In the last week or so, 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 Fuhrer 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.