Power  /  Book Review

Are We Living in an Age of Strongmen?

A new book by Ruth Ben-Ghiat discusses the past and present challenges posed by authoritarianism, but misses the conditions in which it arises.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a distinguished historian of Italian fascism and a prolific political commentator, belonged firmly to the alarm-bells camp over the past four years. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, she wrote an article titled “Donald Trump and Steve Bannon’s Coup in the Making.” Her new book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, elaborates on that position in a full-length survey of the ways ambitious strongmen can damage or destroy democratic regimes. The book features Trump prominently, but it sets him in a rogues’ gallery of authoritarians and would-be authoritarians ranging from Hitler and Benito Mussolini to late-20th-century dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Moammar El-Gadhafi, and Idi Amin to present-day populists like Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, and Jair Bolsonaro. These strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, all followed roughly the same “playbook” for seizing power and holding on to it, despite the very different societies in which they emerged. The strongman, she insists, is a modern political type—indeed, the modern political type. “Ours is the age of the strongman,” she states categorically.

Ben-Ghiat’s story, like Snyder’s, is at its heart a moral drama. The crucial factors at play are not social and political conditions but rather unscrupulous ambition and greed, on the one hand, and the determination (or the lack thereof) to resist it, on the other. This point of view is a provocative one. Unfortunately, like many in the alarm-bells camp, Ben-Ghiat tends to treat it as self-evidently true, and she therefore devotes far more attention to the strongmen’s own actions than to the factors that allowed them to rise and determined whether or not they succeeded. The problem, as her own book reveals, is that authoritarians do not simply prevail through violence: They seduce, they appeal, they exert charisma. And to understand why the seduction works, we cannot look at the strongmen alone; we also need to consider the people who fall under their spell.

Ben-Ghiat’s sprightly written, colorful book does not proceed chronologically but rather lays out the elements of the strongmen’s playbook from start to finish. It begins with a discussion of the various ways they tend to seize power, whether through fascist takeovers or military coups or the slow, deliberate erosion of democracy. The book then turns to the methods they use to maintain power and influence, including the deployment of racism, nationalism, propaganda, corruption, violence, and these men’s displays of virility. (For Ben-Ghiat, the strongman is a distinctly gendered type.) Along the way, we learn about Mobutu Sese Seko’s taste for roasted quail served on Limoges china, about Gadhafi’s preference for sexual partners as young as 13, and about both men’s use of television to broadcast the executions of their enemies.

As might be expected from her background, Ben-Ghiat has particularly revealing things to say about Mussolini, including the fact that the sex-addicted dictator had relations with as many as four women per day during his 23 years in power. More sobering is her reminder that in 1922, the Italian state could easily have disarmed Mussolini’s Fascists, who numbered only 30,000 or so out of a population of over 40 million. Instead, King Victor Emmanuel III “chose the path of least conflict,” as Ben-Ghiat puts it, and appointed Mussolini as prime minister. A crucial factor in the Fascist takeover, in other words, was sheer moral weakness. A final section of the book explores how strongmen finally lose power—if they don’t die in office first.