A cult of personality arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual politician – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to divinization, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states. It is often seen in totalitarian or authoritarian countries.

The term first came to modern prominence in 1956, in Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, given on the final day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the speech, Khruschev, who was the First Secretary of the Party – in effect, the leader of the country – criticized the lionization and idealization of Josef Stalin, and, by implication, his Communist contemporary Mao Zedong, as being contrary to Marxist doctrine. The speech was later made public, and was part of the “de-Stalinization” process the Soviet Union went through.

They see themselves as “very special” people, deserving of admiration and, consequently, have difficulty empathizing with the feelings and needs of others … Not only do dictators commonly show a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity,” they also tend to behave with a vindictiveness often observed in narcissistic personality disorder.

With regard to dictators, one particular trait that consistently stands out as relevant is narcissism. Narcissistic individuals have a “greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance” and are “preoccupied with their own achievements and abilities.” They see themselves as “very special” people, deserving of admiration and, consequently, have difficulty empathizing with the feelings and needs of others.When narcissism becomes extreme to the point that it:interferes with daily lifeappears to be unusual as compared to others within a society, orpermeates multiple areas of an individual’s life …… that individual may be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, which is defined by a:“pervasive pattern of grandiosity”“need for admiration” and“lack of empathy.”These individuals are “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success” and “power.” They believe they are unique and can only be associated with others of equally high status. Furthermore, they require excessive admiration to remain happy, possess an extreme sense of entitlement, exploit others, and are often envious of others.Vindictiveness Is CommonDescriptions of narcissistic personality disorder seem reminiscent of what we know of dictators. Not only do dictators commonly show a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity,” they also tend to behave with a vindictiveness often observed in narcissistic personality disorder. For instance, in now famous psychological experiments, researchers found that highly narcissistic individuals were more likely to try to punish those individuals who negatively evaluated their work, even when the narcissistic person believed they were administering painful electric shocks. More recent work shows that, after a negative evaluation, narcissistic people will demonstrate greater aggression even to individuals unrelated to the feedback. Such experiments can help us understand the aggressive behavior of dictators, who are known to lash out against negative evaluations.Surprisingly, narcissism could also help explain the anxious behavior displayed by dictators. Researchers have identified two forms of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. Though grandiose narcissism is associated with all that you might expect from a narcissist (e.g., grandiosity and aggression), vulnerable narcissism is associated with an “insecure grandiosity,” which seems to produce intense defensiveness and feelings of inadequacy. Such individuals are often described as being “worrying, emotional, defensive, anxious, bitter, tense, and complaining”.These components can be so extreme that narcissistic personality disorder can be misdiagnosed as borderline personality disorder, which is associated with high levels of anxiety. The intensity of the emotional experiences produced by narcissism in combination with actual dangers could produce remarkable levels of anxiety, worry, and uncertainty – to the point that one might actually consider moving their entire capital to the middle of a jungle based on the advice of an astrologer.

Mao Tse Dong, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Tito, Franco, Ho Chi Minh, Juan and Evita Peron. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Ron and Nancy Reagan- The 2oth Century is a Who’s Whom of personality cults. There are few who are so worshiped and idolized that you’d want to bring home to the family. I can’t imagine a good ending to a dinner party with Gaddafi or Saddam as the plus one.

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A hot young Mao

Saddam as Persian warrior.

Turkmenistan’s Golden Boy

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Washington as Cincinnatus

Probably one of the most effective pieces of hagiography in the last century-Adolf Hitler as a Teutonic Knight coming to the aid of Germany’s Christians.