Op-Ed: What the bunker mentality really means
In the last week, a mash-up of a scene from “Downfall,” the movie about Hitler’s last days, has been circulating on social media. The scene is the one where Hitler bursts into an operatic rage when his officers tell him of a failed attempt to drive the Russians from Berlin. In the mash-up, Hitler is getting a different kind of bad news: All the votes are going to be counted and he will lose the election.
Donald Trump isn’t a dictator. He won office in a free and fair election and will leave it through the same democratic process. But there is a serious point underneath the mash-up comedy. Refusal to accept unpleasant reality is the hallmark of dictators, especially if disaster or defeat is looming. From his bunker, Hitler ordered imaginary armies to fight fantastical battles. Somehow, he thought, victory could be snatched from certain defeat.
Four years earlier, Josef Stalin was in a similar situation. Intelligence reports of an impending German attack were multiplying. Stalin could not bear the news to be so bad. When the attack came anyway, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to his dacha.
Dictators live with delusions because their own rule cuts them off from reliable information. There is no free press to bring them bad news. They are surrounded by flunkies too weak and terrified to tell the boss the truth. Their jobs and lives depend on feeding the delusions.
A few hours before Hitler sent 3.5 million soldiers into the Soviet Union, Stalin received a note from his secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria: “My people and I, Joseph Vissarionovich, firmly remember your wise prediction: Hitler will not attack us in 1941!”
It was no different with Hitler. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called the Führer to congratulate him. Goebbels was no fool. He knew that Roosevelt’s death would change nothing. But Hitler thought it foretold a German victory, and Goebbels played along.
The problem for the rest of us is that when dictators are in this state of denial, they are at their most dangerous. Stalin’s refusal to face the facts meant he abandoned his country to a devastating invasion that ultimately claimed around 27 million lives. In Hitler’s last days, he decided that since Germans had let him down, none of them deserved to live. He wanted them all to die and gave orders to make that happen.
This is not all just a matter of historical curiosity. Our world keeps producing leaders who cut themselves off from reliable information, surround themselves with flunkies, and govern as autocrats.
Viktor Orban was elected prime minister of Hungary, a member of NATO, in 2010. He rapidly purged the judiciary, introduced a new constitution, and focused his enmity on refugees and George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist. This year Orban introduced sweeping emergency powers that allow him to shut down Parliament, suspend elections and arrest those who spread “fake news.” Orban’s friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done similar things in Turkey, another NATO ally. Poland and Russia have put legal limits on what can be said about history. Here at home, Trump has run roughshod over every norm of American democracy.
We need to understand how and why a country can fall victim to a delusional would-be despot. Two answers stick out: the tribalization of politics and the erosion of truth.
Authoritarian regimes always have to demonize an enemy: Kulaks, Jews, immigrants, some foreign country that could plausibly be a security threat. This allows them to draw their “own” people more tightly together. Political thought boils down to nothing more than “my group has to win and your group has to lose.”
The management expert Peter Drucker, who left Germany in the 1930s, once heard a Nazi campaigner explain that the Nazis wanted neither higher bread prices nor lower bread prices. They wanted “National Socialist bread prices.” In other words, so long as our side makes the rules, it doesn’t matter what those rules are. The notorious Soviet prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky told his staff that “class instinct” was superior to evidence.
Obviously, this has nothing to do with rational judgments. Dictatorships depend on corroding the value of truth. Hitler wrote in praise of the “big lie” as a political tactic. George Orwell summed up the code of all totalitarian states: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”
It would be nice if all of this were remote from us. But it’s not. Donald Trump will almost certainly leave office in January, one way or another. But he has shown all the instincts of an autocrat. His politics express all the usual tribalism and contempt for truth. He suffers from the usual dictator illusions, trying to wish away COVID-19 with lies. Even if he goes on Jan. 20, he can do enormous damage before that.
And then Trump’s lies, and his flunkies, will long remain. After World War I, German military commanders knowingly spread a false explanation for their defeat. Their army had been “stabbed in the back,” they claimed. The supposed villains were democratic and left-leaning politicians at home. The commanders knew better than anyone that this was a lie. But the lie lingered and helped to fuel the rise of a vengeful political right and, ultimately, Hitler himself.
Now we see the GOP gladly catering to Trump’s delusions about his election “victory.” Such prominent politicians as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are eagerly following along. Their lies too will linger and sow bitterness for years.
They have shown that winning — even flattering Trump’s fragile ego — means more to them than the survival of our democracy. How long we can go on as a democracy with one of our two great parties in the hands of such people will be the urgent question of the coming years.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of “The Death of Democracy” and “The Nazi Menace.”
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