Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

A Typology of Tyrants

Clowns can be scary too -- especially with the wrong person in the White House

Sickly, half-lame little Josep Jughashvili grew up to be the terrible and terrifying Joseph Stalin — gangster, egomaniac, mass murderer, diabolical titan. His statues once dotted town squares throughout the Communist world, but these days his memory is burnished mostly in his hometown of Gori, Georgia.

That’s where the Stalin Museum is lovingly tended — at least it was a few years ago, when I visited it — by an elderly lady who is not current with revisionist history. When she gives you a tour of the Stalin Museum, she pronounces the word “Stalin” — I don’t speak Georgian, but the word “Stalin” sounds the same in every language — with a breathy, passionate voice and uplifted eyes. It’s clear that her Stalin and your Stalin are not the same Stalin.

But when she shows you around the perfectly preserved private rail car that Stalin used throughout his reign, and points out his favorite leather club chair — hair-oil stains still visible, small cigarette burn holes in the arms — you both instinctively shudder. He sat here and planned that, you think to yourself. Stalin, half a century later, is still a very scary guy.

During the absurd pageant that is U.N. Week in New York, as rotund, pie-faced Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez waddled around the General Assembly room and creepy Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strutted through the hallways, it was hard not to think back on that leather club chair and wonder, How scary are these new guys?

Modern dictators come in three basic flavors. The first, the Temporary Emergency type — your Pinochets, your Stroessners — are mostly colorless functionaries. They aren’t statue-building egomaniacs, but grim-faced military law-and-order guys who emerge to fill a power vacuum. High on secret police and discreet acts of torture, low on speeches to the throngs and specially commissioned epic poems. 

There’s something almost admirable about this group, something efficient and comforting. When the former Yugoslavia exploded into ethnic violence in the 1990s, it was hard not to yearn for the drab leadership of Marshal Tito, who managed to thread the needle between joining the Eastern Bloc and becoming a client of the West. Not a nice guy, of course, but impressive.

Generalissimo Franco’s Spain lasted relatively intact until 1975 — a 36-year span! — which is an astonishing feat when you consider that he was personally acquainted with Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Richard Nixon. In Spain today, the officially correct position on Franco is to mumble disapproving phrases while at the same time conveying a Well, you know, tough times, hard choices, gotta break a few eggs to make a tortilla de patatas.

For the most part, these are the most popular variety, and they’ve traditionally been the most pro-American. This has led to complicated moral arguments, in and around the Department of State, about “good” dictators and “bad” dictators, but the debate usually boils down to two basic points: One, good dictators recognize the temporary nature of their regimes and don’t have fat, loutish sons in the wings waiting to take over; and two, good dictators aren’t insane.

Which brings us to the second variety of dictator, what I call the Operatic Psychopath. These guys are the Howard Hugheses of the despot set: weird, impulsive, dangerous — it’s always their face on the (worthless) currency, always their statue in the main squares, looking resolute and defiant. The late crackpot Turkmenbashi, who ran the natural-gas-rich nation of Turkmenistan like some kind of deranged scoutmaster, is a perfect example of this type. He renamed the months of the year — one after his mother — and wrote a companion volume to the Koran, declaring it required reading for all Turkmens. He erected ludicrous statues of himself all over the country, the grandest of all in the capital, Ashgabat: a big gaudy golden thing that rotated atop a spaceship-like monument, following the sun. It looked like the main cathedral of the Church of Bob’s Big Boy.

The Duvaliers of Haiti, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania — these guys fit the basic Operatic Psycho pattern of grandiose self-regard and opulent living quarters. When the revolution eventually comes and the presidential palaces are overrun with angry mobs, the papers are filled with the odd, off-putting details of their cushioned lives — fancy sheets and shoes, complicated toilets, harems, and worse. When the lunatic emir of Bokhara was eventually run out of power by the Red Army in the 1920s, he made his escape with most of his personal jewelry and all of his dancing boys. (His wives he left behind to the mercies of the Communist forces.) His plan was simple: Every few kilometers or so, he’d leave one of his dancing boys to distract and mesmerize the pursuing army. By the time he ran out of dancers, he’d be safely across the border and halfway to Cairo. Something tells me that Kim Jong Il has a similar plan.

The third category is the most worrisome. Call them The Troublemakers. Hugo Chávez with his oil money and his dreams of succeeding Fidel as America’s Closest Irritant; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his secret nuclear-weapons factory and energetic anti-Semitism — it’s hard to know exactly how dangerous these guys actually are. Chávez, with his grandiosity, his thuggishness, and his jumpsuits, may seem stylistically like an Operatic Psychopath. He’s a clown, of course, but clowns can be scary too. His big smile and his round face beg us all to underestimate him. He’s the fat kid with a secret — when the wheel turns, as it always does, and he feels the people of Venezuela trying to push him out, he’s not going to go quietly. He won’t die in dignified obscurity like Tito, or be hounded in retirement like Pinochet. He’ll fight and claw and do what it takes, like Ahmadinejad in Iran. They’re both going to be trouble. 

Yet neither is really fit to sit in Stalin’s club chair. Neither has the diabolical self-restraint it takes to really do some serious evil. Chávez with his motor mouth and Ahmadinejad with his nutty superstitions — both of them seem so silly and harmless, so easy to mock and giggle at, that it’s easy to forget that one of them has built an atomic-bomb factory.

Maybe the most important question, then, isn’t what kind of dictator each one is, but what kind of leader sits in the White House to deal with them. Not so funny now, are they?


In This Issue


Politics & Policy

A Typology of Tyrants

Sickly, half-lame little Josep Jughashvili grew up to be the terrible and terrifying Joseph Stalin — gangster, egomaniac, mass murderer, diabolical titan. His statues once dotted town squares throughout the ...


Politics & Policy

Iran Outlook: Grim

The week of September 21 was supposed to be multilateralism on parade for President Obama: attending the Climate Summit, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, chairing the Security Council, and celebrating ...
Politics & Policy

Romney Reboots

In the early stages of the undeclared race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner. The former governor of Massachusetts has the best-developed national network of supporters ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Parallel Lives

  In February 1946, George Kennan despaired that the U.S. government, mystified by Soviet unwillingness to cooperate in its plans for shaping the post-war world, understood neither the nature of Stalin’s ...
Politics & Policy

The Wrong Man

Another Steven Soderbergh movie already? It was only last winter that the prolific director was inviting audiences to endure the turgid Che, his two-part, four-hour Che Guevara passion play. The ...


The Long View

Literary Classics

From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the ...
Politics & Policy


Populists Are Sometimes Right Normally I look forward to Florence King’s “Bent Pin” column, but her commentary on the recent town-hall protests, “Put Down That Pitchfork” (September 21), disappointed me. Perhaps ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The difference is, the Dancing with the Stars judges have a solid case against Tom DeLay. ‐ In a matter of about three weeks, the Left’s view of Afghanistan has ...
The Bent Pin

Gone with the Windbags

Like eager children clamoring to know “Are we there yet?” MSNBC’s news anchors always seem to be asking “Is it racism yet?” We can tell from their unrestrained glee that ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Hillary Ruins the Plan

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Another Pop-Culture Christian Loses His Faith

It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and ... Read More

Max Boot’s Dishonesty

Before yesterday, my primary criticism of the Washington Post’s Max Boot was political in nature. As I wrote in a recent book review, I found it regrettable that Boot’s opposition to the president had not prevented him from “succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the ... Read More

A Brief History of Election Meddling

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the second in a series of excerpts. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before ... Read More

The End of Hong Kong as We Know It

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it. The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed ... Read More