This is not a movie review, though it is mostly about a movie.
And it’s a “movie” in the sense that it’s six one-hour segments.
Each segment focuses on one dictator.
It’s called The Dictator’s Playbook.
The documentary began airing on PBS in January 2019. I saw it only recently, but long before I saw it, I was struck by the timing.
I have to believe this was not a coincidence – producing a series about dictators when we have, in the White House, the closest thing to a dictator our country has even seen.
Trump: A would-be dictator who openly expresses his preference – love, even – for other dictators including:
|Trump’s pals, above left to right: Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, Mohammad bin Salman; below left to right: Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.|
As I watched all six hours, I saw many similarities. Though it doesn’t state this on the PBS website or in the program, it was clear to me that The Dictator’s Playbook was intended to educate us about the common strategies that past dictators share – their “playbook” – and as a warning to alert us to similarities in Trump.
Here’s the list of playbook strategies I made note of as I watched, and the dictators featured. None of the dictators practiced all these, but all the dictators used many of them:
|1. Learning from other dictators
2. Creating a common enemy
3. Creating a need for scapegoats
4. Creating terror; a culture of fear and intimidation
5. The carrot and the stick
6. Unifying elites
7. Using violence to seize power and take control
8. Crushing the enemy
9. Using propaganda
10. Controlling the secret police
11. Spinning defeat into triumph
12. Using indoctrination
13. Using war as a distraction
14. Creating a desire for a “strongman”
15. Manipulating votes/elections
16. Controlling the press to support the dictator
17. Appealing to underprivileged and forgotten people
18. Controlling information
19. Making an example
20. Gaining consent
21. Purging enemies
22. Creating a gulag
23. Diverting public attention from his failures
24. Cult of personality
25. Theatricality of personality
26. Populist charm
27. Increased exaggeration of dictator’s own glory and abilities
28. Rising racism
29. Disaffection for traditional forms of government
30. Military path to power
Kim Il Sung (1912-1994)
Saddam Hussein (1937-2006)
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)
Manuel Noriega (1934-2017)
Francisco Franco (1892-1975)
Idi Amin (1925-2003)
Something else that several of the six dictators had in common (though certainly not listed in the playbook) was how often the crowds cheered him when he was in power – and jeered him when he fell from power. Like Mussolini:
|Left, 1937: Mussolini greets a cheering crowd. Right, 1945: Mussolini, his mistress and three senior Fascists were executed, then put on display for a jeering crowd.|
So, the parallels to Trump are unmistakable – how the six dictators in the film were fervent believers in nationalism, even as Trump declared himself a “nationalist” at a rally in Houston in October 2018.
That Franco was convinced he was the only man who could save his country from all the “challenges from the left.” Trump is “saving” the country by telling politicians on the left to “go back to where they came from.”
And Amin, who launched a “nationwide charm offensive, promising better jobs, housing, a better future.” The people “love me,” he declared, just as Trump continues to promise the same, and frequently identifies himself as “your favorite president” on Twitter.
I highly recommend The Dictator’s Playbook for both the information about the past – and the warning about the future.
As CNN put in it this article:
“The prevailing message serves as a reminder that the methods on display carry a not-so-subtle warning that while America has been shielded from dictatorships, it is not necessarily immune from forces that have shaped and defined them.”
But – I know six hours is a huge time commitment.
So I’ve provided a checklist of those same 30 items as above and invite you to see how many you would identify as Trump behaviors. I did, and my count was 19:
|□ 1. Learning from other dictators
□ 2. Creating a common enemy
□ 3. Creating a need for scapegoats
□ 4. Creating terror; a culture of fear and intimidation
□ 5. The carrot and the stick
□ 6. Unifying elites
□ 7. Using violence to seize power and take control
□ 8. Crushing the enemy
□ 9. Using propaganda
□ 10. Controlling the secret police
□ 11. Spinning defeat into triumph
□ 12. Using indoctrination
□ 13. Using war as a distraction
□ 14. Creating a desire for a “strongman”
□ 15. Manipulating votes/elections
□ 16. Controlling the press to support the dictator
□ 17. Appealing to underprivileged and forgotten people
□ 18. Controlling information
□ 19. Making an example
□ 20. Gaining consent
□ 21. Purging enemies
□ 22. Creating a gulag
□ 23. Diverting public attention from his failures
□ 24. Cult of personality
□ 25. Theatricality of personality
□ 26. Populist charm
□ 27. Increased exaggeration of dictator’s own glory and abilities
□ 28. Rising racism
□ 29 Disaffection for traditional forms of government
□ 30. Military path to power
I’ll mention one last behavior all six dictators had in common: Making promises they didn’t keep. This was especially true during their rise to power.
In January 2016 the Washington Post compiled this list:
Here are a few of them:
Trump has added another strategy to the Dictator’s Playbook list:
Create chaos within the military: