Strongmen – Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Reviewed by LJ Frank

A personal interpretation: I thought of Hannah Arendt (political philosopher/historian) works – Origins of Totalitarianism, Thinking and Willing, and in particular her thoughts about comprehending the fungus nature of evil:

Evil possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.  (Eichmann in Jerusalem: An exchange of Letters between Gershom Sholem and Hannah Arendt.  Encounter 22, January 1964, 51-56)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Strongmen is a much-reviewed, thoughtful work by the historian, scholar, author Ruth Ben-Ghiat who offers provocative insights into the evolving nature of authoritarianism and authoritarians from Mussolini to the present.  She acknowledges her European perspective as she covers such brutal characters as Hitler, Pinochet, Franco, Mobutu, Gaddafi, Berlusconi, Erdogan, Putin, and those influenced by authoritarianism, fascism, oligarchy, i.e., Trump, etcetera.

Her scholarship is brilliant. The ravages of violence, propaganda, manipulation (denial) of elections, coups, fearmongering, and terrorism cause the heart to tremble at the evil that is indeed, as Arendt would say, like a “fungus”. 

When I think of authoritarian personalities both actual and want to be, they are not strong in the sense of compassion, courage, honor, and peacemaking. Not one authoritarian person exhibits true gallantry – a courage that requires civility, and compassion. They are macho, bullying, vicious, temperamental, extreme narcissists, and demanding loyalty. Morality does not enter the picture. They are intelligent in a strategic and tactical manner.  They are neither hero, nor anti-hero. Authoritarians such as Trump are a danger to civilization itself. The fascist rhetoric of Trump is that of a psychopath. His cult followers turn a blind eye. 

The downstream effects of the authoritarian presence have led to disastrous results – from purposeful social and political disfunction, terrorism, the fomenting and manipulating of a polarized society, the killing of critics, and the skillful use of fear among other tactics. The goal is to divide and conquer proclaiming they are the ones with an answer to the public’s grievances and individual disarray (and needs). Their leadership is about them – in terms of power, wealth and the appetite and personal satisfaction of controlling others…the authoritarian treat their followers as cultists and themselves as benevolent leaders (dictators)…authority is democracy, lies become the truth.

Strongmen is valuable historical scholarship into the subject of authoritarianism, fascism, propaganda, right-wing extremism, and the challenges democracies face today. Democracies around the world are under siege in one form or another. The author doesn’t attempt to resolve all the issue surrounding her subject matter but rather to deftly delineate and define the nature of key authoritarians and the “fungus” nature of what the world faces…

That all said, Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat knows her subject matter. Strongmen is a worthwhile addition to a public, academic, or private library.