Content Warning: This article contains discussion about abuse.
In the Netflix documentary series, ‘How to Become a Tyrant’, Peter Dinklage demystifies how famous dictators such as Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin and Adolf Hitler rose to and held on to power. The series is explained through the metaphor of the ‘Tyrant’s Playbook’ and is divided into six key steps. Step 1: Seize Power. Step 2: Crush Rivals. Step 3: Reign through Terror. Step 4: Control the Truth. Step 5: Create a New Society. Step 6: Rule Forever.
It is not a huge leap to see the parallels between the steps followed by the more well-known tyrants and those followed by tyrants much closer to home: in the workplace, social circles, and all types of politics.
1. Seize power
It is common for an abusive person to enter the victim’s life to seize power when the victim is suffering. They are looking for someone who is perhaps injured, burnt out, or depressed. During this vulnerable time the abuser presents themselves as the hero or white knight.
To get the victim’s attention, the abuser has to really sell themselves. Adolf Hitler sold himself as a saviour to the German masses. Well, he sold his image. He made attractive promises, he gave his inner circle purpose and identity, and he did all of this during the Great Depression when his people were suffering.
Hitler was confident in his mission. He was self-righteous. Most narcissists are. Most sociopaths are. Hitler believed in what he was doing. He fully justified every step he took.
2. Crush rivals
Saddam Hussein used deadly force to keep his potential rivals in their place. How did he always know who the potential rivals were? He had eyes everywhere.
Tyrants are most powerful when they control the social connections of their victims. They often will find faults in the victim’s family and friends. They may stalk their prey, invade their privacy, and keep tabs on them. What they may claim as “overprotective behaviour” or “within their rights” is a chosen tactic to stop their intended target from interacting with anyone who could be a threat to their control. A dictator’s argument is “your enemies are my enemies”, but the reality is that they know the victim is less likely to run if they have no one to run to.
3. Reign through terror
Tyrants know how to weaponize fear. Idi Amin tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of people in Uganda in order to control his people and remain in power.
People who attempt to control and manipulate others understand fear very well. It could be as obvious as an outright threat, destroying property, public humiliation, or physically assaulting someone. It could be as subtle as gas-lighting someone into believing they themselves are in fact at fault of doing something wrong. Often, they will minimise or make light of someone’s legitimate concerns of controlling behaviour or deny the behaviour all together. No matter how they do it, the end goal is to make someone feel unsafe to challenge the tyrant or even ask for help.
4. Control the truth
Good narcissists make great liars, and as Peter Dinklage paraphrased from George Orwell: “if you control the past you control the future”. A perpetrator of abuse can easily rewrite the past to fit their narrative. It might sound like “fighting is normal, boys will be boys, don’t overreact”, or “that kid is known for attention seeking, I wouldn’t take anything they say seriously”. Joseph Stalin literally rewrote communist history in the Soviet Union. He denied the existence of the starvation, unemployment and crime that desolated his people and created strict consequences for anyone who would expose the truth. He also, as the documentary describes, ‘seduced outsiders’. Surrounding himself with foreign supporters was a clever way to stay in power. Who would be crazy enough to stand up against a tyrant with a good reputation?
Many of us have or will find ourselves in a morally challenging situation, where we will need to make a very difficult choice: be quiet and survive, or speak out and risk everything. It might be when someone is harassing you at work, you are witnessing an incident unfold, or you are listening to a ‘friend’ belittle another. There are consequences to rebelling against power, and consequences for not.
5. Create a new society
Why don’t they just leave? Why don’t they report it? If abusive relationships, friendships, and workplaces were all bad all the time it would appear illogical to stay or not report it. But when a victim is being manipulated, it is of course not so simple. Where there is fear there can also be admiration, obligation, or love.
The documentary names Muammar Gaddafi as a tyrant who – for a time – won the love of his people. He changed the rules to create the society he wanted. He made rules that appeared progressive but were in fact the opposite. He had only female bodyguards, but it is reported that they were severely sexually abused. He allowed all primary aged children to attend school, but they were educated with truckloads of propaganda including the ‘Green Book’ written by Gaddafi himself.
It seems evident that tyrants do not respect any rule that does not serve them. Why would they when they can create new rules that do?
6. Rule forever
The final episode of ‘How to Become a Tyrant’ and the last chapter in the playbook depicts the most famous tyrannical family in our modern history: the Kim dynasty of North Korea. These men were portrayed in the final chapter of the documentary as dictators achieving immortality. North Korea’s forefather, Kim Il-sung, successfully passed his reign down to his son Kim Jong-il, who then followed suit by naming his successor, Kim Jong-un, who remains in power to this day.
Not only is the reputation of North Korea that of being impenetrable, but no population is more speculated about than those trapped inside. Footage after footage is presented to us of the people of North Korea suffering through poverty and starvation, but never wavering in their love for their supreme leaders.
Have you ever seen someone suffering at the hands of a person who holds power over them and you wanted to help? Maybe you offered help and, surprisingly enough, they took it. Then maybe you see that same person you helped go back to that abusive relationship, stay in that toxic workplace, or re-join that group of 'friends'. You may think your helpful actions were useless, but they weren’t. Those suffering from being abused or controlled usually have been surviving through it for a significant amount of time before someone else notices. Either from one perpetrator’s reign or from multiple. One attempt to escape their supreme leader often is not enough to fully break free.
Many victims of abuse live with trauma and many experience symptoms not dissimilar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which could include hypervigilance, trouble sleeping and irritability as well as possible feelings of depression. It is therefore not a great leap to see the correlation of these symptoms in victims of a dictatorship. Being able to escape an abusive situation long enough to begin healing from the trauma is possible, but that is a whole other article.
As an observer it can be frustrating to see someone not acting to better their situation. Like an oppressed civilian in a conflict zone refusing to interact with a liberating force, like what some experienced in Afghanistan. But assuming that this person knows more than they feel safe to share and that their situation is more complicated than they are letting on will make us more patient, tolerant and – consequently – more helpful.
‘How to Become a Tyrant’ concludes by asking who among us is capable of becoming a tyrant, and provides us with the sobering answer: anyone.
The good news is – just by reading this article you have increased the Army’s arsenal of people that are clear-eyed in identifying abusers and their methods. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Maybe you just realised you are unintentionally displaying or overlooking some of these behaviours. After all, large organisations are prone to turning a blind eye if reputations are at risk. You now may find yourself using this awareness to help a friend, support a colleague or possibly liberate a society.
If this article has made you suspect abusive and controlling behaviours or has caused you any distress, please access the following support services:
- DVCONNECT – 1800 811 811
- National Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service – 1800 RESPECT (1800 732 732)
- Lifeline – 13 11 14. Their nightly text line can also be reached at 0477 13 11 14
- National Centre Against Bullying
- Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling – 1800 011 046
- Defence All-hours Support Line (ASL) – 1800 628 036
- Defence Member and Family Support – 1800 624 608
- ADF Chaplaincy, Religious and Spiritual Services – 1300 333 362
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – 1300 687 327
- Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office – 1800 SEMPRO (1800 736 776)
- Mental Health Portal