A history and Italian studies professor at New York University analyzes the blueprint authoritarian demagogues have followed over the past 100 years, offering readers tools to recognize, resist, and prevent their disastrous rule in the future.
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.
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.