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PBS Documentary Asks ‘What Makes a Dictator?’

A new PBS documentary takes a look at six dictators from Mussolini to Saddam Hussein—and how they shaped the 20th century.

Airing Wednesday nights in six hour-long installments starting January 9, “The Dictator’s Playbook” started off with Kim Il Sung, who transformed from a guerilla fighter to the founder of the North Korean dynasty now ruled by his grandson, Kim Jong Un.

The other infamous leaders that will be profiled are Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, and Idi Amin.

PBS aims to explore how they seized and lost power, what forces were against them, and examine their overall “brutality and power.”

Viewers may draw inevitable comparisons to our current presidency.

According to CNN, there are “point-by-point references to common strategies that appear to echo [President] Trump’s actions, particularly toward media and journalists.”

The documentary includes how dictators have discredited the independent press, controlled the public’s perception of reality through propaganda, established a “cult of personality,” and used “a culture of fear” to stoke popular support.

“While America has been shielded from dictatorships, it is not necessarily immune from forces that have shaped and defined them,” CNN reported.

It’s observed in the documentary that dictators often learn from one another. For example, Joseph Stalin was responsible for recruiting Kim II Sung to rule over Korea during World War II. It’s also speculated that Adolf Hitler learned from and imitated Mussolini.

Another common theme that emerged was that dictators often operated in countries with little or no history of democracy, or weak democratic institutions.

“Strong democracies are the best defense against dictatorship,” said co-executive producer Michael Rosenfeld, adding that in regard to a country like North Korea, “Even though this is history, we are dealing with the consequences today. Where North Korea is concerned, it’s in the headlines.”

Rosenfeld spent part of his childhood in Spain during the rule of Francisco Franco, who will be profiled in the documentary series.

With a father who was an NBC News correspondent, Rosenfeld has gone on to win or lead teams that won the Peabody Award and 40 news and documentary Emmys.

The idea for the new series was born out of PBS’ desire to produce a history show focusing on the 20th century.

Trump’s administration sought to eliminate virtually all funding for public broadcasting in their 2018 budget proposal, but PBS has continued to air probing documentaries under the “Frontline” banner and in stand-alone titles such as this one.

“The Dictator’s Playbook” will continue to air Wednesdays at 10/9 p.m. Central on PBS. Episodes can be viewed on the PBS website for a limited time after airing on television.


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