Mussolini to the Present
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Ever since the 2016 election, observers like Timothy Snyder, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt speculated that Donald Trump could undermine American democracy and move the country in an overtly authoritarian direction. That possibility grew more plausible over the years of the Trump administration, as he sought to undermine a growing list of American institutions that stood in his way, including the intelligence community, the F.B.I. and Justice Department, the courts, the mainstream media (which he branded “enemies of the American people”) and of course the integrity of elections themselves. Trump made his authoritarian instincts clear by refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the 2020 election.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat contributes to this literature in a book that compares Trump to a wide variety of earlier strongmen, including Mussolini, Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Muammar Qaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi and Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as contemporaries like Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and others. The author, a historian who has written previously on Italian fascism, is at her best when describing the history of Mussolini’s rise, and the way that insouciant Italians and foreign powers facilitated it.
Unfortunately, Ben-Ghiat provides no conceptual framework for distinguishing between different types of strongmen, and gives us very little insight into Donald Trump beyond what is already widely known. What we get instead is an endless series of historical anecdotes about a heterogeneous collection of bad leaders ranging from democratically elected nationalists like Modi to genocidal fanatics like Hitler. What sense does it make to put Silvio Berlusconi in the same category as Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein? Berlusconi may have been sleazy, manipulative and corrupt, but he didn’t murder political opponents or support terrorism abroad, and he stepped down after losing an election. Ben-Ghiat notes that many strongmen came to power in the 1960s and ’70s through military coups, but that today they are much more likely to be elected. Wouldn’t it be nice to know why coups have largely vanished?
Ben-Ghiat’s case selection seems quite arbitrary: For example, strongmen of the left like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are not included, nor are women like Indira Gandhi. If we are focusing on populists in democratic countries, why include autocrats who never faced an election? An analytical framework would allow us to understand how strongmen differ from one another, rather than lumping them into a single amorphous category.
This is too bad, because Trump really does deserve more careful comparison with other leaders. There are indeed certain parallels between him and contemporary populists like Hungary’s Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insofar as they all rely on a similar rural social base for their support. On the other hand, there are unexplained differences: Orban, Duterte and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, for example, used the Covid pandemic to vastly expand executive authority, while Trump did the opposite, abdicating responsibility and shifting authority to the governors. Most strongmen are ruthlessly efficient and Machiavellian; Trump demonstrated incredible incompetence in failing to build his border wall, repeal Obamacare or expand his voter base. And, of course, he failed to win re-election to a second term. Revelations in The New York Times of Trump’s tax returns suggest he ran for president not out of a mad desire for power, but simply to avoid bankruptcy in his failed hotel business. And yet, despite myriad revelations, he exerted a magnetic pull on his core followers. Why? Perhaps it might be more useful to understand the ways that Trump is sui generis, and how he could set a pattern for strongmen of the future, rather than reprising familiar precedents from the past.
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