An interview with Jerrold Post in Budapest

Jerrold Post is a psychiatrist whose expertise is “political psychology.” He is a graduate of Yale College and the Yale Medical School. Eventually he spent twenty-one years with the CIA where he founded and directed the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. Members of the Center analyzed foreign leaders and provided the president and other senior officials with psychological profiles so they could prepare for summit meetings and other high-level negotiations. After his work at the CIA he moved on to George Washington University where he is professor of psychology and international affairs and director of the Political Psychology Program. He has published widely on psychological evaluations of political leaders, the psychology of political behavior, and the mind of the terrorist.

Péter Zentai of HVG had a fascinating interview with Jerrold Post a couple of days ago. The Hungarian journalist wanted to know whether there is a general portrait of dictators that is independent of time and space.

Post answered in the affirmative. “The psyche of all dictators, terrorist leaders, mafia chiefs has four essential components. The first is a messianic belief in their own destiny. The second is a type of paranoia. The dictator-types blame others for their smallest failures and are constantly trying to find or create enemies. The third is a limited conscience and hence a lack of inhibition that often originates in problems that weren’t handled in childhood. And fourth is an uncanny ability to influence and possess the mind and soul of people in their closest circle.”

When Zentai inquired about the intelligence level of these dictator-types, Post’s answer was that there are some who are clever or intelligent and some who are not, but “almost all of them are half-educated.” All dictators believe that their pronouncements are terribly important, while listening to them from the outside one can see the inner contradictions and outright stupidities. Their penchant for creating enemies can also be found in their public speeches where at the center of their ire is their or their country’s enemies. Their attitude toward “these enemies” becomes obvious not only in words but also in gestures. For example, they often make their visitors wait or they arrive late for an important meeting only to show who is boss.

At this point the interview moved on to the close circle of political “associates.” According to Post the dictator-type is a psychopath and a neurotic, but he is at the same time a talented psychologist who allows only those whom he deems to be the kind of person who can be totally influenced and ruled by him to get close to him. Within this circle the dictator-type constantly rewards and punishes. One never knows where he/she stands. At any time close political allies can be dropped. Post calls this “a psycho-horror show” which results in the dictator’s associates constantly trying to imitate the boss. They lose their own personalities and become mere clones of the dictator. They try to imitate his mannerisms, for example. Eventually the teachings of the leader seep down further and further in the society at large with the help of a propaganda machine that is operated by those who can most easily be blackmailed or influenced. Or who have the weakest spines.

At this point the reporter wanted to learn more about these dictator-types in a democracy. Post has studied the psyches of Saddam, Kadhafi, and Milosevič, but what is the situation of the dictator-type in a democratic society? Post’s answer was that democracies simply don’t know what to do with these people. Their opportunities are restricted to certain segments of business life or the underground. In a well-functioning democracy checks and balances prevent the formation of a dictatorship.

When Zentai objected and brought up the examples of Chavez’s Venezuela or Lukasenko’s Belarus, Post’s answer was that in these countries there is no “demand for real and functioning democracy.” These countries don’t have a democratic tradition and a civic society with a well developed media.

Finally, Post pointed to the changes that are taking place in the Arab world. He optimistically announced that in the future dictatorships will have a decreasing chance of survival. Especially in a globalized world where individual countries’ total independence in internal affairs is diminishing. In his opinion the international community can use more and more instruments to foil the ambitions of present and future dictators.

But what if the system of checks and balances is legally weakened? What will happen then to the would-be dictator in a democracy?

April 28, 2011