How can we recognize authoritarian personalities and patterns of behavior that have brought ruin to their countries? The last century has been, in some respects, the era of “strongmen,” according to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University. In “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” she reviews the history of the last 100 years and identifies certain patterns of behavior across countries and continents.
The main value of this book is that while citizens may not be able to initially recognize a strongman in their own country, they can easily recognize it in others, and upon reflection, might be able to eventually identify strongman characteristics in political leaders in their own society.
Strongmen initially “project an image of pure-hearted idealism along with the promise of striking back against the foreign and domestic forces allegedly responsible for the personal struggles of their supporters and the decline of their countries. Their supporters are enchanted by their charisma but underneath the surface these rulers have few characteristics other than greed and cruelty.”
They project virility and machismo, which appeals to men who fantasize about dominating others and strangely appeals to women who apparently want to be dominated. They often emerge after periods of progress in racial, gender, and labor emancipation by making openly racist and sexist statements and fomenting further cultural divisions. They “soothe fears of the loss of male domination and class privilege and the loss of white Christian ‘civilization’.” Most strongmen have “severe anger issues” and encourage anger and rage in their supporters. “The emotions they elicit are bleak.”
They emphasize patriotism, nationalism, religious faith, ethnic or racial purity as part of national identity. Even though they may have criminal records or are under investigation for illegal behavior, the supporters of strongmen see them as challenging a “corrupt system.”
They often appeal to the powerless — the unemployed, under-employed and poorly educated who fear economic competition from immigrants, minorities, upwardly-mobile young and assertive women. They appeal to negative emotions and experiences, “don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves the nation’s saviors.”
Citizens frustrated with unresponsive bureaucracies and the slowness of change they think the country needs may be tempted to elect authoritarian personalities who express contempt for democratic processes, thinking they will be efficient and “make the trains run on time.” But Ben-Ghait’s study suggests strongmen are not really efficient because the entire government scrambles to meet his immediate needs or desires rather than methodically implementing well-thought-out policies.
Her thesis is that “self-proclaimed saviors of the nation…evade accountability while robbing their people of truth, treasure, and the protections of democracy. They promise law and order, then legitimize lawbreaking by financial, sexual, and other predators. They use masculinity as a symbol of strength and a political weapon. Taking what you want, and getting away with it, becomes proof of male authority. They use propaganda, corruption, and violence to stay in power.”
They rely on relentless misinformation. They transparently prioritize their own self-interest above public interest and the public good.
They frequently establish:
- Cults of personality in which they dominate the media, the culture and physical spaces (billboards, statues)
- Torture sites
- Highly manipulative vehicles of propaganda seeks to monopolize the nation’s attention, asserting that establishment or independent media provide biased and false information while dear leader speaks only the truth. “Once supporters bond with the leader, they stop caring about his falsehoods. They believe him because they believe in him.”
- Strongmen repudiate norms of transparency and accountability.
- Loyalty to the strongman and his allies, rather than expertise, is the paramount value of the regime, and the primary qualification for serving in government, along with casting a blind eye to the leader’s corruption. They surround themselves with family members, yes men and flatterers. They develop delusions of grandeur, demanding that their simplistic answers to complex problems be implemented with disastrous results.
- Strongmen seek to exploit nearly everyone and everything for personal gain.
- Attacking the strongman leader is equated with attacking the country. Critics are labeled “enemies of the people” or terrorists.
- They engage in brazen misogyny, systems of sexual exploitation, use governmental power to procure willing or unwilling female sexual partners.
- They engage in brazen nepotism by surrounding themselves with trusted relatives and/or corrupt advisors.
- They tend to have an impulsive, reactionary governing style, frequently sewing chaos, refusing to learn from mistakes or apologize, and then staff are left to clean up the mess or engage in damage control.
- They promise law and order and then enable lawless behavior by “financial and sexual predators.”
- They threaten and incite violence until it erupts but seek to avoid blame for inciting violence.
Some strongmen come to power by military coups. Others win elections through cheating, or minority rule through anachronisms like the American electoral college in which a candidate can win the popular vote by more than three million but lose the electoral college by a few thousand, and therefore lose the election.
Many come to power legitimately but then refuse to leave office, asserting without substantial evidence that elections they lost were fraudulent or stolen by their enemies. She quotes anthropologist Ernest Becker that “it is fear that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues.”
Others are popular with a majority of the people, who apparently feel the leader, with nasty but “authentic” statements, expresses their own hostilities, resentments and grievances and that somehow they are vicariously gaining the upper hand or dominating their enemies through him.
Many seek to become “president for life” or “leader for life” and try to install an ally, family member or puppet as their successor. This usually doesn’t work. Things do not generally go well for them when they are forced out of power.
As a historian, she attempts to divide strongman rule of the last 100 years into three periods: the fascist era, 1919-1945; the age of military coups, 1950-1990 (corresponding to the Cold War, with coup assistance from both the Soviet Union and the United States depending on whether the strongmen were allies of left-wing “communists” or right-wing “capitalists”); and the new authoritarian age, 1990 to the present.
She defines authoritarianism as “a political system in which executive power is asserted at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government.” This definition is too facile. She does not address issues that may cause a president to resort to executive orders because the legislative branch is dysfunctional and unrepresentative of the will of the people, and fails to act in a crisis.
Strongmen “repress civil liberties (and suppress voting rights of opponents) but use elections to keep themselves in power.” They seek, in the words of in an important 1997 essay by Fareed Zakaria to establish “illiberal democracy.”
She tries to narrow her focus to leaders who “sought to destroy democracy.” But is “democracy” an apt description of the political system that existed in these countries before these strongmen came to power? Was, for example, Russia before the Vladimir Putin a functioning democracy? Certainly one could argue that few of these countries were healthy democracies before the strongmen took power.
Beginning with Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Italian prime minister aka Il Duce, a journalist who led the National Fascist Party, Ben Ghait has studied at least 18 world leaders who meet the definition of “strongmen”:
Francisco Franco of Spain
Silvio Berlusconi of Italy
Adolph Hitler of Germany
Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Since 2020 and the outbreak of covid-19, he has declared a state of emergency, given himself dictatorial powers and ruled by decree.
Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union
Vladimir Putin of Russia
Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey
Saddam Hussein of Iraq
Augusto Pinochet of Chile
Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil
Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (He changed the Congo’s name to Zaire in 1971. It was later changed back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) He learned how to rule from personality cults like Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Mao Zedong of China.
Idi Amin of Uganda
Muammar Gaddafi of Libya
Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia
Narendra Modi in India
Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines
Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines
Donald Trump of the United States.
Ben-Ghait cautions that Trump, unlike most of the others, was not a fascist nor a full-fledged authoritarian, based on his brief tenure in office, but did demonstrate some of the same patterns and characteristics of the others. In an interview, she described him as a “populist.” But his spreading of the “big lie” of a stolen election and incitement of violence at the Capitol in the last days of his administration was certainly typical of fascists.
It remains to be seen whether Modi of India will fit the mold as well. She says she receives pushback from some Indians when she includes him, while other Indians insist that she should include him.
She left out other notorious authoritarians such as Mao Zedong of China; Kim Jong-il of North Korea; Pol Pot of Cambodia; Fidel Castro of Cuba; Hugo Chavez of Venezuela; Xi Jinping and the current leadership of China. She justifies this by saying that they gained power through collectivist leadership rather than portraying themselves as the lone strong man, who as Trump proclaimed, “only I can fix” the country’s problems.
To illuminate how democracies are degraded or destroyed by authoritarians, Ben-Ghait does not include Communist leaders like XI “who take power in an already-closed system.” I would add that leaders of Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States exhibit strongman patterns but have generally taken power through closed systems of inheritance or hand-picked succession rather than popular elections.
She does single out XI’s Chinese leadership — “a country of entrenched one-party rule” — for criticism in failing to contain the coronavirus. “Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang warned his peers in December, 2019 about the virus’s destructive potential,” Ben-Ghait wrote. “The Chinese police silenced him, classifying his truth-telling as ‘illegal behavior,’ since it conflicted with government assertions that the disease was ‘preventable and controllable.’ ”
Interestingly, Ben-Ghait observes that “all twenty-first-century authoritarians suppress climate change science, lest that discourage the plunder of national resources that generates profits for them and their allies.”
The first chapter can be read for free from Amazon.com. In it, she notes that “with climate change likely to cause increased levels of disease and scarcity, the spread of the strongman style of rule doesn’t just endanger democracy, but also poses an existential threat.”
She declares that combatting strongmen and “the authoritarian ascendance is one of the most pressing matters of our time.”
Corruption, violence and toxic masculinity: What strongmen like Trump have in common. by Talia Lavin in The Washington Post. “Ben-Ghiat’s description of the end days of strongman rule fits, with eerie precision, Trump’s erratic, bellicose final weeks in office. “Having it all is never enough for men who live in a secret state of dread at losing everything,” she writes. “Even as the strongman proclaims his infallibility, he is pursued by the demon of fear.”
Reviewers criticize Ben-Ghait for making too many generalizations about authoritarian leaders without considering the particular histories, cultures and political environments of the countries they ruled at the time. In that respect, this book is more like a work of political science than history.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker and his theory of demagogues appeal.