Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat details the common playbook populist strongmen use to rise to and hold on to power.

Producer: Jahnavi Akella and Michael Gordon
06/15/2021 • 03:38 AM EST

Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, provides a historical overview, detailing the common playbook through which populist strongmen come into power and the lengths they will go to maintain power. Dr. Ben-Ghiat draws out a blueprint by which propaganda, corruption, and machismo, all come together to elevate the strongman and set in motion a progression to a perpetual state of crisis and violence.

0:00: Jahnavi Akella:

With us today, we have author and historian, Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Dr. Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She is an expert on war, authoritarianism, fascism, and propaganda, and has contributed to numerous media outlets on these topics. Dr. Ben-Ghiat, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:21: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Thank you for having me.

0:23: Jahnavi Akella:

Okay, our first question for today is what makes an autocrat a strongman?

0:28: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

I use the word strongman, the term strongman, to refer to authoritarians from the fascist years up to 21st century style autocrats, who destroy or damage severely democracy, but who also use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy. So, there's the authoritarian playbook of corruption and propaganda and violence, but the strongman, by my definition, is someone who also uses virility or machismo as a tool of rule.

1:04: Jahnavi Akella:

That's very interesting. One part of your book, and you drew a lot of parallels between Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump in terms of them being businessmen with less than stellar reputations, who succeeded in crafting this really strong savior image as a political leader. So how does that happen?

1:28: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

So, Berlusconi, you know, he doesn't get know credit in a way for tracing out the template that later leaders followed like Trump. And not only he was a pioneer in breaking the taboo, in bringing the far right into government. So, he had this, he had his own Forza Italia party, which is kind of was like a central-right party. And then he allied with the neo-fascist and the Northern League, they're now just called the League, which was a far-right populist party. And so, he created this coalition for the first time. But he also set the template for authoritarians today, at which authoritarian governance is all about self-preservation for these rulers, because they are highly corrupt. Many of them, like Berlusconi, like Putin, come into power already under investigation and governance becomes a whole set up in order to preserve them from losing immunity to prosecution.

And so, Berlusconi set the standard of using government resources and party resources to deal with his own private judicial problems. He had numerous corruption trials for fraud, for tax fraud, for all kinds of offenses. And governance became a way for him to survive and not go to jail. And here propaganda is very important, because we know that under the Trump administration, the theme of the "witch hunt," that the strongman always has to be the victim. And so, he would talk, Trump would talk about the witch hunt against him. But Berlusconi was the one who, he wasn't the first to talk about witch hunts, but he made this a huge theme of his governance. That he was a victim of the left of prosecutors of journalists. And so, you see how propaganda and corruption and machismo, saving the nation from the left. All of this fits together.

3:39: Jahnavi Akella:

You talk about how strongmen leverage three timeframes, utopian, nostalgia, and crisis. Could you explain this?

3:48: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah. So, the book is about patterns and the chapters are structured thematically. So, the reader can go into the propaganda chapter and see what changes and what stays the same. And one of the things I found recurred is, not only these strongmen figures set themselves up as saviors of the nation, but they have a very specific kind of propaganda about time, you might call it. So, on the one hand, they promise, they hold up these utopian promises, where they're going to, Berlusconi used to say, he's going to have an Italian miracle and save the nation. And this is forward-projected, right. Or making the nation great. Erdogan, with his infrastructure projects. Often they have the fame of modernizers, like Mussolini making the trains run on time. He was the original, and kind of catapulting Italy into modernity. Right.

But at the same time, all of them channel nostalgia, because it's not make the nation great. It's make the nation great again. So, they play on desires for a kind of lost grandeur of some sort, or a feeling by people who are very discontent, that things used to be better. And all of them do this. It's really interesting. So, Mussolini had the most, he had the firmest foundation because he had the Roman Empire. So, he's going to revive the grandeur and the power of the Roman Empire, but Erdogan in Turkey talks about the Ottoman Empire. In fact, he's rather obsessed with reviving the Ottoman Empire. And Putin, you know, channels Stalin Russia. So he can be the big patriotic defender. He's putting up statues of Stalin. And then he also has like the Imperial Russia. So they're all about modernity, but they're about the past.

And then the third timeframe is the most dangerous, which is crisis. And this is how authoritarians need to create these states of exception, which are juridical states of exception, legal states of exception, where they take a crisis like Erdogan did with the coup attempt against him in 2016 and use it to make a crackdown. And they use these spaces of exception, these crisis times, to do what they wanted to do anyway. So I have a line in the book where, you know, taking advantage of crises, whether you had something to do with them or not like the Reichstag fire with Hitler, is a mark of the strongman. And the tragedy is once these states of exception open that allow people to be detained without cause or tortured, all the things we know, they hardly ever close. And authoritarianism normalizes this state of crisis and state of exception. So that's the third timeframe and the most dangerous.

6:59: Jahnavi Akella:

Our next question is kind of a chicken/egg question. So a lot of strongmen receive support for expressing xenophobic views openly or racist use openly, and everyone says, the strongman says what everyone's thinking, that's why we like him. To what extent does the strong man create an environment where this kind of rhetoric becomes normalized or do clandestine public opinions, like actually create a vacuum for a strongman to take power?

7:28: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

So for the first part of the question, that's extremely interesting because the strongman always poses as a kind of maverick truth-teller, saying the things that other people don't have the courage to say. And so I have in my book, a really interesting Nazi party poster from the 1920s, when Hitler was trying to get to power, as you know, and he was obsessed with Mussolini. Mussolini was his idol, because Mussolini had gotten into power quickly and Hitler couldn't get into power. Right. He got arrested for his Putsch. So at the state level, in Germany, he was banned from public speaking, because of his hate speech.

So he turned this, the Nazi party turned this into a kind of what we'd say today, "cancel culture" thing. And he became the hero of a truth that no one wanted to acknowledge, which of course was racist truth that Germany was plagued by Jews, etcetera. And the Nazi party issued posters of him with his mouth taped shut, which is very contemporary. And so he was banned at the individual states level for a year or two. And then sadly, he convinced these, you know, states that he would abide by the constitution that he would not, you know, be fomenting hate anymore. So they lifted the ban on his public speaking, and that was like the late 20s. And then the depression hit and the rest, as they say, is history.

But this issue of the strongman, as the truth-teller as the frank clarion, the person who will tell the people, because he respects them, how it really is. And it also goes into why people believe their lies.

9:26: Jahnavi Akella:

So why is the legitimization of a culture of violence, as you were talking about, why is it so important to the strongman style of governance?

9:36: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

When strongmen come into power, they build on a wave of people who already think like they do, but many more people still are anchored in democracy and don't perhaps agree with using violence against enemies. So this is where propaganda is very important. In America in 2016, Trump introduced the idea that a political opponent, which was Hillary Clinton, you don't just have a disagreement about ideals or ideologies, Democrat, Republican. The political opponent is a criminal who has to be locked up. And once you pass this threshold, you get into a different mentality about political opposition and you see how that leads easily, if they're criminals and they should be locked up, you can also harm them.

The other part of this is you have to create a sense of the state as existentially threatened. So a very common theme through, you know, a hundred years of authoritarianism is hordes of foreigners coming through the border. Over and over you see this. Pinochet used it in Chile to justify his coup, that hoards of foreigners were coming in, Marxists. Most of my book is right-wing authoritarians. Not all, but most of them. So these justifications for the state to be able to arm itself and use violence against those who threaten it, is a through line. And this is also why Putin and Erdogan declare the opposition as terrorists, because legally, once somebody is declared a terrorist, you can use all kinds of means on that person. The United States, as a functioning democracy did the same, Guantanamo Bay and other, you know, episodes.

So you have to get, you have to find a way through propaganda and rhetoric and stuff, to get people onboard, to categorize the enemy in ways that lead violence to seem more acceptable.

11:57: Michael Gordon:

What role does today's press play in strengthening the strongman? And what role can they play also in undermining the strongman? And which one of those two roles do you think they might play more of on any given day?

12:20: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

I mean, if we're talking about, even where there's democracy, where the opposition press is there, all too often the press will kind of fall for the cult personality, because these men, I could think of Bolsonaro, Duterte, Trump, and Berlusconi was the pioneer, they are experts in manipulating media coverage. They use outrage. So a great example, Bolsonaro was very skilled at this, where his son was facing corruption charges, cause they all have these clan governments, the families, they can do their corruption. And Bolsonaro, to divert attention and create a scandal when a journalist started to interview him about his son's corruption, which is his corruption too, he said to the journalist, you have a very homosexual face. And then all the attention went to his homophobia instead of the corruption.

And so the culture can shift so that these personalities, even the media can get swept up in the excitement/terror/strong emotions. And so it was very interesting that some journalists, pundits started to say in the transition that maybe Biden was going to be boring. And I was like, bring boring on, because boring is back to business. Democracy is boring. It's procedure, it's rule of law. It's not storming the Capital.

14:08: Michael Gordon:

This is probably my last question. How does strongmen eventually fall?

14:15: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

There is no one way. I mean, but what we do know is they have a very particular set of personality traits. And of course each one has their own personal quirks, but none of them can leave office quietly, because they are obsessed with having total power, obsessed with claiming the state's resources as their own private. They have proprietary notion of power. They need immunity from prosecution. So leaving office is like a existential threat for them. And so they tend to engage in desperate maneuvers to stay there. So, some of them in the cold war years, like Mobutu in the Congo and Gaddafi, they tried to reform, and play nicely with the West for a while, to prolong themselves in power. But Gaddafi's a good example, because when the Arab Spring started, he refused to go into exile. Mobutu ended up going into exile and Idi Amin. A lot of that generation went into exile, but not Gaddafi.

He preferred to drag his country down into destruction and civil war because, if their power is threatened and they think they're on the way down, their rage at their people, because the strongman secret is that he despises his people. He would rather leave the country and smoking ruins, like Hitler and Mussolini did, then have a peaceful ending. And so that's one way that they're very, very destructive. And of all the people who I covered in my book, none of them went to jail, not a single one. Their personal lawyers and people around them went to jail. Like you don't want to be the personal lawyer of strongman, from Mussolini's to Berlusconi's to Michael Cohen. They ended up paying a price, but the actual leader, they don't, they don't usually go to jail. Saddam Hussein was a bit of an exception in that justice was rendered. Right. Very directly to him and eventually Gaddafi, but they don't go to jail. And they don't face a trial. It's very rare.

Jahnavi Akella:

16:51: Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to author and historian, Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Dr. Ben-Ghiat, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

17:01: Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Thank you.