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Historian: Today’s Authoritarian Leaders Aren’t Fascists—But They Are Part of the Same Story

8 minute read

Critics of President Donald Trump have been calling him a fascist ever since he was running for President in 2016, and those characterizations continued in the aftermath of Election Day, as Trump repeated false claims of widespread voter fraud and baselessly accused President-elect Biden of trying to steal the election. “Donald Trump is a fascist,” Late Show host Stephen Colbert argued in an emotional monologue on Nov. 5.

But Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who looks back at about a century of authoritarian leadership in her new book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, argues that “fascism” should only be used to describe dictators and one-party states in the 1920s and 1930s, and specifically the philosophy of territorial conquest that originated with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the aftermath of World War I.

Instead she argues, Trump represents—alongside politicians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban—a new breed of leaders, who work within the systems of democracies but retool them in undemocratic ways. She spoke to TIME about where she thinks these leaders fit into history.

TIME: How does your definition of strongman revise the previous definitions of the word?

BEN-GHIAT: I wanted to show that there are these new authoritarians—things that they do are new because of social media; there’s less genocide, more mass detention; they use the tools of rule in a different way—but they are anchored in this larger authoritarian tradition. Strongmen are a subset of authoritarian who require total loyalty, bend democracy around [their] own needs, and use different forms of machismo to interact with their people and with other rulers. When Putin takes his shirt off and bears his chest, it’s not just about vanity or narcissism. It’s a tool of political legitimacy.

What tends to be going on in the world when strongmen come to power?

Over and over, when there have been periods of substantial social progress—it could be gender equity, it could be secularization, it could be racial equity—[that creates] a climate of extreme anxiety, extreme anger in other people who don’t like this progress. These are all fears that were very active in the 1920s and the 1930s. This is when these strongmen figures find favor.

And they are able to ally with conservative elites, because that’s very, very important. They have to be brought into the mainstream by somebody. Even in a situation of a military coup, you still have these same dynamics, because the reason that the coup is accepted by conservative elites—and sometimes they know it’s coming—is for the same reasons of fear of change, fear of emancipation of the wrong people.

Do you hope your research shifts the narrative on any of the strongmen you studied?

One was Mussolini, who was a prime minister of a democracy for three years. During that time, he degraded the democracy in ways that are very familiar today. And then he declared dictatorship to escape a special investigation against him that might have put him in jail. So all of this is very familiar.

[Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi—who gets laughed at as a clown because he was having sex parties, constantly doing off color jokes—was extremely important for ushering in this new right-wing political climate. He had a true personality cult that no one had had in Italy since Mussolini. He’s anti-migrants, anti-Muslim. A lot of the agenda of today’s strongmen—from Orban to Putin to Trump in America—was foreshadowed by what Berlusconi did. Berlusconi never gets rid of democracy, but he manages to kind of wrap it around his finger.

In your book, you quote Hannah Arendt: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” How does this apply to modern misinformation ?

[In 2015,] when Trump said we’ve got to “figure out what’s going on” [in terms of Muslim immigration to the U.S., saying that] we don’t know the truth on something where of course we knew the truth, I thought, Well, it’s interesting. He’s trying to make us uncertain about it. That’s not what fascists did. That’s not something that Hitler and Mussolini did. What they said was the law. [Mussolini] banned question marks in newspaper headings because you have to lock down meaning. You’re not supposed to have alternate interpretations of reality.

One thing that’s changed in the 21st century is the playbook that comes from Putin, where it’s not just about censoring people. Putin tries to confuse everybody, flooding the zone with noise. So that’s a big difference in the 21st century, and it’s made possible by the speed of diffusion of information and social media.

Your book also argues that a key part of the strongman persona is being a victim. Given virility and masculinity are key too, why would a strongman need to portray himself as a victim?

I’m glad you brought that up. If you see a new politician on the rise and want to know if this person has authoritarian leanings and could become a strongman, watch to see if he portrays himself as a victim. The cult of victimhood is a fundamental part of the strongman. And Mussolini started it off. They don’t represent their people like democratic politicians. They embody the people. They inhabit the people. They are the bearer of the people’s humiliations their sorrows. Hitler did this expertly and that’s why, people felt, in his speeches, he was screaming out the pain that all of Germany felt. He was embodying Germany’s victimhood. The most successful strongmen have all known how to do this.

The term witch hunt that Trump uses was also used by Berlusconi; it’s also used by [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. It’s very successful at getting people to feel protective of them. On one hand, these macho men are constantly portraying themselves as strong and alpha male, but through the victimhood thing, they try to appeal to people’s care for them, and people feel very protective of them.

What happens to a society after a strongman is gone?

The victims have their scars on their bodies, family traumas, societal traumas. But there’s also a whole host of ways of thinking about the world and rituals that they bequeath. Institutions are hollowed out, experts are driven away. Ideologues and zealots are given place in bureaucracies. And so this leaves societies weakened. If the person’s there long enough, entire generations have to be retrained. This happened after the fall of communism. Americans have been exposed to these processes in miniature. These are things that can happen even if we’re not in a dictatorship.

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President Trump is one of the politicians you focus on in your book. Are you noticing any historical parallels for his behavior around the election?

I think what we’re seeing here is typical of new authoritarians who these days come to power by elections. They use legal loopholes, weaknesses in the regulatory systems and the legal systems, to consolidate their power. Election irregularities are a feature of authoritarians today because they can’t do away with elections. That’s a difference with the 20th century. So if they have to keep elections they sure as heck are going to manipulate them.

What other ways can people tell if a strongman is running for office?

If someone talks about how violent they are in a positive way, we can be sure that they are not going to be respecting the democratic system. Do they personally associate themselves with violence while they are still on the campaign trail? [Jair] Bolsonaro did this. He talked about how if he were elected, Brazil would have the biggest cleansing it’s ever had. When Trump in 2016 said “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” I was like, “OMG this is it. Here we are.”

What do you want people to take away from the book?

There are historical precedents for what we’re living through. The impulse that leads people who are fearing to change to seek solace with a strongman ruler who tells them what to do, who says I am your voice—this is not new.

We think about authoritarianism as law and order. It appeals to people who like to follow orders. But it’s not just about following orders. Unfortunately it also liberates people because the essence of authoritarianism is lawlessness. There is nothing you can’t get away with and many people are thrilled to be in that kind of environment. And so when these people pass through our history, wherever they’ve had success, it leaves the country having to ask some hard questions about who they are.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com