What The Bunker Mentality Really MeansRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, 2020 Election
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.
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.
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.
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