Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Mind of the Evil Ruler: What Goes on inside the Heads of the People who Govern the World?

The damage that bad rulers can do to people and things is gigantic, especially considering that they command military apparatuses of immense power. But what goes on in their minds, exactly? Are some of them truly evil? Or just criminally incompetent? We'll probably never know for sure, but we have some hints for at least some of them. Here, I am exploring the case of Benito Mussolini, using the diary written by his son in law as a source of information.

There is a sentence attributed to Terry Pratchett that goes as, "the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters." Actually, I think Robert Heinlein said something similar first (although I can't find that quote anymore). In any case, the idea that collective intelligence goes down with the number of the members of a group seems to have some logic in it, although it cannot be said to be scientifically proven.

If that's true, then we have a huge problem. How to manage states formed of tens or hundreds of millions, even billions, of people? A possible solution is to reduce the denominator of the formula to a single, absolute ruler who takes all the decisions. Indeed, it seems that human crowds, dumb as they may be, tend to think that all problems can be solved by someone who "will get things done." 

Unfortunately, the idea of giving all the power to a single big man doesn't seem to work so well. Another quote by Robert Heinlein says "A well run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy." (confirmed). You may have read that Trump is a narcissist, Biden is affected by Alzheimer's, Putin by the Asperger syndrome, Hitler by bipolar disorder, and that Assad is evil just because he is. The list of mad or evil rulers is long, but what do we know about these people? In practice, very little because they live shielded by a barrier of lies in the form of propaganda and press releases. Even the people who know them well, relatives and close friends, may well be fooled by people who arrived at the top exactly by their capability of fooling everyone, perhaps even themselves.

Perhaps, if we could have a diary written by one of these madmen, say, Adolf Hitler, we could understand what made them him do the evil things they did. But the manuscript that was claimed to be Hitler's diary in 1983 was a hoax and no dictator of note ever left us a personal diary. It is perhaps a consequence of their personality. As I said, they tend to swindle everybody, including themselves, and a diary would be a weapon in the hands of their enemies.

But there are other possibility: the closest thing to a personal diary written by a dictator is a diary written by a close relative or a collaborator of a dictator. One such document is the diary kept by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister of the Mussolini government in Italy from 1937 to 1943. He was not only a close collaborator of the Duce but also a close relative since he had married his daughter. You can find the complete diary in Italian at this link.
So, what can we learn from this document? First, note that Ciano was not an intellectual, nor he had any professional expertise. He is best described as a high-rank playboy who had used the money and the prestige of his father, a war hero, to gain access to Mussolini's family and eventually to marry Mussolini's daughter. That, of course, opened up for him a bright career at the top and he was widely considered the most likely candidate to succeed the Duce as Italy's leader. During the period in which he was active as foreign minister, he often acted as the second-in-command in the government. 

Ciano wrote detailed notes of his everyday activities as foreign minister for the whole period of his appointment. Clearly, he was an insider and he knew things nobody else knew. Of course, we don't have to take these notes as completely truthful. Especially in the final pages we clearly detect an attempt by Ciano to distance himself from his illustrious father-in-law and his egregious blunders. Later on, he joined a coup against Mussolini but that sealed his downfall: he was tried and then shot for treason on orders of Mussolini himself. But, overall, it is probable that many details of the daily written document do reflect real events.
One thing we learn from Ciano's notes is how haphazardly Italy was run. A country of 45 million inhabitants was steered by people who seemed to carry on, day by day, the best they could without a specific direction. Mostly, the story sounds like a TV soap: the atmosphere in the high echelons of the government was a poisonous mix of gossip, treachery, and abject deference to the great boss. The name of the game was a simple sentence: "Mussolini is always right." Anyone could be demoted to a powerless position if he happened to displease the commander in chief. In 1939, that happened also to Achille Starace, a longtime associate of Mussolini and secretary of the Fascist party. 

Even the great boss, Mussolini, didn't seem to have a well defined plan. He generally thought that Italy should pursue a policy of territorial expansion and that that was necessary because Italy was a young nation that needed space for its growing population. That could obtained at the expense of the evil and decadent plutocracies that were England and France. And that was to result in the creation of an Italian Empire that would rival the old Roman Empire.

If that was the plan, it wasn't a good plan. Worse, it was never clear how exactly the new Roman Empire could be created. Mussolini, just like most politicians, couldn't reason quantitatively and had no interest nor trust in data. He trusted mainly his intuition and he never understood how badly unprepared were the Italian armed forces, nor how weak the Italian economy was in comparison to that of the powers of the time. Unfortunately for him, he was lucky enough that some of his initial military adventures were successful. And victories don't teach you anything.

Not that Mussolini was a fool, not at all. As a young man, he had been a smart politician and a shrewd journalist. We have his diary during the time when he was in the trenches during WWI and there we find nothing of the warlike rhetoric of his later years. He always kept his head low: no question for him to jump out of the trench and lead a bayonet assault. In 1917, he was lightly wounded by the accidental explosion of an Italian cannon and that was the end of the war for him. It was also a stroke of luck: not only he could gain a reputation as a war hero, but he avoided to be caught in the rout of the Italian army after the disaster of the battle of Caporetto, a few months later. 

20 years later, we read in Ciano's diary how the smart politician had turned into a bumbling fool. Let me translate a few excerpts for you. 
Dec 19, 1937. The Duce said: "On my grave I want this epigraph: Here lies one of the most intelligent animals ever appeared on the face of the earth". The Duce is proud of his instinct which he considers, and has actually proved to be, infallible.
Sep 29-30 1938 (Criticizing Great Britain) "When animals are adored in a country to the point of making cemeteries, hospitals, homes for them; when bequests are made to parrots it is a sign that decadence is underway. Moreover, in addition to the many reasons, this also depends on the composition of the English people. 4 million more women. Four million sexually dissatisfied creatures, artificially creating a multitude of problems to arouse or artificially creating a multitude of problems to excite or appease their senses. Not being able to embrace a single man, they embrace humanity ".

June 3, 1939 "I" said the Duce "I am like a cat, cautious and prudent, but when I take a leap I am sure to land where I want.

Dec 24, 1940 – It's snowing. The Duce looks out of the window and is happy that it snows: "This snow and this cold are fine" he says "so the pipsqueaks die: and this mediocre Italian breed is improved. One of the main reasons why I wanted the reforestation of the Apennines it was to make Italy colder and snowier ".
You see what I mean, and there is much more in Ciano's diary. It is like dealing with an old man who has lost track with reality. Yet, as I wrote in a previous post, a post-mortem examination showed that Mussolini's brain was still functional during the last years of his rule. By all means, it was the normal brain of a normal person. What Mussolini's brain had lost was not neurons, but the capability of empathy: understanding and caring for your fellow human beings. 

Empathy requires a certain effort, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened every day. But just as you get fat if you don't exercise your body, you get dumb if you don't exercise your mind. What happened with Mussolini and the Italian government was a self-reinforcing loop. The people around Mussolini soon found that they could keep their position if they never disagreed with the boss. Mussolini, in turn, found that he could easily get rid of those who disagreed with him. And the result was that he was even more surrounded by yes-men who always agreed with him. Eventually, he found he didn't need empathy: he could just order people to do what he wanted. 

It was not just Mussolini's mind that had degraded for lack of exercise. It was the whole chain of command of the Italian government that had degraded in a way that reminds the sentence by Terry Pratchett about the collective intelligence of a group. By the 1930s, the process had led to situation that you could describe as "government by the whims of the boss."

It all became painful clear when, in 1940, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece in winter, across the Epirus mountains, with woefully insufficient and poorly equipped troops. We have the minutes of the government reunions that preceded the attack on Greece: it is clear it was the Duce alone who decided to attack and the date of the attack. Nobody dared to oppose his decision. On the contrary, generals competed with each other to state that it could be done easily. A classic effect of a group feedback. Disaster ensued, as it should have been expected. 

I think that the key to the whole story is last excerpt in Ciano's diary, when Mussolini rejoices at the thought of Italians freezing to death. This is not just incompetency or stupidity, it is one of the few moments in Ciano's diary where we see true evil appearing. You might want to picture in your head Mussolini standing near the window of his office, maybe close to a warm radiator, while he rubs his hands together and smiles in a Satanic smile like the character of a comic book. (you may add also the classic Satanic laughter that goes as Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

But an evil comic character is not a good description of what was happening. My impression is that, while losing empathy, Mussolini was also gradually losing the moral bonds that keep normal people from being truly evil. He had found that he could kill Italians only indirectly, for instance by planting trees in the mountains (at least he imagined that). But, at some point, he discovered that not only he could order to kill foreigners as he pleased, but that the more foreigners he caused to be killed, the more he became popular in Italy. So, he proceeded to expand this strategy until, unfortunately for him (and for many others), the idea backfired. Badly. After that a half million Italians had died because of Mussolini's mistakes, you know how he ended, hanged upside-down. Nobody should rejoice at the death of anyone, but it seems that the universe has ways to punish one's worst mistakes.

Mussolini's case is just one that's close enough to our times that we have abundant documentation about it. It is also sufficiently remote that we can discuss it from a reasonably objective viewpoint. The question is: why is it so easily for governments to be hijacked by evil/incompetent/dumb leaders? Unfortunately, that may occur much more often than we would like to think. Are some of our leaders rejoicing when large numbers of mere commoners die because of their actions, just as Mussolini did? I can't think of at least one example of one of our prominent politicians rejoicing at the violent death of the leader of a foreign country and you probably understand whom I mean. And what could be the effect on a president's mind of the capability of killing anyone, anywhere, by a drone strike without the need to provide a justification or fearing retaliation? Can you imagine that drone strikes are decided by people who rub their hands together while producing Satanic smiles? We won't know how evil these people really are until much after they are gone, if ever.

But already now we can find hints that not everything may be well in the minds of our leaders. The Guardian recently wrote that:

Today we learned Trump released his own video of his interview on “60 Minutes.” I chuckled when I read his description of his performance:“Watch [Stahl’s] constant interruptions [and] anger. Compare my full, flowing and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers,” Trump tweeted along with the link to the interview.

Of course, you may call that harmless narcissism. Surely it is nothing like Mussolini's blabber. But, well, you know, sometimes you wonder.....



  1. So glad that you are still sharing with us. I have to say that you are firing on all cylinders (with zero Co2 emissions I might add).


  2. Lovely, as your historical pieces always are.

  3. The link to Ciano's diary is very interesting, not only to brush up my poor Italian, but also to see the back and forth of diplomatic notes just before the invasion of Poland. We see, e.g., that many Germans as well as Italians tried to hinder Hitler in his desicion to let loose war, but nobody spoke openly and determinedly against it, because the pretense of the Italo-German pact had somehow to be sustained. Mussolini wanted to have the cake and eat it at the same time. People feared the risk of open disagreement with Hitler and so tacitly accepted the far greater risk of been dragged into an unbelievably costly war adventure. A lesson for everyone of us.

  4. This is one of the clearest posts I have ever read to explain narcissistic power grabs. It fits trump to a T.

  5. When journalist asked Serbian president Alexandar Vučić why he paid money contribution to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign just couple of weeks before Donald Trump won the elections he answered: "Because I am smart."

  6. I am not a mathematician but I think that statistics can offer some answers. With dictator there is 50% chance of success (the number of possibilities divided by the number of positive outcomes). With parliament the calculation would be much more complicated but the odds that they will manage the country better are probably much lower than with dictator. The reason why people choose dictator over other forms of government is that during crises decision making using parliamentary process is much less efficient. Furthermore, in industrial civilization decision making process is so complex that finding right solution is almost impossible. The complexity itself demotivates the mass to participate. The mass needs some individual to make decision for them.

  7. Nothing compared to the horror about to be inflicted on humanity by peak oil

  8. I liked this very much. Fascinating, but was Mussolini really normal to begin with?

    What goes on in the head of rulers. I found a fascinating documentary series. The Aztecs - A Clash of Worlds (Part 2 of 2).

    The series is from 'Fall of Civilizations' I have watched all episodes.

    In this episode the character of Hernán Cortés is described. Hernán was a problem to his parents and later in life, authority in general. He had a disposition which was bored with life. Thrill seeking and cruel. A psychopath devoid of all empathy. Watching it I could not help but draw parallels to Donald Trump. Trump began four years ago with a MOAB and America is always drowning somebody. Later in another short documentary I learned Cortez consumed women, like Trump does.

    Psychopaths always seem to wind up in charge. Impulsive opportunists who walk over everyone else. Perhaps the universe surrounding them with a chaotic inefficient crowd is not a bad thing.

    But there should be better ways. Even if rulers are not all psychopaths the luck of the draw favors that they are and if one guy is making the decisions and he is a psychopath, everyone suffers.

  9. Terms such as 'narcissist', 'psycho/sociopath', etc, are flung about rather carelessly.

    Having a close relation who is both of the above, and an unrepentant direct and indirect murderer - with such a modest and charming manner - I tend use them most cautiously regarding those whom I do not know.

    However, perhaps those who loathe Trump might, instead of frothing at the mouth over him, as directed by propaganda, direct some attention to the psychopathic MIC and totalitarian tech companies, the innumerable 'security' agencies, which lie behind the Establishment in the US, and above all the utterly corrupt Obama-Biden Clinton faction.

    One has to admire the way the 'Orange Man Bad' meme has been milked over the last 4 years, a perfect Bernays-style distraction exercise.

    The 'Shadow of Mordor' is spreading my friends, and it does not emanate from Mr Trump.....

  10. Far less Wars initiated under Trump compared to previous presidents. So it looks like he is a better choice.

  11. Dear Mr. Bardi,

    Could you please write about the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Based on the two above comments, we can’t even have an intelligent conversation without certain people screaming and shouting their pov. It’s akin to the most ignorant, misinformed students in a classroom telling everyone how things work. Intelligent people have dismissed them for too long. Their modus operandi is to turn the tables and declare themselves the victims and make their opponents the oppressor. They infiltrate every corner of the internet. Could you write about what needs to happen for things to change with regards to the people of Trumpland? Jordan Peterson adherents use the same tactics. In Before the Collapse, you talked about leaving enough behind so that posterity can rebuild. How is that going to happen if intelligent people don’t start doing something? The experts (I am most definitely not one of them) can no longer just retreat to the sanctuary of their minds. They’ve been relegated obsolete in the minds of half of Americans. How are intellectuals like yourself going to save your kind?

    1. Ah...well, Anne, what can I tell you? Just that I am blessed with a personal troll whose name is Mr. Kunning Druger. Maybe he would like to answer your question...

  12. A wonderful post Prof. Bardi!
    Is it the total lack of conscience, the total lack of considering possible suffering caused by ones decisions, that allow some leaders to "act with decisiveness" and hence gain the adoration of those who admire that sort of John Wayne silliness?

    1. Thanks. But I think there is something even worse: not only the people admire the John Wayne-like leaders, the leaders admire themselves!

    2. As for their self-admiration: Can you imagine this, a group photo of some of the worlds more authoritarian leaders:

      All of them shirtless and riding horses, side by side, as they splash across some wilderness river. (with of course Putin slightly in the lead)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)