“Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present”

31 December 2021

A book review of Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020) 


In late November of this year, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) issued its annual report showing democratic slippage and authoritarian ascendancy throughout the world, with the United States included among the world’s backsliding democracies. The report’s ominous conclusion was that the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving toward democracy. Less than a month later, US President Joe Biden opened a “Summit for Democracy,” in Washington, D.C., attended virtually by representatives of more than 100 countries, along with civil society activists, business leaders and journalists. Biden described the task of strengthening democracy to counter authoritarianism as the “defining challenge of our time,” alluding to but not dwelling upon the increasing threats to democracy that the United States faces internally.


The short period between the IDEA report and the democracy summit coincided with the time I was grappling with Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, a work that provides useful but hardly reassuring background on today’s authoritarian ascendancy. As her title suggests, Ben-Ghiat finds the origins of this version of authoritarianism in the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, appointed in 1922 by King Victor Emmanuel II to head the Italian government as Prime Minister, an appointment that marked the end of Italy’s liberal democratic parliamentary regime. 


Ben-Ghiat defines authoritarianism as a political system in which executive power is concentrated in a single individual and predominates “at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government,” with the single individual claiming that he and his agents are “above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth.” A professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University and a leading academic expert on Mussolini and modern Italian history, Ben-Ghiat uses her knowledge of the man called Il Duce and his Fascist Party’s rule in Italy from 1922 to 1943 as a starting point to build a more comprehensive picture of leaders who have followed in Mussolini’s footsteps – the “strongmen” of her title, or “authoritarians,” two terms she uses interchangeably. 


Ben-Ghiat divides modern authoritarian rule since Mussolini’s time into three general historical periods: 1) the Fascist era of Mussolini and his German ally, Adolph Hitler, 1919-1945, as Europe emerged from the catastrophe of World War I and catapulted into the even more catastrophic World War II; 2) the age of military coups, 1945 to 1990; and 3) what she terms the new authoritarian age, 1990 to the present, with military coups less common and manipulated elections becoming a familiar authoritarian tactic. But Strongmen is not an historical work, arranged in chronological order. 


Ben-Ghiat focuses instead on the tools and tactics selected strongmen have used since Mussolini’s time. In ten chapters, divided into three general sections, “Getting to Power,” “Tools of Rule,” and “Losing Power,” she elaborates respectively upon how strongmen have obtained, maintained, and lost power. Each chapter sets forth general principles of strongman rule, to which she adds illustrative examples of how specific strongmen have adhered to the principles. For Ben-Ghiat, the key tools in the strongman’s toolbox are propaganda, violence, corruption and, most originally, virility. Each is the subject of a separate chapter, but they are “interlinked” and referred to throughout the book. 


Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters changes from one chapter to the next, depending upon its subject matter. At the outset, she lists 17 “protagonists,” authoritarian leaders who are mentioned at least occasionally throughout the book, including such familiar contemporary leaders as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. But eight dominate her narrative: Mussolini and Hitler, who personified the Fascist era, with Mussolini making an appearance in nearly every chapter; Spain’s General Francisco Franco, a transition figure from fascism to military coup, a fascist in the 1930s and a pro-American client during the Cold War; Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who modeled himself after Franco and embodied the era of military coups; and four “modern” authoritarians, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Italy’s Prime Minister in three governments, from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011; Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who followed Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic attempt to establish neoliberal democratic institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union; Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, who is a transition figure from the age of military coups to 21st century authoritarianism; and yes, America’s Donald Trump. Reminding readers how closely Trump and his administration adhered to the authoritarian playbook appears to be one of the book’s main if unstated purposes. 


Among the eight featured authoritarian leaders, all but Gaddafi rose to power in systems that were in varying degrees democratic. How authoritarians manage to weaken democracy, often using democratic means, is the necessary backdrop to Ben-Ghiat’s examination of the strongman’s playbook. All sought in one way or another to undermine existing democratic norms and institutions. Ben-Ghiat excludes strong women political leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, for this very reason. No woman leader has yet “sought to destroy democracy,” she argues, although she does not rule out the possibility that a future female leader could meet the authoritarian criteria. 


Among the featured eight, moreover, only Gaddafi could be considered left of center on the political spectrum. The other seven fit comfortably on the right side. While there would be plenty of potential subjects to choose from for an examination of strongmen of the left – Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro all come readily to mind – Strongmen is largely an analysis of right-wing authoritarianism. For Ben-Ghiat, as for President Biden, combatting this form of authoritarianism constitutes “one of the most pressing matters of our time.” 


From Mussolini and Hitler to Berlusconi and Trump, the strongman’s rule has been highly personal almost by definition. Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, do not distinguish between their individual agendas and those of the nation they rule. They have proven particularly adept at appealing to negative emotions and powerful resentments. They rise to power in moments of uncertainty and transition, generating support when society is polarized, or divided into two opposing ideological camps, which is “why they do all they can to exacerbate strife.” 


A strongman’s promise to return his nation to greatness constitutes the “glue” of modern authoritarian rule, Ben-Ghiat argues. The promise typically combines a sense of nostalgia and the fantasy of returning to an imagined earlier era with a bleak view of the present and a glowing vision of the future. In the chaos of post-World War I Italy, Mussolini invoked the lost imperial grandeur of the Roman Empire. Putin speaks nostalgically of the Soviet era. Trump’s 2017 inaugural address cast the United States as a desolate place of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” the dystopian picture of contemporary America which underpinned his ubiquitous slogan Make America Great Again. 


Franco and Pinochet were typical of right-wing authoritarians who organized the path to the glorious future around counterrevolutionary crusades against perceived leftist subversives. But in what are sometimes termed “developing” or “Third World” countries,” the return to national greatness focuses more frequently upon the remnants of foreign occupation. Rather than leading a revolt against pre-existing democratic institutions and norms, anti-imperialist leaders like Gaddafi use their peoples’ “anger over the tyranny of Western colonizers to rally followers,” while adapting “traditions of colonial violence for their own purposes,” Ben-Ghiat writes. 


To gain and maintain power, strongmen utilize a style of propaganda which Ben-Ghiat describes as a “set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is.” From Mussolini’s use of newsreels and Hitler’s public rallies to Trump’s use of Twitter, authoritarians have employed “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the public will.” 


Propaganda, moreover, encourages people to see violence differently, as a “national and civic duty and the price of making the country great.” General Franco murdered and jailed Spanish leftists at an astounding rate, both in the Spanish Civil war, when he was supported by Mussolini and Hitler, and during World War II, when he remained neutral. His claim to legitimacy rested on the notion that he had brought peace to the land and saved it from apocalyptic leftist violence. But his real success, Ben-Ghiat writes, was in “creating silence around memories of his violence.” 


Augusto Pinochet, fashioning himself in the image of Franco, also strove to present an image of Chile as a bastion of anti-communist stability. But central to Pinochet’s rule was the systematic torture and execution of Chilean dissidents and leftists, “not [as] isolated sadism but state policy,” according to an Amnesty International report. Pinochet’s secret police agency, the DINA, drew upon neo-Nazis living among the country’s large German population to execute its mission of “cleansing Chilean society of leftist influence and making Chile a center of the international struggle against Marxism.” 


Gaddafi envisioned himself as the center of an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist world, and bankrolled a wide range of revolutionary and terrorist movements across the globe while adopting terrorist methods at home to eliminate Libyan dissenters. He used television to present violence as mass spectacle, subjecting dissenting students to public, televised hangings. The entire trial and execution of a dissident were televised in 1984. And Donald Trump’s calls for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment and allusions to her being shot, shocking to many Americans, were “behaviors more readily associated with fascist states or military juntas,” Ben-Ghiat writes. 


Almost invariably, strongmen use the power of their office for private gain, the classic definition of corruption. In tandem with other tools, such as purges of the judiciary, corruption produces a system that tolerates criminality and encourages broader changes in behavioral norms to “make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable, whether election fraud, torture, or sexual assault.” The term “kleptocracy,” very in vogue today, refers to a state in which the looting of public treasuries and resources often appears to be the central purpose of government. 


Joseph Mubuto Sese Soko, the staunch anti-communist leader of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997, appears here primarily to illustrate what US Representative Stephen Solarz termed in 1991 the “kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies,” in which Mobutu set the standard by which “all future international thieves will have to be measure.” Mobutu’s country, rich in raw materials estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s richest resource country with the planet’s poorest population, according to Tom Burgis’ insightful study of kleptocratic African regimes, The Looting Machine (reviewed on my personal blog in 2016). By the time he was forced into exile in 1997, Mobutu had amassed a $5 billion fortune, but Zaire had lost $12 billion in capital and resource flight and increased its debt by $14 billion. 


New patronage systems allow the strongman’s cronies and family members to amass wealth, offering power and economic reward. Vladimir Putin places oligarchs in competition for state resources and his favor, treating the country as an entity to be exploited for private gain. While he poses as a nationalist defender against “globalists,” he uses global finance to launder and hide money. He and his associates have removed an estimated $325 billion from Russia since 2006. By 2019, 3% of the Russian population held 89% of the country’s financial assets. 


Silvio Berlusconi, maintained a curious and secretive relationship with Putin that almost certainly benefited him financially. Throughout his three terms, Berlusconi normalized corruption by bending the institutions of Italian democracy to “accommodate his personal circumstances,” and by “partnering with authoritarians and elevating himself above the law,” Ben-Ghiat writes. He retained control over his extensive holdings in television, publishing and advertising, putting family members and loyalists in charge. The vastness of his media empire “made it hard to police his mixing of personal and business interests.” While Italy may have remained a nominal democracy under Berlusconi, he turned the Italian government into what Ben-Ghiat describes as a “vehicle for accumulating more personal wealth and power on the model of the illiberal leaders he so admired,” alluding to his particular partnership with Putin.


Ben-Ghiat goes beyond other discussions of authoritarianism by highlighting the extent to which virility and a cult of masculinity, enable the strongman’s corruption by projecting the idea that he is “above laws that weaker individuals must follow.” Displays of machismo are “not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy,” she writes. Far from being a private affair, the sex lives of strongmen reveal how “corruption, propaganda, violence and virility work together.” 


In portions of the book most likely to appeal to adolescent males, Ben-Ghiat reveals many details of the unconstrained sex lives of Mussolini and Gaddafi. Paradoxically, Gaddafi afforded Libyan women far more independence than they had enjoyed before he came to power in 1969. He promoted women as part of his revolutionary measures, while privately constructing a system – modeled, apparently, on that of Mussolini – to “procure and confine women for his personal satisfaction.” 


Silvio Berlusconi “used his control of Italy’s television and advertising markets to saturate the country with images of women in submissive roles.” The young female participants in Berlusconi’s famous sex parties often received cash to help them start a business, a chance at a spot in a Berlusconi show, or a boost into politics. In Ben-Ghiat’s view, bare-chested body displays constitute an “integral part” of Vladimir Putin’s identity as the “defender of Russia’s pride and its right to expand in the world.” 


While Donald Trump, a man in his seventies, refrained from revealing himself bare-chested, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes which were released amidst the 2016 presidential campaign, in which Trump bragged about groping non-consenting women, did not sink his candidacy. Instead, the revelations “merely strengthened the misogynist brand of male glamor Trump had built over the decades.” Trump’s campaign and presidency seemed dedicated to “[r]eclaiming male authority,” she writes, which meant “creating an environment in which men can act on their desires with impunity.” 


Gaddafi was the last of the authoritarians who used violence openly as a tool to maintain power. In the social media age, Ben-Ghiat notes, mass killings often generate bad press. New authoritarians need to gauge the tolerance of elites and the public for violence. 21st-century strongmen like Putin and Recep Erdogan tend to warehouse their enemies out of public scrutiny, preferring targeted violence, information manipulation and legal harassment to neutralize dissenters. They use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “target critics and spread hate speech, conspiracy theories, and lies,” and attempt to impoverish opponents and potential opponents by expropriating businesses they or their relatives might own.


Ben-Ghiat’s book appeared just before the 2020 American presidential elections, weeks before the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and before the notion of a “stolen election” took hold amongst a still-mystifyingly large portion of the American electorate. But her insight that today’s authoritarians use elections to keep themselves in office, “deploying antidemocratic tactics like fraud or voter suppression to get the results they need”, reveals the extent to which former president Trump and a substantial segment of today’s Republican party, especially in key “battleground” states, are working off the strongman’s playbook.


Despite her apt dissection of the way authoritarianism threatens the world’s democracies, Ben-Ghiat’s proposed solutions leave the reader wanting. “Opening the heart to others and viewing them with compassion” can constitute effective pushback against strongman rule, she argues. Solidarity, love, and dialogue “are what the strongman most fears.” More concretely, she emphasizes that to counter contemporary authoritarianism, we must “prioritize accountability and transparency in government.” Above all, she recommends a “clear-eyed view of how strongmen manage to get into power and how they stay there.” This deeply researched and persuasively argued work provides just such a view, making it a timely contribution to the urgent contemporary debates about the future of democracy. 



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  • Chanh X. Nguyen says:

    Thank you Tom for your insightful review.
    One should not lose sight of the other component of dictatorship: men need to adore and strongmen know how to trigger adoration.

  • Thank you Chanh, you raise a good point, similar to the one my nephew, David Gross, raises on tomsbooks. As I said in response to him, you “can’t really lead your people into a frenzy of nationalist fervor and hatred for ‘the other,’ whomever the ‘other’” might be, unless there is already a strong base of people predisposed to buy into your incitation. “

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