The first time I was asked this question, I was taken aback.
I instinctively knew the answer but I hesitated because I hadn’t considered it before.
Specifically, I was asked if Hitler had clout, and I had to answer yes.
Later that day, I went back to the book I was writing about clout and added a line about how I hoped it would be used to make things better, not worse.
‘I’ve interviewed a lot of really evil people,’ Dr Brian Klaas of University College London tells me in his Cloutology podcast. He referred to ‘people who have killed large numbers of protesters’ and ‘someone who was a bio-terrorist who poisoned a bunch of people.’ He specialises in authoritarian regimes and says the thing that jars him most about the worst leaders is that they are ‘usually nice.’
It’s a fascinating observation and makes but sense when you consider that dictators need to be particularly convincing to sell their extreme ideas to entire societies. They don’t get there by pitching themselves as the bad guy but as the hero that’s going to save everyone from some sort of existential threat.
‘You shake their hand and they are kind to you and they’re a human,’ Dr Klass explains. ‘These people who are genuinely evil. To be able to convince you that they’re not, or make you feel that they’re not, is a recipe for success in politics sometimes because there are people in politics who make genuinely evil decisions and yet they are supported. I think if people understood the raw nature of that person they would never vote for them or support them. That’s a personality trait that certain people who gravitate towards positions of power - particularly in authoritarian societies - tend to share. They really know how to manipulate people and they really know how to present themselves or to spin positions in ways that make them sound that they are for the greater good.’
And once they gain power, then they really turn, according to the historian Professor Kate Williams. She goes back to the old adage that power corrupts. ‘I think it’s almost impossible for it not to corrupt. As you get very high up the tree, increasingly you are surrounded people who always agree with you and you are constantly pressing to gain more.’
She uses Napoleon as an example. He was a social outcast as a young man because he was regarded as rude but that behaviour was accepted when he became emperor. ‘That’s the revelation of his power, constantly putting people down. And that’s another thing about evil and power, that sometimes people feel that the way to show they are powerful is to repress and oppress others.’
Hitler is an example of someone who had a vast base of supporters that obsessed with his every word whilst his inner circle lived in fear of him, Professor Williams points out, and the #MeToo movement is a contemporary example of men abusing their positions of power.
She suggests we all have an evil streak in us but society usually keeps a lid on it through the legal system. People in positions of power get away with more but are even congratulated for their evil thinking. They then surround themselves with people who are too afraid to challenge them.
If you prefer to rule by respect rather than fear and don’t want to live under constant threat of being toppled then its important to have people close to you who are willing to call you out when you’re wrong. You’ll still need charisma but charisma is just knowing who to charm. Even good people with clout need a power base.