Lessons from the Tyrants of History

The regimes of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot demonstrate that people with dangerous personality disorders, when they act together, and when the circumstances are right, pose an existential threat to society. Each of these leaders clearly displayed traits associated with psychopathy and narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders. These traits included the demand for complete submission on the part of subordinates, relentless paranoia, the blatant dehumanization of opponents, narcissistic rage, tendency to extreme over-optimism verging into fantasy, reckless risk taking, and an inability to change course in the face of disaster. The thesis that each leader suffered from dangerous personality disorders is supported not only by the presence of such traits, but by the extreme nature of these traits and their rigidity over each tyrant’s lifetime.

Each leader exhibited further features of note. Charisma was an important factor in enabling each dictator to rise to power. Each gained followers through their strength of personality and their exceptional ability to use rhetoric to influence and persuade others. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot were also all driven by an utterly simplistic fantasy characterized by a mix of extreme narcissistic, paranoid, and psychopathic elements. These fantasies shaped each of their lives and the regimes they created. And each of these tyrants indulged in narcissistic abuses of power to reshape their environment to support their grandiose visions of themselves. Each used power to eliminate enemies and prevent criticism of their inflated self-image and their prized narcissistic fantasy. And all lived in relative luxury while their countrymen suffered, a reflection of each leader’s belief that they were worthy of the exceptions they made for themselves from the hardships they imposed on others; worthy of the lavish lifestyles they led while others starved.

As already stated, however, an explanation of the central role that people with dangerous personality disorders play in political violence cannot be based simply on the personalities of individual leaders. Such an explanation must include all three elements of the ‘toxic triangle’ of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. In terms of susceptible followers, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot all rose to power not simply as isolated individuals, but as a member of a pathological group which facilitated their rise. Each of these groups – the Bolsheviks, the Chinese Communist Party, the Nazi Party, and the Khmer Rouge – seized power according to the process described by Andrew Lobaczewski. In each case, not only did many of those close to each tyrant also suffer from dangerous personality disorders, but people with such disorders played key roles, right down to the village level, in securing the pathological group’s hold on power. In Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Europe, and Pol Pot’s Kampuchia, the presence of people with dangerous personality disorders in every town and village, who responded to the opportunities that the pathological group’s seizure of power presented to them, resulted, as Lobaczewski described, in the segregation of society into a psychologically disordered minority wielding power over the psychologically normal majority. People with dangerous personality disorders at all levels within these societies actively participated in the destructive leaders’ agendas because they shared the leaders’ world views, and because they were presented with lucrative opportunities to pursue their own ambitions, regardless of the consequences for others.

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