What modern authoritarian leaders have in common (and how they can be stopped).
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is the expert on the "strongman" playbook employed by authoritarian demagogues from Mussolini to Putin—enabling her to predict with uncanny accuracy the recent experience in America and Europe. In Strongmen, she lays bare the blueprint these leaders have followed over the past 100 years, and empowers us to recognize, resist, and prevent their disastrous rule in the future.
For ours is the age of authoritarian rulers: self-proclaimed saviors of the nation who 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.
Vladimir Putin and Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocracies, Augusto Pinochet’s torture sites, Benito Mussolini and Muammar Gaddafi’s systems of sexual exploitation, and Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump’s relentless misinformation: all show how authoritarian rule, far from ensuring stability, is marked by destructive chaos.
No other type of leader is so transparent about prioritizing self-interest over the public good. As one country after another has discovered, the strongman is at his worst when true guidance is most needed by his country.
Recounting the acts of solidarity and dignity that have undone strongmen over the past 100 years, Ben-Ghiat makes vividly clear that only by seeing the strongman for what he is—and by valuing one another as he is unable to do—can we stop him, now and in the future.
Historian Ben-Ghiat (Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema) examines in this incisive and richly detailed account the origin myths, power-grabbing tactics, and personality traits shared by the 20th century's fascist dictators and today's right-wing authoritarians. She analyzes how Italian rulers Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, among many other "strongmen," seized and held on to power through political uprisings, military coups, and "antidemocratic tactics like fraud and voter suppression." Ben-Ghiat compares Adolf Hitler's seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938 to Putin's annexation of the Ukraine in 2014; dissects how Mussolini, Gaddafi, and Mobutu Sese Seko, the ruler of Zaire, bolstered their power by vaunting their sexual virility; and details how "new authoritarians" including Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro use social media "to create the news they need to stay in office." Throughout, Ben-Ghiat notes the similarities between President Trump and antidemocratic rulers of the past and present: "A nation that never endured dictatorship or foreign occupation now has firsthand experience of the authoritarian playbook." It's a persuasive case, though the decision to leave leftist strongmen largely out of her study leaves Ben-Ghiat open to charges of political bias. Still, this is a thought-provoking look at how authoritarianism has shape-shifted from WWII to today.