says Francisco Franco. We spoke the unwelcome truths and did the dirty work. They never understood that one must destroy to create, adds Mussolini. We alone realized that some people get in the way of making history (especially the Jews! some shout) and we alone knew what to do about it.
Did I not say back in 1938 that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun? shouts Mao. But comrades, we’re being too humble. Our people celebrated our exceptional natures, and so did powerful foreigners like Henry Kissinger -- he was a friend to many of us here. Permit me to quote his assessment of my gifts while I was guiding the Cultural Revolution:
“I have met no one, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, who so distilled raw, concentrated willpower…. [Mao] dominated the room, not by the pomp that in most states confers a degree of majesty on the rulers, but by exuding in almost intangible form the overwhelming desire to prevail.”
The room grows quiet as the men recall their lost grandeur. The power to grant life and to take it away from millions; the chance to mold a people in the image of your own personal goals; the ability to make people do the unthinkable out of loyalty to you…
Look, says Stalin, dictatorship as we knew it is withering away. But some leaders are continuing our work in their own fashion. Look at Xi Jinping -- he’s put himself permanently in charge, like you, Mao! Xi Jinping is no Mao, says Mao tartly. He has it easier than I did. He doesn’t need a Little Red Book. He has social media for indoctrination. What I would have done with that!
By now it has grown late. Some of the dictators doze while the shuttle bus takes them back to their compound. Ceausescu jokes about how many people would have wanted their vehicle to meet with an “accident,” had they still been alive. He has a point. The men at that gathering were responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million people. Some of their victims died during wars they started; others perished from famines they caused, or were eliminated by their machines of genocide and terror.
From Ethiopia to Poland to Chile, the Earth has received their victims’ blood, the air the dust of their victims’ ashes, and the water their victims’ bodies, thrown from ships and helicopters. Each leader put his own stamp on the authoritarian playbook, but all of them were guided by the strongman’s golden rule: do what is necessary for your political survival, regardless of the consequences.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the book placed in their cells is not the Bible or the Quran but Dante’s Divine Comedy. The strongman’s actions line up with the sins described in the Inferno: lust, greed, wrath, violence, fraud, betrayal of kin and country, and more. Dante’s words from the early 1300s, “O blind cupidity and insane anger/which goad us on so much in our short life/then steep us in such grief eternally!” sum up the character of these autocrats and the destinies of the societies they governed so cruelly.
Muammar Gaddafi, quoted in Alison Pargeter, Libya: The Rise and Fall of Gaddafi (New Haven, 2012), 105.
Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston, 1979), 1058.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: 1980), Canto XIIl, lines 49-51, 107.