Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat (384 Pages)
Authoritarianism is a type of government in which democratic rule is rejected in favor of strong central power in the hands of a small elite. Rejection of democracy is allegedly justified for a range of reasons, including a belief that the people at large cannot be trusted with power.
The use of authoritarian rule is not tied to any one political system. Both communism and anti-communism can be involved. Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present focuses on a particular form of authoritarianism in place in recent decades with roots in the 1920s.
Strongmen are particularly known for their use of masculinity as a symbol of strength while deep down they take advantage of national fears of powerlessness. Strongmen argue that the nation is at a point of crisis with dangerous forces that threaten the well-being of the people. The normal political process is broken. A strongman is needed to save the nation.
Strongmen use various tools to gain and retain power. A cult is formed around the leader, using propaganda and disrespect for the truth (such as the ever-changing “official” truth portrayed in George Orwell’s novel, 1984).
Corruption thrives in strongmen regimes. Corruption not only benefits the leader — the good of the nation is whatever is good for him — but weakens respect for institutions overall.
It is important to continually promote a feeling of some “threat” that the strongman alone can stop. Elites, including foreign financial elites, who wish to retain power often enable strongmen.
Resistance is most often non-violent, providing an alternative which refuses to accept the lies. Accountability and transparency is especially important to fight strongmen rule. Resistance is made up of heroic forces which stop the destructive nature of divisions and hatred by forming bonds that unify. Some violence does occur during this resistance period.
Things are scary, but we need to keep faith in our common humanity.
The book aims to “detect patterns of thought and action” among “strongmen.” It both informs us about these leaders and helps better to be able to fight and protect us from them.
Should I Read It?
A few years ago, Last Week with John Oliver had a main segment on authoritarianism, showing the rise of a certain type of leader worldwide.
A basic reason to read this book is that there is a clear trend in recent years, worldwide, of this type of leader. Some people clearly find this a positive development. This book does not. But, either way, a full understanding of “strongmen” is important to understand the world as it is. And, this book does so with care by someone who knows the subject well.
Those who wish to learn about authoritarianism, particularly as it arose in the 20th Century, will find this book helpful. It does not focus on one specific strongman, providing various examples through time and space. This would include Donald Trump. Those interested in understanding Donald Trump and putting him into a wider context would also find this book interesting.
Fans of authoritarians might find the critical aspects of this book bothersome. The book is not overly academic, but might be too detailed for some readers. Also, those who are interested in specific leaders might wish to read books focused on individual leaders instead.
Multiple photographs aid to the content of the book and a list of “protagonists” (various strongmen) is also a useful reference guide for the reader. More books should have that.
There are various fictional accounts about how strongmen can take over our own country. One of the best is It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. The book True or False by Cindy Otis is also a good book (particularly geared to teens) to read to help separate truth from fiction.
We live in “the age of the strongman” today where heads of state like Silvio Berlusconi (Italy) and Vladimir Putin (Russia) damage or destroy democracy and use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy. The authoritarian threat is one of the pressing matters of our time.
This makes them different from communist leaders where democracy did not exist at all. Also, there have been strong female leaders with certain strongman traits. But, none of them sought to destroy democracy. So, they are not covered in the book.
The introduction then summaries the basic themes of the book, a form of which I provided in my own brief introduction. It is a helpful thumbnail sketch.
Part I: Getting to Power
A few 20th Century fascist takeovers (Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany and Franco in Spain) are discussed. They first arose from the shocks of WWI with an opening provided for leaders who promised to “harness the energies of modernity to create superior societies.”
The strongmen of the 20th and 21st centuries have tended to have had a violent temperament, an ability to seize the day when given the chance (opportunism), and had a way with words. They all had a special belief in themselves as if they were guided by a higher power of some sort (fate, god, or whatever) to be a savior of their troubled country.
World War II prepared the way for military coups, old imperial empires breaking down. Less common today, military coups were the most common path to authoritarian rule in the post-WWII period. Military service provided a professional class with ambition, one that could provide a way for outsiders to get into power in the name of “the people.”
The “new authoritarian ascents” (such as Berlusconi in Italy, Putin in Russia, and Trump in the U.S.) accepted the reality that elections were now accepted as necessary. But, they corrupted the structures in place, including by such methods as fraud and voter suppression. Establishment figures and political institutions also formed alliances with strongmen.
Part II: Tools of Rule
This section discusses the methods used by strongmen.
A basic “glue” for strongman government is the concept of “a greater nation.” Absolute rule is necessary to save the nation from threats (such as imperialism, leftist subversions, racial minorities). The basic themes are utopia (ideal nation), nostalgia (some ideal past that they can bring back such as “make America great again”), and the current crisis they protect us from.
Propaganda is the carefully crafted (assisted by public relations techniques) official message. Carefully crafted mass communication techniques, especially rallies, are used. Propaganda also includes suppressing opposition; a truly free press and open society (with dissent) are seen as threats. Strongmen usually have a special ability to communicate their message to the nation.
Strongmen have a special concern for promoting their virility, their manhood. For instance, Putin is often shown shirtless and the sex life of strongmen tend to be particularly “active” (this would often include rape and other forms of sexual violence). Strongmen, however, can also show a vulnerable side (such as Gaddafi of Libya), often expressing theatrically their concerns for the nation. Some also put women in power, at least loyal women.
Corruption is a basic aspect of strongmen rule, each aspect of society (the government, economy, social institutions) degraded to enrich them in some fashion.
Violence also is a common strongman technique. Demonization of opponents is a basic way to justify such methods as torture or at least looking the other way when other nations clearly commit human rights violations. Violence also is a means to show strength; a person like Putin is glorified in part because of his willingness to be “a killer.”
Part III: Losing Power
Most resistance to strongman states is non-violent. The basic start of resistance is somehow going against the natural tendency to conform. Certain people and groups have the courage to publicly show dissent, including mass protests against corruption and authoritarian rule. Resistance promotes the opposite of strongman values, including openness and humanity.
The endings for strongmen come in various forms though rarely voluntarily. Strongmen are forever worried about losing power and do whatever they can to stop such a horrible fate. They continuously attempt to gain and retain control, territory and wealth.
Authoritarianism is a major threat today. It is important that we understand how strongmen gain power and become so attractive to so many people. And, how to fight them.
We must prioritize accountability and transparency in government. America also has much to answer for, historically having a special role in furthering authoritarian governments worldwide. Ultimately, we must face today’s problems, not by use of division and hate, but freedom and faith in humanity.
Points to Ponder
The book suggests that female-led authoritarians might arise in the future. Women have led nations in the past, such as Catherine the Great. And, many nations have had women leaders in recent times. Why do we not have more “strong women” in recent times?
Authoritarians are a special concern for the author and she continues to speak out against authoritarianism in various mediums. Consider why bad things are attractive to people. Consider how people exploited the situation, including some people’s acceptance of things as is.
About the Author
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a historian, speaker, and political commentator. She is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University.
She has also written:
- Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema
- Italian Mobilities (edited with Stephanie Malia Hom)
- Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945
- La Cultura Fascista
- Italian Colonialism (edited with Mia Fuller)
- Gli Imperi: Dall’antichità all’età Contemporanea (editor)
Is Strongmen Reliable?
The author is an expert on fascism, authoritarian leaders, and propaganda, particularly in respect to Italy and Mussolini. This work arises from her area of expertise. It is well sourced with extensive endnotes. Ben-Ghiat sets forth a definition of “strongman” and applies it to historical and current world figures backed up by careful scholarship.