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'The Dictator's Playbook' looks at history, with an eye on today

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By Brian Lowry, CNN

"The Dictator's Playbook" might look like history, with much of the imagery in grainy black and white. But this PBS documentary series also provides modern-day resonance -- a guide to tyrants of the past, conveying lessons on how those tactics can be employed in the present.

Consisting of six hour-long installments, the program kicks off with Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean dynasty now ruled by his grandson, Kim Jong Un. Profiles of other infamous leaders -- Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Idi Amin -- follow.

What might strike the strongest chord -- at least, for that part of the audience that has been expressing alarm about the Trump administration -- are point-by-point references to common strategies that appear to echo Trump's actions, particularly toward media and journalists.

Highlighted items include seeking to discredit the independent press, controlling the public's perception of reality through propaganda, establishing a "cult of personality," and using "a culture of fear" to stoke popular support.

The prevailing message serves as a reminder that the methods on display carry a not-so-subtle warning that while America has been shielded from dictatorships, it is not necessarily immune from forces that have shaped and defined them.

Michael Rosenfeld, a co-executive producer on the program, lived for a time as a child in Franco's Spain, where his father was an NBC News correspondent. The idea for the series was born out of PBS' desire to offer a history show focusing on the 20th century.

The common thread that emerged among the dictators profiled was operating in countries with little or no history of democracy, or very weak democratic institutions.

"Strong democracies are the best defense against dictatorship," Rosenfeld said, 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."

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

Rosenfield conceded that "The Dictator's Playbook" focused on the specific times and places, without specifically contemplating how dictatorships have adapted to the 21st century, with modern developments like Facebook and Twitter.

That might be a documentary, alas, for another day. For now, Rosenfeld noted that there was an effort to be sensitive to the damage and pain inflicted by these regimes, which have rippled across decades.

"It's a complicated topic," he said. "We tried to be really careful with these stories."

"The Dictator's Playbook" premieres Jan. 9 at 10 p.m. on PBS.