16 Terrible People Who Knew How to Lay on the Charm or Inspire Others

In the movies and on TV, bad guys are usually depicted as clear cut baddies, personally repellent and often cartoonishly evil. Unfortunately, history shows that real life is usually more subtle than that, and that folk who are objectively terrible, or even outright monstrous, are often quite charming in person. Which makes sense, especially for those in positions of power: without some ability to charm enough loyal followers, they are unlikely to gain power in the first place, or hang on to it once they have it. After all, the modern era’s three worst monsters, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, all managed to convince millions of adoring followers that they were good guys.

Following are sixteen people, actually or reputedly terrible, who were also capable of being quite charming.

Skulls from the Cambodian Genocide. New York Times

1. Pol Pot Was a Kind and Inspirational College Professor

Saloth Sar, better known to history as Pol Pot (1925 – 1998), was a Cambodian communist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. The country, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, was then transformed into a nightmarish ideological tyranny, masterfully depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Field.

During his years in power, roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed in a horrific genocide carried out by Pol Pot and his followers, that was made even worse by its irrationality. In an attempt at social engineering, Cambodian cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants toiling on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.

Monster though Pol Pot undoubtedly was, he was also a charismatic figure who gave little indication of what he would become. Born into a prosperous family, he received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, France, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor, teaching French and Geography, and was beloved by his students as a “very kind man“.

In those days, he frequently spoke on the themes of human decency and kindness, and was described as: “an attractive figure. His deep voice and calm gestures were reassuring. He seemed to be someone who could explain things in such a way that you came to love justice and honesty and hate corruption“. Some students remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students became his most enthusiastic followers when he led the Khmer Rouge, and were among the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.