Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Since the day in 2015 when Donald Trump rode down the Trump Tower escalator and started blaming “Mexican rapists” for national problems—and then sent his ex-N.Y.P.D. private-security goon onto Fifth Avenue to beat those who protested—people have been comparing him to Adolf Hitler. And in the more than five years since Trump launched his appeal to white identity, the Trump-Hitler comparisons have only grown louder and more common, from social-media memes to op-eds.

They are not wrong: one can simply go back and watch his rally performances in black and white with the sound down to be reminded of 1930s Germany. But, critical as it is of the president, the mainstream media has been reluctant to go full-on Adolf when covering Trump.

Now comes New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat with a convincing, scary, and very readable book making the case for Trump as not Hitler exactly, but as an American of the same ilk, a member of a small group of malignant men (and they are all men—that’s part of the point) that, in addition to Hitler, includes Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—and now Trump.

The New Authoritarian Age

Ben-Ghiat analyzes the similar strategies and styles of modern-era tyrants of Europe, the Americas, and Africa, who established forms of “personalist rule”—“concentrat[ing] enormous power in one individual whose own political and financial interests prevail over national ones.” All of the figures she describes achieved and maintained power according to an authoritarian playbook that, she writes, “provides continuity” through three periods of modern strongman rule: the Fascist era (1919–45), the age of military coups (1950–90), and what she calls the “new authoritarian age” (1990–present), to which Trump belongs.

Strongmen almost always rise during times of national drift and downturn, and the subjects of Ben-Ghiat’s book are no different. “They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers, as they proclaim themselves the nation’s saviors,” she writes, alone in their ability to return their nations to past greatness—that is, she writes, “the glue of [the strongman’s] government.” The strongman will “leverage time frames and states of mind: utopia, nostalgia and crisis.” There is always a glorious past, a miserable present, and someone to blame for it.

In other words: MAGA.

“They don the cloak of national victimhood … as they proclaim themselves the nation’s saviors.”

The parallels the author draws are uncanny. As in the Franco and Pinochet governments, Opus Dei–linked Catholics occupied positions of influence in Trumpland—see Attorney General William Barr and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow. Ben-Ghiat compares Barr to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who worked on legal frameworks to justify the Nazi enterprise. Like Schmitt, Barr celebrates the “permanent war ethos of fascist and military strongmen” by claiming that Trump waged “an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.”

No strongman worth his pumped-up pectorals would gain or maintain power without virility, and so, Ben-Ghiat writes, authoritarian movements tend to rise after periods of women’s economic and political gain: “The strongman seeks to reverse shifts in social norms that threaten patriarchy and the satisfaction of ‘natural’ male desires.” In 1930, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg called for “the emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement.” In 2009, Berlusconi warned women about their attractiveness: “We can’t deploy a big military force to avoid rapes. We’d have to have as many soldiers in the street as there are beautiful Italian women.”

In a chapter on corruption, Ben-Ghiat reminds us that the strongman often comes to power with a criminal record, as did Mussolini and Hitler, or under investigation, as was the case with Putin, Trump, and Berlusconi. Sketchy associations prove useful in the project of breaking down norms and turning governments into personal piggy banks. “They know that making the government a refuge for criminals who don’t have to learn to be lawless hastens the ‘contagion effect’” of criminality, she writes. “So does granting amnesties and pardons, which indebt individuals to the leader and make blackmailers, war criminals, and murderers available for service.”

Sketchy associations prove useful in the project of breaking down norms and turning governments into personal piggy banks.

When seeking to maintain power, it helps to make bargains with elites—Trump’s climate-change denial guaranteed political support from the fossil-fuel profit-minded—and to enforce a strict “divide and rule” strategy that keeps staff and their superiors in competition with one another. That the turnover in Trump’s White House was unprecedented goes without saying. “Over time this constant upheaval creates a political class … too cowed to tell him unwelcome truths,” Ben-Ghiat writes. Those who complain are made examples of. (See James Comey.) “Ritual humiliation of male subordinates trains underlings to adopt a survivalist mentality, pitting them against each other.”

In case you thought Jared Kushner was an anomaly, it turns out that being married to the daughter of a dictator often pays, in both cash and power. Mussolini’s son-in-law was foreign minister; Orbán’s has amassed a net worth of more than $100 million; and Erdogan’s, accused of corruption as energy minister, is now Turkey’s treasury-and-finance minister.

What about Trump as reality-TV clown—surely that is new? No. On the contrary, many strongmen leaders have been underestimated for similar reasons. Trump wasn’t taken seriously at the start; neither were Hitler and Mussolini: “A wildly gesticulating Mussolini demanding justice for his country struck some as a histrionic ‘carnival-barker Caesar,’” Ben-Ghiat writes. “But the politics of raw emotion he employed remains powerful today.”

What Ben-Ghiat calls “the novelty” of the strongman’s approach to politics throws off even seasoned political analysts from the smell of danger. George W. Bush called Trump’s dark and bitter inaugural address “weird shit,” but few recognized that the speech was normal in the context of authoritarian history. Like Italians and Germans in the 1930s, and some Chileans after the 1973 coup, Americans at all levels believed that the brazen liar espousing extremist politics “would calm down and abide by democratic norms and institutions once he took power.”

Trump, of course, did no such thing.

Nina Burleigh is the author of The Trump Women: Part of the Deal