How do strongmen rise?

A conversation with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat on Trump's place in the authoritarian canon

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It is tempting to think that Donald Trump erupted out of nowhere, like a volcano that everybody thought was a mountain. But of course he grew out of who we are, who we have been. And he belongs to a global tradition, that of the strongman.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is an historian at New York University and an authority on strongmen, and she has written a new book — “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” — that seeks to counter the ahistorical and provincial way in which too many of us interpret Trumpism (and its foreign analogues).

With an analysis that covers Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and others, Ruth helps us to see the United States’ brush with autocracy in the light of wider developments and a longer arc of history. I’m very happy to bring you this interview with her.

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"I am your voice”: a conversation with Ruth Ben-Ghiat

ANAND: When I hear the term “strongman,” I cannot help but think of Donald Trump’s glaring weakness, and the feelings of weakness and emasculation that have driven so many men into his arms. Historically, what is the relationship between the strongman and those feelings of male weakness in both leaders and citizens?

RUTH: The strongman blend of masculinity is complex. They market themselves as alpha males, protectors of society, omnipotent, and, through their domination of the media, omnipresent. They often hold appeal after there have been significant economic and political gains in worker rights, racial equality, or gender issues, bringing up desires for a male hero to bring order back to a disordered world.

Yet they also appeal to people, including women, for their shows of vulnerability. They don't just represent the nation, as do democratic leaders, but claim to embody it — they speak for the nation ("I am your voice," Trump said) and risk everything for its golden future, taking hits from the "enemies of the people."

This victimhood complex, which every strongman shares, endears people to them and brings out feelings of protectiveness. Here, their skill at self-presentation and media manipulation is important. Trump, the former reality-television star, is skilled at simulating crowd-pleasing emotions. He does not just salute the flag, like other presidents, but hugs and kisses it with abandon, as at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2020. Trump’s talk of wanting to be loved and of loving others, from his followers to North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un, touches a chord.

ANAND: How does the modern discussion of toxic masculinity fit into the longer history of strongmen?

RUTH: “Strongmen” adds to discussions of the authoritarian playbook by highlighting the importance of virility and how it works together with other tools of rule. The leader’s displays of machismo and his kinship with other male leaders are not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy. It also translates into state policies that target women and LGBTQ+ populations, who are as much the strongman’s enemies as prosecutors and the press. Virility enables his corruption, projecting the idea that he is above laws that weaker men must obey. “When you're a star, they let you do it” is not just about women and a reality-TV star but also heads of state, with personality cults that glamorize them, who wrap the state around their lawless agendas. Getting away with it is part of their charm.

In this vein, I write how about the systems Benito Mussolini and Muammar el-Qaddafi created to procure bodies for their sexual satisfaction may be seen in this context. Far from being a private affair, the sex life of the strongman reveals how corruption, propaganda, violence, and virility work together and how rulers use state resources to fulfill their desires.

ANAND: In another Ink interview, I talked with the writer Masha Gessen about what they called Trump’s “autocratic attempt,” and the importance of thwarting it with an electoral defeat before what they called “autocratic breakthrough.” Given Trump’s determination and shamelessness, why in the end did his autocratic attempt not succeed?

RUTH: The electoral defeat of Trump is a testament to the hard grassroots work of voter mobilization and education so many engaged in. Trump's criminal mismanagement of the pandemic also undoubtedly factored in, given the effects on the economy. More Americans began to see that Trump's aims as president had nothing to do with public welfare or even "good governance," and everything to do with turning public office into a machine to promote and make money for the Trump organization. All of his golfing, which offended many when Americans were dying en masse, should be seen in his light. The more we will come to know about Trump and his authoritarian inclinations, the more we will see this election as truly historic: Americans did what other countries didn't have an opportunity to in turning back the process of autocratic consolidation before it was too late.

ANAND: Which institutions held up the best and which held up the worst under Trump?

RUTH: I believe that we have not even begun to process the extent of the damage wrought by the Trump administration to our institutions. The civil service — an essential tool of authoritarians — has been decimated, “hollowed out,” to use the language of many analysts. Strongmen states value loyalty and ideological zeal over expertise, and large numbers have been forced out of or departed hostile workplaces. The tragedy of the remaking of the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Justice will need a full accounting — as well as the stories of the heroic bureaucrats who pushed back with work slowdowns and other methods. Justice has held up better at the local level, where judges have turned back many Trump administration provisions and maneuvers on immigration, the 2020 election, and other issues.

In my book, I work with the concept of personalist rule, which concentrates enormous power in one individual whose own political and financial interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy. Loyalty to him and his allies, rather than expertise, is the primary qualification for serving in the state bureaucracy, as is participation in his corruption schemes. Personalist rulers can be long-lasting rulers, because they control patronage networks that bind people to them in relationships of complicity and fear. The example of politicized and personalized justice served up by William Barr is symptomatic.

ANAND: In what ways have journalists succeeded at recognizing and adapting to the strongman threat, and in what ways did we as a profession fall short?

RUTH: The press used a democratic framework to approach Trump, which isn't surprising given that democracy is all we know — we haven't had a foreign occupation or dictatorship. This meant they followed a "both sides" coverage model, giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, and soon allowing him to monopolize the public sphere, his every tweet and villainous act generating clicks and coverage and profits. Democracy, and its values of transparency and accountability, needs heroes, but it was more tempting — in part to warn of what was happening — to focus on those trying to take it down. This translated into glamorizing coverage for people like Richard Spencer or the National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch. If we want to foster a political culture that incentivizes better behavior and good governance, the press must reward it and give others role models.

ANAND: Is there a common thread in the formative years for strongmen, or multiple recurring paths that you see?

RUTH: For 100 years, charismatic leaders have found favor at moments of uncertainty and transition, when traditional parties and political systems no longer seem to meet the needs of the moment. Often coming from outside the political system, they create new movements and political arrangements and communicate with their followers in original ways.

Authoritarians also hold appeal when society is polarized, or divided into two opposing ideological camps, which is why they do all they can to exacerbate that process, discouraging centrist and bridge-building platforms. Progress in gender, class, or racial emancipation has always sparked support for openly racist and sexist insurgents, who soothe fears of the loss of male domination, elite privilege, and/or the end of white Christian “civilization.” Whether they come to power by invitation (Mussolini, Hitler), coup (Qaddafi, Mobutu, Pinochet), or election (Bolsonaro, Putin, Trump), these factors hold true for them to secure their power and gain the cooperation of elites.

ANAND: You have written that “for rulers with authoritarian inclinations, loss of power looms as a kind of psychological annihilation.” What does the experience of other strongmen lead you to believe Donald Trump’s presidential afterlife will be like?

RUTH: For democratic leaders, leaving office is a time to build on their legacy. For strongmen, it is a frightening opening to being eclipsed. When Trump said at a September rally, “You'll never see me again,” it is his own fear of becoming a nobody or a “loser” speaking. Some think he will retreat to Mar-a-Lago and build on his presidential capital to secure his business financially. Maybe. But he'll remain in the public eye — his ego demands it — and he'll keep his 70 million-plus souls he conquered — he worked hard through propagandizing to get them. Perhaps he'll return to being a media figure, or run for president so he can hold rallies. Either way, he will continue on as a public figure.

ANAND: I’m curious about how you read the role and motivations of a figure like Melania given the history of the spouses of strongmen?

RUTH: She made it clear she cared little about being first lady (she even wore a jacket that told us that clearly) and was passive-aggressive with the public the whole way through (the horror-film Christmas display, with the blood-red trees, was another clue). I imagine she is very happy Trump lost.

ANAND: Should Trump be prosecuted after leaving office if he is believed to be guilty of crimes? Should Biden pardon him under any circumstances?

RUTH: In terms of his culpability for myriad crimes, yes, and no doubt the Southern District of New York will go after him. Any prosecution does play into his victimhood complex, and (like his impeachment by the House) will only make his followers love him all the more. Pardoning Trump would be a huge mistake — it would drag the bar of ethical behavior in government all the way to the ground.

ANAND: You have written about the role of fear in the strongmen you study. How do you see that fear manifest in Trump and in others?

RUTH: As I write in the book, the secret of the strongman is that he dreads losing everything. Even as his personality cult proclaims his infallibility, he is pursued by the demon of fear. He’s wary of the people he represses; of individuals who might prosecute him; of elites who can turn on him; and of enemies real and imagined. Fear is why such rulers use blackmail and clientelism to tie people to them, why they throw on a cloak of masculine invincibility, and why they seek out other strongmen as partners who will legitimate their authoritarian worldview.

ANAND: Soon Trump will be gone. What do we need to do to strongman-proof our society?

RUTH: To oppose authoritarians effectively, we must have a clear-eyed view of how they manage to get into power and stay there. The strongman brand of charisma, equal parts seduction and threat, attracts many followers by celebrating male power. However, when female-led authoritarian states emerge (Trump markets his daughter Ivanka as a future leader, repeatedly inserting her into head-of-state group photos), that won't solve the problem. A female-led rightist state would pose no threat to authoritarianism’s appeal as a legitimating force of misogyny, kleptocracy, and, in many countries, white racial domination.

To effectively oppose authoritarianism, we need to focus on government accountability and transparency. At the heart of strongman rule is the claim that he and his agents are above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth. Accountability also matters in the evaluation of a country’s political system because the old yardstick — elections — is less reliable. New authoritarian states often simulate democracies, and nominal democracies governed by personalist rulers often act like autocracies. In Trump’s America, as in Berlusconi’s Italy, the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, celebrity and politics blend together until nothing means anything anymore and everything is a confidence game.

ANAND: You’ve written about some of the most truly awful, murderous strongmen in history, as well as others who are somewhat less terrible. There has been this debate about whether it’s appropriate to situate Trump in that tradition — whether to do so is to minimize the horrors of a Hitler or Mussolini. How do you think about that question?

RUTH: I don't call Trump a fascist, and want to emphasize that the book is not a work of comparative politics, but rather an account of the evolution of authoritarianism over a century. Fascism means a one-party state, with all opposition vanquished. Today things work differently. Strongmen come in via elections and manipulate them to stay in power when they can. Calling Trump a fascist encourages people to say, Well, there is no danger since there is no one-party state. I call him an authoritarian, since fascism is one stage of this larger political system. Trump certainly uses propaganda and other tools that originate with fascism, as the book clearly shows.

ANAND: Have the people who ended up becoming strongmen typically shown signs of that megalomania and paranoia and other traits all along?

RUTH: Among the tragedies of strongman history is that people don't want to recognize what's in front of them. Trump's lying and cheating and violence, like his vindictive personality, did not originate with his entry into politics; they are part of who he is. Most such leaders had a criminal record (Mussolini, Hitler) or were under investigation (Putin, Berlusconi, Trump) when they came into office. A recurring myth is that elites who bring them into power, and their followers, believe they will "calm down" once in office — I call this the "pivot delusion." They will pivot to being normal if we just give them what they want. Instead, this encourages their grandiosity and brutality.

ANAND: What is going on in American hearts and psyches that makes a strongman appealing to just under half the country? What factors are most salient in your mind? Racial and demographic change? The ascendancy of women? The neoliberal assault on the American dream?

RUTH: In the case of America, we have millions who never digested the affront of Barack Obama's presidency — least of all Trump, who has made it his mission to "undo" Obama's legacy. This hostility to Obama was one touchstone of a larger resentment at the social progress made in those years — gender integration in the military, same-sex marriages, movements for better pay, and a new assertiveness in documenting police brutality against African-Americans. All of this horrified conservative and far-right whites, who saw Trump as their savior.

ANAND: In your scholarship, is there an inner zone of reality around history’s strongmen where they have a private awareness of their terribleness, of their shortcomings, or do they generally need to believe their own hype?

RUTH: The "cocoons" they build around themselves, made up of flatterers and family members, mean they can be the last ones to accept the reality of their decline.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her new book is “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty