Are We Living in an Age of Strongmen?

Methods of Power

How do authoritarians rule?

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The intellectual left reacted to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 in two very different ways. One group, like so many in the general public, immediately fell into full panic mode. The historian Timothy Snyder, for instance, rushed into print with a book called On Tyranny and in an interview declared it “pretty much inevitable” that Trump would follow Adolf Hitler’s example by declaring a state of emergency and staging a coup. Others urged caution. Snyder’s Yale colleague Samuel Moyn and Oxford’s David Priestland insisted in a New York Times opinion piece that “there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” Trump, they claimed, was in reality a weak leader, despite his ability to exploit populist discontent. What was needed, they implied, was a focus less on his tweets and more on the neoliberalism and endless war that had provoked the discontent that brought him to power in the first place. The debates continued right through the 2020 election, with Snyder and many others continuing to warn of jackboots in the streets and Moyn and numerous other commentators insisting that the warnings themselves mostly worked to distract our attention from the staggering structural problems that the country faces.

The events of January 6 might seem to have resolved the debate. Trump’s incitement of the Capitol attack was a treasonous crime. The ragtag rioters caused five deaths and put many other lives in danger. But what Moyn in these pages called a “parodic coup” (others dubbed it the “Q d’état”) in fact had no chance of delaying the certification of Joe Biden’s victory for more than a few hours, let alone of overthrowing the federal government.

The sharply different views of the Trump presidency reflect two very different understandings of politics. The “ring the alarm bells” camp has tended to see right-wing authoritarianism as a powerful, malevolent force that can operate in at least partial independence from prevailing social and economic conditions. It can arise and destroy democracy wherever people lack the moral and institutional force to successfully oppose it. Even the erosion of relatively minor norms can have serious consequences, because it sets a precedent for more important transgressions. The “let’s focus on the larger problems” group, on the other hand, attributes the current manifestations of authoritarianism to broader social and economic conditions. Its members hold that the United States, while pathologically dysfunctional, is pathologically dysfunctional in a different way from the societies in which fascist dictators came to power in the 20th century. There, the virtual collapse of political order and civil society as a result of world war and economic depression created an opening for revolutionary right-wing mass movements. Here, on the other hand, neoliberal forces have proved perfectly capable of preserving their economic and political power through America’s existing, deeply imperfect but fundamentally stable constitutional system. It is the very dominance of these forces that generated the recent populist upsurge—and under Trump, the same forces also managed very largely to co-opt and neutralize it. (It is no coincidence, in this view, that among Trump’s major legacies are corporate deregulation and tax cuts for the superrich.) America’s problems, in the final analysis, can only be overcome through fundamental economic and political reform.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a distinguished historian of Italian fascism and a prolific political commentator, belonged firmly to the alarm-bells camp over the past four years. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, she wrote an article titled “Donald Trump and Steve Bannon’s Coup in the Making.” Her new book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, elaborates on that position in a full-length survey of the ways ambitious strongmen can damage or destroy democratic regimes. The book features Trump prominently, but it sets him in a rogues’ gallery of authoritarians and would-be authoritarians ranging from Hitler and Benito Mussolini to late-20th-century dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Moammar El-Gadhafi, and Idi Amin to present-day populists like Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, and Jair Bolsonaro. These strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, all followed roughly the same “playbook” for seizing power and holding on to it, despite the very different societies in which they emerged. The strongman, she insists, is a modern political type—indeed, the modern political type. “Ours is the age of the strongman,” she states categorically.

Ben-Ghiat’s story, like Snyder’s, is at its heart a moral drama. The crucial factors at play are not social and political conditions but rather unscrupulous ambition and greed, on the one hand, and the determination (or the lack thereof) to resist it, on the other. This point of view is a provocative one. Unfortunately, like many in the alarm-bells camp, Ben-Ghiat tends to treat it as self-evidently true, and she therefore devotes far more attention to the strongmen’s own actions than to the factors that allowed them to rise and determined whether or not they succeeded. The problem, as her own book reveals, is that authoritarians do not simply prevail through violence: They seduce, they appeal, they exert charisma. And to understand why the seduction works, we cannot look at the strongmen alone; we also need to consider the people who fall under their spell.

Ben-Ghiat’s sprightly written, colorful book does not proceed chronologically but rather lays out the elements of the strongmen’s playbook from start to finish. It begins with a discussion of the various ways they tend to seize power, whether through fascist takeovers or military coups or the slow, deliberate erosion of democracy. The book then turns to the methods they use to maintain power and influence, including the deployment of racism, nationalism, propaganda, corruption, violence, and these men’s displays of virility. (For Ben-Ghiat, the strongman is a distinctly gendered type.) Along the way, we learn about Mobutu Sese Seko’s taste for roasted quail served on Limoges china, about Gadhafi’s preference for sexual partners as young as 13, and about both men’s use of television to broadcast the executions of their enemies.

As might be expected from her background, Ben-Ghiat has particularly revealing things to say about Mussolini, including the fact that the sex-addicted dictator had relations with as many as four women per day during his 23 years in power. More sobering is her reminder that in 1922, the Italian state could easily have disarmed Mussolini’s Fascists, who numbered only 30,000 or so out of a population of over 40 million. Instead, King Victor Emmanuel III “chose the path of least conflict,” as Ben-Ghiat puts it, and appointed Mussolini as prime minister. A crucial factor in the Fascist takeover, in other words, was sheer moral weakness. A final section of the book explores how strongmen finally lose power—if they don’t die in office first.

In keeping with her overall point of view, Ben-Ghiat draws very few distinctions between the various contexts in which these strongmen arose, and she plays down the massive differences in their actual historical roles. Mussolini, Hitler, and Pinochet destroyed democratic systems and established dictatorships; Silvio Berlusconi didn’t, and neither did Trump. Pinochet, Amin, and Gadhafi were military officers whose rule depended on the army, but most of the men on Ben-Ghiat’s list were not. (Hitler saw the army in large part as a threat.) Mobutu, Saddam Hussein, and especially Hitler practiced violence on an unthinkably horrific scale, while Berlusconi, Bolsonaro, and Trump have been violent mostly in their rhetoric. Hitler and Mussolini placed their states under the domination of highly regimented political parties; many of the others left the existing state structures largely intact.

At times, the comparisons become distinctly forced. Berlusconi, the buffoonish tycoon who served several terms as Italy’s prime minister between 1994 and 2011, repeatedly flouted democratic norms while detaining and deporting migrants, and he flagrantly used his office to enrich himself and develop cozy relations with figures like Gadhafi and Vladimir Putin. But does he really belong in the company of Mussolini and Hitler? Italian democracy emerged from his terms in office bruised but in no sense destroyed. Many prosecutions of Berlusconi failed, but a court did eventually convict him of tax fraud.

The same holds for Trump, as awful as he was as president. Despite his vile language, atrocious character, and clumsy assaults on democratic norms—and despite the real harm done by so many of his policies—does he really rank among the great monsters of modern history? Ben-Ghiat suggests he does. “It may seem overblown,” she writes, “to compare Trump’s detention spaces to those of other strongman regimes.” But she goes on to do precisely that, noting for example that unlike the detainees in Trump’s ICE centers, the prisoners in Nazi work camps “had mattresses or barracks and access to washrooms.”

Ben-Ghiat also gives little justification for choosing her strongmen almost entirely from the political right. “I do not,” she writes in a quick aside, “include Communist leaders like Xi [Jinping] who take power in an already-closed system.” Men like Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-un would have fit in well in several of Strongmen’s chapters. Ceausescu’s corruption was so blatant that critics called his system “socialism in a single family.” Kim’s literally over-the-top propaganda efforts have included the construction of a sign that praises him as “the shining sun” and stretches over a third of a mile in length, each letter the size of a small building. Furthermore, some of the most prominent communist rulers (Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, most obviously) did not take power in “already-closed systems” but violently overthrew noncommunist regimes. Communist authoritarians have tended to rule differently, because the parties to which they belonged often retained considerable power and autonomy. This point would seem to bear out Ben-Ghiat’s decision not to include them. But it also suggests that even in the “age of the strongman,” political ideology has done quite a lot to shape how authoritarianism actually developed.

Ben-Ghiat devotes very little attention to ideology. It would be hard, of course, to find much common ideological ground between the reactionary Catholic Francisco Franco and the self-professed Islamic revolutionary Gadhafi. Still, as Ben-Ghiat notes, all of the men on her list posed as fervent nationalists, and she could have done much more to investigate their relationship to the broader history and nature of nationalist—and racist—ideas. Instead, she presents their nationalism and racism more as strategies than as deeply held beliefs. Nationalism and racism served their ambition, not the reverse. What these men shared, above all, in her view, was a naked lust for power.

Putting the focus so intently on individual ambition does make for an interesting exercise in Strongmen, especially given how history tends to be written today. Professional historians long ago abandoned the so-called great man theory of history associated with the 19th-century British writer Thomas Carlyle, according to which a few individuals shape the course of history through sheer force of will. Carlyle’s contemporary Karl Marx, needless to say, never subscribed to it. Fernand Braudel, one of the most influential historians of the past century, wrote pointedly in echo of Marx, “Men do not make history. Rather it is history above all that makes men and thereby absolves them from blame.” Braudel and his followers in the Annales school cast the human story as one of people largely in thrall to the slow, grinding operations of geological and economic forces. His great English contemporary E.P. Thompson saw more of a role for human agency but investigated it above all in the ranks of the poor and downtrodden, famously promising to rescue them from the “enormous condescension of posterity.” In the process, the systematic investigation of how powerful individuals can shape historical events was largely relinquished to biographers and the authors of popular histories. A powerful work like the historical sociologist Barrington Moore’s 1966 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy put the emphasis squarely on social conditions, as opposed to the dictators themselves.

Ben-Ghiat is hardly arguing for a return to the great man theory. Not only does she have no sympathy for her morally repellent subjects; she has no great regard for their abilities either. Most of them come off, in her account, as whiny, unstable, sadistic, endlessly needy, and not very smart (Trump is entirely typical). They had cunning rather than political genius, and many were surprisingly lazy. Even Hitler, as his biographer Ian Kershaw famously argued, mostly left it to his subordinates to divine his wishes and to execute them, rather than working out detailed plans himself. The factors that brought the strongmen to power were an ability to project a charismatic image, an uncanny sense of how to appeal to their followers’ basest instincts, and a will to embrace the other elements of the playbook—a set of techniques that proved remarkably effective in setting after setting. The techniques mattered as much as the men.

In Ben-Ghiat’s account, these techniques are above all what allowed her strongmen to exercise influence, with considerable independence from prevailing social, economic, and even political circumstances. Most historians, in explaining Hitler’s rise to power, foreground the Weimar Republic’s failure to surmount the massive challenges posed by the Great Depression and the harsh Versailles settlement after World War I. In the cases of Gadhafi and Amin, historians emphasize the ways that imperialism had left their formerly colonial states fractured and traumatized. With Putin, they note Russia’s failures in managing the transition to capitalism and democracy and its demotion from superpower status. And as for Trump, the crucial factors highlighted are the United States’ deepening inequalities, its deep and toxic heritage of racism, and a political system choked into paralysis by special interests. But for Ben-Ghiat, the source of a strongman’s strength lies elsewhere. In all of these cases, she contends, what also mattered, and perhaps what mattered most of all, was the way the strongmen managed to project a positive appeal to embittered and resentful sections of the population. By setting her strongmen principally in one another’s company, she highlights this positive appeal and its power; a strongman’s ability to exercise malevolent influence appears to exist independently of any particular national, social, or economic context.

For the same reason, Ben-Ghiat insists, no one should think a strongman can be defeated simply by repairing those conditions. Resistance requires a playbook of its own, and she devotes most of her short conclusion to outlining it. “We must have a clear-eyed view of how they manage to get into power and stay there,” she writes, without defining who “we” are. “We must prioritize accountability and transparency in government.” “We can carry with us the stories of those who lived and died over a century of democracy’s destruction and resurrection.” If these prescriptions sound strangely abstract and general, it is no accident. They can be applied anywhere, just like the strongmen’s playbook itself.

Ben-Ghiat makes her case for the playbook forcefully, but her emphasis on the strongman’s techniques for crafting a positive image leaves a crucial question hanging: Why do these techniques succeed—or not? To answer this question requires broadening the focus from the strongmen themselves to their followers, and in her introduction Ben-Ghiat briefly acknowledges the point. “The autocrat…is no one without his followers,” she writes. Charisma “exists mostly in the eye of the beholder.” (Here she follows the great German social theorist Max Weber, who first deployed the theological concept of charisma to illuminate political life.) In other words, however charming, brilliant, powerful, or preternaturally gifted certain figures may appear, they need to be recognized as such by followers for a charismatic bond to form. The same qualities that strike one group as intensely appealing may strike another as repellent. Just look at the wildly different ways Americans on the left and the right have seen Trump.

But understanding the workings of charisma and the development of fervent feelings for a political leader requires understanding the social and cultural conditions in which the charismatic bond takes shape. People’s relationships to political figures are influenced by everything from the sermons they’ve heard to the novels they’ve read to the films and television programs they’ve watched to their ideas about proper gender roles. Their place in the economy matters enormously as well, for one of the most powerful ways to project a charismatic image is to pose as the defender of “forgotten” men and women against economic exploiters—as is the case with virtually all of the figures in Strongmen.

Ben-Ghiat does explore some of this background. She emphasizes that the modern strongman’s propagandists draw on “the communication codes and celebrity cultures of film, television, and now digital storytelling,” while also making use of “advertising and marketing strategies.” Mussolini, she keenly observes, was an expert student of early cinematic techniques and mastered the exaggerated body gestures typical of silent film. Ben-Ghiat also notes Trump’s skillful use of Twitter as a direct channel to his supporters, suggesting that his childlike, error-prone spelling and grammar create “a curated sense of authenticity.” Her chapter “Virility” illustrates in numbing detail how strongmen like to pose as icons of overwhelming male potency, with Putin and Mussolini in particular sharing a predilection for baring their chests, as if for a cheesy calendar of male strippers.

These individual examples are revealing, but Ben-Ghiat sketches most of them out in a few sentences, offers a few anecdotal illustrations in support, and then moves on. This reader, at least, wanted more, given the vast differences among the countries she covers. To take just one question raised by her study, have people in societies as different as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Mobutu’s Congo, Putin’s Russia, and Trump’s United States really perceived their displays of virility in the same fundamental way? Notions of masculinity can vary greatly among societies—and within them as well. Have all these different strongmen managed to tap into some deep, natural, universal dream of male dominance? What is the relationship between the images of potency that the strongmen project and the changing social conditions that have threatened traditional masculine economic roles in so many countries?

Of course, there is a limit to how deeply a book aimed at influencing public debate can descend into the weeds of comparative political sociology. But in the end, it is not surprising that Ben-Ghiat shies away from looking more systematically at her strongmen’s audiences. Not all audiences react to the same performances in the same way. Even as some people become fervent followers of an authoritarian leader, others resist, and still others simply sink into passive, fearful conformity. In some cases, the overall reaction is so weak that the playbook fails to work at all in the area where it matters most for the strongman himself: overcoming constitutional restraints and keeping him in power for more than a short period of time. For Berlusconi, in the end, the strongmen’s playbook didn’t work. It didn’t work for Trump either.

Explaining why the playbook succeeded in some places and failed in others is a matter of more than merely pointing to the greater or lesser moral and institutional strength of resistance. It means comparing different sections of a population and evaluating the overall patterns of social and economic development that leave a society more or less susceptible to the strongman’s lure. It means going back, yes, to the study of the larger social, economic, and political context. If Trump did not succeed, during his four years in power, in doing more damage to American democracy, it was not simply, or even principally, because of the resistance offered to him from across the political spectrum. It was not simply because, in the end, he did little more than playact, incompetently, at authoritarianism. It was also because of deeply rooted democratic structures and habits. And it was also because of powerful social forces that achieve their ends very well within the parameters of our current political system. These things matter. The playbook only takes the would-be strongman so far, and it only takes the historian so far in the quest to understand them and their significance.

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