The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corruption, violence and toxic masculinity: What strongmen like Trump have in common

Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, center, poses with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, and other Arab and African leaders at a summit in 2010. Gaddafi, Saleh and Mubarak were all ousted in 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)
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The central challenge of Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” is revealed early, in the book’s introduction, when the author lays out her expansive cast of characters. “I focus on Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Mobutu Sese Seko, Silvio Berlusconi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, with Idi Amin, Mohamed Siad Barre, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Nahrendra Modi, Viktor Orban, and others making cameo appearances,” Ben-Ghiat writes. This is an overwhelming dramatis personae — one that spans not just the globe but a number of ideologies, types of government and two centuries.

Ben-Ghiat makes a convincing argument for including Trump in these less-than-august ranks, most of all when laying out the specifics of his corruption. For the reader inured by the drip-drip-drip of stories of brazen corruption over the course of years, it is bracing to see a half-decade’s worth of reporting so carefully distilled and to recall that it is in fact aberrant to see a son-in-law enriching himself at taxpayer expense, or to watch the Trump Organization’s coffers fill, golf outing by golf outing, with the aid of the Secret Service. As Ben-Ghiat shows, such self-enrichment is more in line with a Gaddafi or a Mussolini than a transparent or accountable democratic leader. Trump’s violence, too, is laid out chillingly: “In the tradition of the fascists, Trump uses his rallies to train his followers to see violence in a positive light,” she writes of his frequent exhortations to violence and demonization of immigrants at these spectacles.

This is not, however, merely another addition to the annals of Trumpology. Beginning with the rise of Mussolini and concluding with the present era, Ben-Ghiat attempts to portray the ways democracies die in the arms of authoritarians, and the common traits that enable these downfalls. This is, no doubt, an admirable goal, and the author finds many points of authentic insight into the characters of strongmen and their followers along the way. Her prose manages the difficult maneuver of being both rigorously sourced and quite readable, with luminous, hard-won conclusions studding the text. In describing the torturers and flunkies who surround strongmen, she writes, “The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people — the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power — endows life with energy, purpose, and drama.” It’s an observation that distills so much of the public life of the United States over the past half-decade — and resounds throughout an increasingly antidemocratic world.

Nonetheless, before one has become fully attuned to Ben-Ghiat’s central premise, the first sections of the book are somewhat disorienting. Within each chapter, illustrating such concepts as strongmen’s use of masculinity in their rhetoric, their extravagant deployment of violence and the ubiquity of corruption in strongman-led nations, the reader is jerked from place to place and era to era at dizzying speed. Illustrating the toxic masculinity of strongmen, Ben-Ghiat moves from Gaddafi’s sex dungeons to Mobutu’s sexual conquests of the wives of his officials to Putin’s shirtless portraits, all in the span of a few pages. These constant shifts of scene can be whiplash-inducing, and, at times, the chapters can feel jigsawed together — patchworks of examples undergirding premises stretched thin by all they are forced to contain.

The disparities between Ben-Ghiat’s examples are also occasionally jarring. In her discussion of masculinity, grotesqueries like Mussolini’s deployment of the Italian secret police to procure women for him — “his sex life is best visualized as a pyramid,” Ben-Ghiat writes — are presented alongside relative trivialities, such as Trump retweeting an image of his head digitally imposed on the buff body of Rocky Balboa. While the general point — that strongmen subsist on misogyny and generate a cult of personal virility around themselves — comes through, the episodes of misused power she describes feel less like a crescendo toward a conclusion than a disjointed set of anecdotes, laid out one after the other to flattening effect.

Ben-Ghiat’s study of corruption as a tool of strongman rule is more successful. She has a gift for bringing together details that are both poignant and startling, laying them out with particular aplomb when delving into the orgiastic misdirection of funds into authoritarian coffers. “The roasted quail, served on Limoges china, was cooked to perfection and accompanied by exquisite wines from one of the world’s finest cellars,” the chapter begins, describing a dinner for foreign luminaries at Mobutu’s compound. Strongmen seem to universally exhibit certain habits — elevating relatives to positions of power, using public office for shameless personal gain — that offer a strong rebuke to those who see authoritarianism as a more efficient method of governance than representative democracy.

Similarly, for “new authoritarians” — the post-1990 class of illiberal leaders — efforts to escape prosecution or accountability make governance secondary. In a stinging portrait of Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, Ben-Ghiat lays out how his co-option of Italian media and sycophancy toward autocrats established the groundwork for his eventual ouster. “Partnering with authoritarians and elevating himself above the law with the full cooperation of his party,” she writes, “Berlusconi bent the institutions of Italian democracy to accommodate his personal circumstances. A decade later, Trump would follow suit.”

The book was written and released before the 2020 election was decided, but Ben-Ghiat’s description of the end days of strongman rule fits, with eerie precision, Trump’s erratic, bellicose final weeks in office. “Having it all is never enough for men who live in a secret state of dread at losing everything,” she writes. “Even as the strongman proclaims his infallibility, he is pursued by the demon of fear.”

Although she represents Trump as an aberrance in the history of American governance, Ben-Ghiat does not shy away from revealing America’s role in enabling dictatorships around the world — from propping up Mussolini with bank loans and foreign investment, to training Pinochet’s torturers at the Army’s School of the Americas, to selling arms to Gaddafi and elevating numerous authoritarian leaders during the military-coup age of the Cold War’s nadir. It’s a chilling current through the book and one that pricks the conscience of a reader who, in the waning days of the Trump era, might hope for a return to post-strongman normalcy — a reminder that the “normalcy” of American foreign policy in other eras has also gleefully enabled human rights abuses of the most harrowing kind.

As Ben-Ghiat also shows, the “personalist” reign of leaders like Trump — who rule and live as if government and national culture are subsumed to their will — leaves a vacuum. The book’s final chapter offers suggestions to fill that void: accountability and love, alternatives that are less viscerally enthralling than her narratives of torture, bribery, rape and murder. But in a world that is riven with fear and suffering, scarcity and want, it’s a message that thrums home to the weary reader, coming, as it does, at the end of an unspooling of a century’s worth of horror.

Strongmen

Mussolini to the Present

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

W.W. Norton & Company

384 pp. $28.95

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