Readers might expect that a book such as this would be a compendium of murder, mayhem, malfeasance, and misanthropic behavior, and they will not be disappointed in the fast-moving pages of this volume. But what they might not anticipate—and what separates this book from the many others that examine tyrants and tyranny—is the analysis that puts this phenomenon in perspective ... particularly strong on Mussolini and Franco ... Many readers can well live without Ben-Ghiat’s explicit disclosure that Mussolini and Gaddafi each had sex addictions, though even the prudes among us might find it intriguing to learn that Mussolini fathered about 20 children, that his first wife ended up in a mental institution, and that he had a son he caused to be murdered by lethal injection ... But whew: There is light amid the darkness here, for in the end tyrannies often come to an end.
In [one] view, rather than a by-product of global and American racist, populist, and fascist traditions reformulated in postfascist anti-democratic ways, Trumpism can be easily bracketed and summarily dismissed ... [Ben-Ghiat] provide[s] powerful evidence against these views ... Ben-Ghiat presents a powerful historical reading of the ways of the leaders themselves ... If Ben-Ghiat teaches us about the leaders, what about their followers? Who are the people who maintain a deep faith in such flawed individuals to the very end? Why do so many people follow the lies of the strongmen? Why do they believe in the cult of the leader despite misery, crisis, and disease? In short, why are they replacing thought with political faith? Ben-Ghiat cogently states that the secret of the strongman is that he needs the crowds much more than they need him.
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 ... 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 ...at times, the chapters can feel jigsawed together — patchworks of examples undergirding premises stretched thin by all they are forced to contain ... 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 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.
The author 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...Wouldn’t it be nice to know why coups have largely vanished? ... Ben-Ghiat’s case selection seems quite arbitrary ... 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 ... 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.
Ben-Ghiat’s story...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 ... [a] sprightly written, colorful book ... At times, the comparisons become distinctly forced ... Ben-Ghiat also gives little justification for choosing her strongmen almost entirely from the political right ... Ben-Ghiat devotes very little attention to ideology ... This reader, at least, wanted more, given the vast differences among the countries she covers ... Explaining why the playbook succeeded in some places and failed in others is a matter of more than merely pointing to the greater or lesser moral and institutional strength of resistance ... The playbook only takes the would-be strongman so far, and it only takes the historian so far in the quest to understand them and their significance.
Through extensive research in primary and secondary sources, Ben-Ghiat creates a sobering picture of how strong-willed men have been able to establish themselves as popular rulers, while undermining the very democratic structure within which they thrived. Ben-Ghiat's narrative is replete with examples of how authoritarian rulers came to power and how they maintain power; overall, the book represents a troubling portrayal of how mature modern democracies can be ultimately dominated by such strongmen ... A sober book, and one that we should all take seriously. Essential for all collections.
This incisive study casts a wider geographic net than two recent books that have placed Trump on a continuum of authoritarian leaders ... She also argues, more originally but less persuasively, that they flaunt a fourth trait, 'virility,' manifested in acts such as Trump’s boasting of his sexual exploits to Access Hollywood and Putin’s posing shirtless for photos. This argument is her weakest partly because many nondespotic leaders have displayed a similar male bravado ... The author is on firmer ground when she shows how male leaders use 'divide-and-rule' and other tactics to consolidate power ... Given that this book is at heart a horror story, no female leader will regret her own exclusion. An intelligent if less than blazingly original study of modern authoritarian leaders.
... [an] incisive and richly detailed account ... It’s a persuasive case, though the decision to leave leftist strongmen largely out of her study leaves Ben-Ghiat open to charges of political bias. Still, this is a thought-provoking look at how authoritarianism has shape-shifted from WWII to today.