'Strongmen' Review: Nostalgia, Virility and Power

Adolf Hitler addressing a rally of SA Troops, Dortmund, Germany, 1933..

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In the very first sentence of “Strongmen,” its author, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, declares that her book “reflects a lifetime of thinking about authoritarian rulers.” This revelation of an extensive personal timeline of toil—a lifetime, no less—places a burden on Ms. Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Many readers—and not just the most exacting among them—are likely to say to themselves: “This book had better be good.”

Alas, misgivings surface at the outset, when Ms. Ben-Ghiat provides a list of her “protagonists.” They span from “Mussolini to the Present” (as the book’s subtitle states) and include, apart from Il Duce (about whom Ms. Ben-Ghiat has written elegantly in her previous books) such stalwarts of the strongman species as Hitler, Franco, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and . Many will take delight in the fact, which others will find irksome, that is also on her list, whose members number 17 in all. Of these, only three—Somalia’s onetime dictator Siad Barre, Gaddafi and Saddam—are not of the political right. And of those three, only Barre might be called a straightforward leftist. Gaddafi professed a “revolutionary” ideology never before known to man; and Saddam, an ostensibly pan-Arab Baathist, reposed greater faith in terror than in dogma.

Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present

Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
Norton, 358 pages, $28.95

So where—you might ask—are Xi Jinping, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez? Or Lenin, Stalin and Mao? Where on earth are the Korean Kims? Certainly not in Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s book, except mentioned in passing. She offers a blithe but unconvincing explanation for the omission of the Communist ilk: “To illuminate the entire arc of authoritarian rule,” she writes, “starting with how democracies are degraded or destroyed, I do not include Communist leaders like Xi who take power in an already-closed system.” Try telling the Turkic Muslim Uighurs or the Tibetans that Mr. Xi is not a strongman because he is the product of an established process.

Even by Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s litmus test—that of an “already-closed system”—the exclusion of Castro and Chavez is baffling. Both men established communism and “Bolivarian” socialism from scratch in their respective countries. There was no such system before them in Cuba and Venezuela. They are unlike Mussolini or Franco, say, only in the specific credo they espouse.

If wobbly in its analytical structure, Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s book is rich in anecdote. Mobutu Sese Seko, the strongman of Zaire/Congo, kept as his mistress the twin sister of his own wife. Gaddafi had a “sex dungeon” at the University of Tripoli for “instant gratification” with female students brought to him (against their will) by aides. Augusto Pinochet frequently spent time with female journalists who, in the words of a former Chilean minister, “came to interview him, but never published anything.” One of Saddam’s sons raped the daughter of his father’s favorite mistress. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi reportedly described Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, as an “unf—able lardass” in a phone conversation he was having as she stood within earshot. In another incident, which Ms. Ben-Ghiat regards as “misogynist,” Mr. Putin unleashed his dog near Ms. Merkel to trigger her well-known fear of canines.

The book has stories galore from the lives of strongmen but lacks, by comparison, a sharpness of thesis. One searches in vain for a clear definition of “strongman.” Ms. Ben-Ghiat uses the word interchangeably with “authoritarian,” and she defines “authoritarianism” as “a political system in which executive power is asserted at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government”—a formulation with which no real quarrel can be had but which might also be seen as banal. Besides, the definition covers Saddam as much as it does Narendra Modi, India’s elected prime minister. Where’s the sense in that?

Ms. Ben-Ghiat focuses on three consecutive but distinct periods of authoritarian flourishing. The first, the fascist era, ran from 1919 to 1945 and ended with the conclusion of World War II. The second was “the age of military coups,” from 1950 to 1990. Coups, she writes, account for 75% “of democratic failures globally” since the war ended. (Two-thirds of the dictators who came to power in coups were ousted in the same manner.)

The third and latest phase is “the new authoritarian age,” and this commenced with the end of the Soviet bloc. “Ours is the age of the strongman,” Ms. Ben-Ghiat writes of the present time. Its exemplar is Mr. Berlusconi, who first became Italy’s prime minister in 1994 and whose last term ended in 2011. Ms. Ben-Ghiat likens him to Mussolini, whom she describes as “the first man to transform a demcccracy into a dictatorship.” Mr. Berlusconi, in her telling, developed an autocratic style of governance within “a nominal democracy”—which is a near-libelous way, it must be said, for Ms. Ben-Ghiat to describe Italy’s polity. For all its flaws, Italy’s democracy is as robust as any in Western Europe.

Ms. Ben-Ghiat regards Messrs. Putin and Trump as the present-day standard-bearers of strongmanship—to coin a word—along with Mr. Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. We are expected to intuit what she means by “strongman” by drawing conclusions from the examples she offers of the type, alongside her scattershot listing of their personal and political characteristics.

Strongmen, she writes, “use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy.” Mr. Modi boasts of having a 56-inch chest, and Mr. Putin fishes bare-chested in an ice-cold river. The “virile” leader is “the ideal blend of everyman and superman,” and the appeal of these chieftains rests on “their having the power to get away with things that ordinary men cannot, whether in the bedroom or in politics.”

Populism is another feature common to strongmen, who define their nations “as bound by faith, race, and ethnicity rather than legal rights.” Strongmen frequently (but not always) profess to be representatives of the Volk or national type, which is why, Ms. Ben-Ghiat says, attacking the leader can be seen as “attacking the nation itself.”

Ms. Ben-Ghiat is at her most persuasive when she writes of the importance of the strongman’s cult of personality—her own phrase is “personalist rule”—whose patronage networks “bind people to them in relationships of complicity and fear.” The Nazi salutation, “Heil Hitler,” for instance, “turned everyday moments into tests of political fidelity.”

A part of the strongman’s cult is his promise to sublimate a “nostalgia for better times”—the ruler’s “vow,” Ms. Ben-Ghiat writes, is to restore a lost status and glory. Examples include Mussolini’s promise of a return to the Roman Empire; Hitler’s dream of an “Aryan civilization” cleansed of Jews; Mr. Erdogan’s pursuit of an Ottoman-era heft for Turkey; and Mr. Modi’s construction of a Hindu utopia in an India stripped of its Islamic history. Seemingly pallid alongside these grotesque projects, for it is merely a slogan, is Mr. Trump’s locution “Make America Great Again.”

Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s book is, in truth, at its weakest in its parsing of Mr. Trump. Is his resort at Mar-a-Lago really comparable to the kleptocratic Mobutu’s palaces in northern Congo, or Hitler’s Berghof retreat? Elsewhere she likens the detention centers on the U.S. border with Mexico to Nazi work camps and declares that “the rise of authoritarianism in America has meant the end of accountability and ethical standards in government.” As with her belittling of Italy’s democracy, she fails to acknowledge that Mr. Trump, at every stage of his presidency, has had to contend with precisely the sort of constitutional and judicial checks and balances that do not exist in the case of strongmen like Mr. Putin.

Ms. Ben-Ghiat ends her book on a note of Schadenfreude. “Given America’s entanglements with the history of authoritarianism,” she writes—alluding to U.S. support for Franco, Pinochet, Mobutu and others—“some may see Trump’s ascent to power as divine justice.” A nation that had no experience of dictatorship, she says, “now has first-hand experience of the authoritarian playbook.” Yet a wannabe-strongman is not a strongman, and Mr. Trump’s failure to delegitimize Joe Biden’s victory is proof that he falls well short of strongman status (however hard he may wish for it or his critics may wish it upon him). Indeed, there’s a danger in Ms. Ben-Ghiat’s anathema-inflation: The “strongman” category is stretched, beyond valid limits, to assert that elected but polemical leaders lack political legitimacy. Especially the ones she disagrees with.

Appeared in the December 12, 2020, print edition as ‘Lords of Misrule.’

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