Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present could not be more relevant. Authoritarian rule has wreaked destruction around the world. I picked up this book to read a historical analysis of Trump, among other autocrats and dictators, but found myself educated on much more than my corner of the world.
Ben-Ghiat writes from a transhistorical perspective. From the introduction: “Strongmen argues that today’s leaders….have deeper roots. They recycle rhetoric and actions that go back to the dawn of authoritarianism in the 1920s and are invested in rehabilitating their autocratic predecessors.” She uses the term “fascist-nostalgia” to describe current-day leaders who look back admiringly at past authoritarians and their power. Ben-Ghiat goes on to say, “From Mussolini through Putin, all of the strongmen featured in this book establish forms of personalist rule, which concentrates enormous power in one individual whose own political and financial interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy.”
Strongmen focuses on various modern authoritarians across nations and modern history to explore the rise, maintenance, and downfall of their rule. These strongmen include Mussolini, Franco, Gaddafi, Hitler, Putin and Trump, among others. Ben-Ghiat uses these leaders as case studies to examine the book’s concepts and arguments. I was struck by the commonalities among them and their impact. What happened with Trump and the current anti-democratic struggle fits in easily with these other histories.
Ben-Ghiat organizes the book in three sections: Getting to Power, Tools of Rule, and Losing Power. The tools of rule included nationalism, corruption, propaganda, violence and genocide, and virility, the latter of which highlighted how the overwhelmingly male leaders use misogyny, sexual power and violence, patriarchy, and machismo (think shirtless Putin) to bolster their god-like status.
This passage will ring familiar:
“Populism is a common term for the parties and movements that carry forth this illiberal evolution of democratic politics. While populism is not inherently authoritarian, many strongmen past and present have used populist rhetoric that defines their nations as bound by faith, race, and ethnicity rather than legal rights. For authoritarians, only some people are ‘the people,’ regardless of their birthplace or citizenship status, and only the leader, above and beyond any institution, embodies that group. This is why, in strongman states, attacking the leader is seen as attacking the nation itself, and why critics are labeled ‘enemies of the people’ or terrorists.”
In her conclusion, Ben-Ghiat states: “The ceaseless lying and corruption and the cynical disregard for human life that marks strongman rule can lead to despair. This makes it all the more important to know the history of resistance to repressive governance.” The bravery of humans who have stood up to such violence inspired me, as well as reminded me that passivity will never break the strongman’s hold. We all offer resistance in our own ways, big and small, but it’s in coming together that we can help restore democracy. The United Resistance movement in the U.S. has a slogan based on the poem of a WW II concentration camp survivor: “When they come for one of us, they come for us all.” While I’m not of the opinion that people are innately democratic, we can more fairly organize ourselves, support human rights, and tear down our oppressors, even when at great cost. In such fraught times—which repeat themselves across history, so we must be ever-vigilant—the power of the collective to resist and sometimes succeed provides a little light, in a time and place sore in need of it.