Why It's OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators

My first memory of thinking about dictators is a day I spent with my grandmother at age six or seven. Staying at her house while my parents worked, I was “reading” my latest edition of MAD Magazine, in which was printed a humorous depiction of such masters of malice as Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Somoza, and Hafez al-Assad. I asked my grandmother what this interesting new word “dictator” meant, and she informed me, as best she could to a child, that it was a leader who enjoyed absolute power in a country. Even at that young age, my instincts as an American were strong: I bristled at the idea of tyrannical authority, but naively suggested that the people suffering under these monsters could be free if only everyone agreed all at once not to listen to them.

As the years passed, I learned that I was utterly intrigued by these odd men—all of them bizarre in so many ways, always grotesque morally and usually physically as well.

One such man died recently. Jean-Claude Duvalier, who once ruled the benighted country of Haiti, succumbed to a heart attack last Saturday at age 63. He was better known by his creepy nickname, “Baby Doc.” Baby Doc inherited his power from his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who had ruled the terrified country before him. A physician by training, Papa Doc earned his moniker fighting tropical diseases like yaws, a bacterial skin infection. “First, do no harm,” says the popular rendering of the Hippocratic Oath. Second, take control and kill people. Papa Doc wasn’t the only dictator to ignore his medical ethics on achieving power. After earning a degree in medicine at the University of Damascus and working as an army doctor, Bashar al-Assad studied ophthalmology in London; from there, he shifted careers into killing thousands of “his own people.”

Haiti is one of those countries whose history is a distended tragedy. After African slaves rebelled against their French colonial masters, it became the world’s first independent black state in 1804. Haitians have since endured many coups and dictators, as well as an occupation by the United States that lasted just over nineteen years.

But throughout this history of turmoil, it is the Duvaliers that make for the most interesting reading. Papa Doc, for instance, won over the masses with an ideology that blended black nationalism and voodoo, the latter generating some lurid tales of what went on during his rule. Proclaiming himself Baron Samedi, the voodoo death spirit, Papa Doc reportedly collected the skulls of regime victims at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince. (To give this a bit more context, consider that about half the population of Haiti practices voodoo.)

To keep everyone in line, Papa Doc organized a private death squad called the Tonton Macoute. The name was taken from a character in Haitian Creole folklore—a wicked man (tonton, a French term of endearment for “uncle”) who would kidnap children in the middle of the night and carry them off in his knapsack (macoute). Composed primarily of illiterate peasants, this group enforced total obedience to the Duvaliers.

Baby Doc assumed power when he was only 19, after his father’s death in 1971. His reign as “president for life” lasted fifteen years. In my humble judgment, it was slightly less, er, colorful than his father’s but every bit as brutal. The Tonton Macoute still active, Haiti remained a Caribbean charnel house. Press freedom and political opposition were non-existent; the bureaucracies and courts were packed with crony appointments; lots of people were jailed, tortured, and killed. Owing mainly to pressure from the United States, Baby Doc made a few superficial movements toward liberalization, but these amounted to shabby window-dressing.

In 1986, Baby Doc fled to France amid mass uprisings against his regime. In an interesting addendum to his life, he returned to Haiti in 2011 and was to be charged with human rights violations. He refused to attend the hearings.

When someone like Jean-Claude Duvalier dies, there is always the temptation—I admit giving in to it myself—to explore the psychology of dictatorship. I know I’m not the only one to be intrigued by these awful men. We are all drawn to the perverse in some way; it’s best not to deny it. Go to any bookstore and see the shelves brimming with volumes about the Nazis and Jack the Ripper. The same holds true for television programs and documentaries—so much so that I’ve heard the History Channel referred to as the Hitler Channel. There isn’t a prime-time show in the Western world that doesn’t routinely involve lust-murder and criminal “profiling.”

From my own study of dictators, I have drawn a few general conclusions about what types of men absolute rulers are likely to be. First, nearly all of them are sexual perverts with insatiable libidos. Second, most of them are not intellectually brilliant men; on the contrary, with a few exceptions most are quite dull and many quite dim. The smarter ones attempt to be taken seriously as intellectuals, but they produce worthless, derivative works of “theory” that are taken seriously only by their fanatical followers.

Perhaps, then, we are interested in how seemingly plain (and often utterly untalented) people can gain and wield such power. No hard-working carpenter or accountant could ever dream of lording over millions of people, having his portrait adorn every home in the country, and enjoying harems of women waiting for him each evening when he retired to his palace bed.

What I did not understand during that childhood discussion with my grandmother was that the dictator draws his power from the masses. He is able to take advantage of the worst tendencies of crowds and the herd mentality that drive them. (Usually his ability to do this is instinctual.) Think of all the times you felt oppressed by crowds. Perhaps you were bullied in school. The social dynamics that form lunchroom cliques are the same that create and sustain dictatorships. It is a process Eric Hoffer explained with stunning clarity in his classic book The True Believer.

Some dictators, like Baby Doc, are beneficiaries of inherited power. They aren’t nearly as interesting as those who achieve power on their own. His father, for example, rose through Haitian politics and was elected as president. To get a crowd to follow and worship you is a mystery that no amount of sociology can explain to our satisfaction. It’s one part of our eternal obsession with evil men.