How do the dictators rise, rule and fall?
The rise of dictatorships at a time when democracy is in decline in all over the world, their typological similarities and differences are central to research in contemporary history.
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s internationally acclaimed book titled ‘Strongmen: ‘From Mussolini to the Present aims to shed light on this phenomenon.
It is true that today many countries face autocracies and gradual decline in their democratic qualities, but there are always ways to resist and preserve democracy says Professor Ghiad.
While a new wave of such autocrats is cresting, from Hungary to Turkey, from Belarus to Russia, in having governance that revolves around one man, even in China, Xi Jinping has brought personalistic rule to new heights.
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat is an American historian and cultural critic. She is a scholar on fascism and authoritarian leaders. Ben-Ghiat is a Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University.
Professor Ben-Ghiat distinguishes the authoritarian leaders according to the way they are getting the power, regarding the tools of rule they are using, and also the way they lose the power. Her book is like a guideline to check even a dictator in office may be leaving the office soon or not. For instance, in an exclusive interview with Politurco, Prof. Ben-Ghiat shares her insights about how dictators rise, rule and fall. When it comes to most recent political developments in Turkey, many are curious whether there is still room for democracy in Turkey. Professor Ben-Ghiat says the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu and young generations can be a hope for Turkey. But the question is whether Erdogan would accept the reality and leave the office if he would lose.
Can you tell us about the structure of the book?
‘Strongmen’ is divided in, three eras. There is the fascist era, there is the age of military coups, and then what I call the new authoritarians which started at the end of the cold war where in that model usually they come to office through elections and then manipulate elections to stay there.’
But the book is and exercising finding patterns in history. So, one thing we find regardless of how people come to power is that the strongmen leaders tend to have an appeal when a society has been through a lot of changes. Changes that seem too rapid to some people. So, you know, after World War 1, when the fascists came, you had, worker rights, they had the fear of Russian Revolution, communism, but you had female emancipation, you had all kinds of processes of emancipation and progress, social progress.
And we see that over and over again in history and it is also true with coups. If you think of a coup, of course, nobody is running for election, there is no advance warning, but you still have to get a consensus among the military or whatever kind of a coup it is. And this consensus comes if people feel that there’s been too much change. The strongman is somebody who shakes up society often through violence, but he also says “Oh, I am going to restore order”. In the United States we had Trump. He was ready for this after 8 years of Barack Obama, some people felt he should never have been president. There was the legalization of same-sex marriage. There were women have been in combat in the military. Lots of changes. So, somebody like Trump was yet again an example of someone who is in the right place at a time many people felt they were losing their privilege, they had a lot to lose.
What about the tools that they are using? Have you ever seen some patterns in this as well?
Yes. I decided to structure the book in not only chronologically but really the core of the book is an examination of these tools. I decided to focus on propaganda on corruption, on violence, the myth of national greatness, that would make Turkey, or United States, or Russia great again. Those are the ones I focused on, and each chapter goes on for one hundred years. It was more challenging to write this way, but I wanted the reader to be able to open for example the propaganda chapter and see what stays the same as personality cults, the rules of personality cults, it is amazing, they have not changed hardly at all over one hundred years. And then of course what has changed, like now we have social media and what is the effect of social media on, you know, what is new about it and what is old principles.
So, you are saying that all the strongmen, all the authoritarian leaders that you focus on in your book have patterns for example like a cult of personality. Trump might be different than previous leaders because he was successfully using the social media as a propaganda tool. This is what you are saying. So, for example, when you focused on Hitler or Kaddafi or Mussolini or Turkey, so you are saying that these are the patterns. All used these tools to remain in power.
Yes. I am a historian, so it’s very important to say that the outcomes are different. What happens… We still have mass violence. We still have the targeting of minorities. But we don’t have today a holocaust on this level which came in World War 2. So, the outcomes are different. The biggest change is fewer outside of communist states in one-party dictatorships. That’s an old formula. Today, you keep a little opposition going, you don’t have to shut down elections. You just make them fraudulent, and then you can say “Oh, we are not dictators!” Because there are elections here. So, the outcomes are different, but it was very striking how one example of what doesn’t change is that all of them, whatever their system, a coup or a military dictatorship, or a fascist regime or you know Bolsonaro or even Trump who was, they are in democracies. They create these inner sanctums of government because they are all very corrupt. And the inner sanctum is filled with flatterers and sicko fans and family members, it is very important with the autocrats. Now you have this in Hungary today and Turkey, you had it with Trump. You have to have family members and sons-in-law are very popular, who are there to cause they can keep secrets and it’s like this kind of oligarchy, and some people call these mafia states. And the other key is that the strongman is a bully, but he also can’t stand any criticism. And so he has to have around him only people who would flatter him. And over, and I show it in the book, over the long run, this makes a very bad government because they make stupid decisions and they fall, they start to believe their own propaganda. And so, you see this over and over again. But this, I didn’t expect this for example with Trump, who was ruling in the democracy at the time, I didn’t expect to find such similarities, but they were there.
Before Trump was elected, as a social scientist, were you expecting him to be elected as president?
I thought he might be. And in fact, I covered the whole campaign specializing more on him for CNN Opinion. I was writing the outlet. And so, the night of the election, like many, I am not a professional journalist, but I had to do the same as they did. You created a piece with two possible endings. One for Hillary Clinton, but I realized very early that he was going to win. And I had started to write about him in 2015. And really early, because of my studies in fascism, I saw really early, for example, in January 2016, I wrote a piece about saying that if Trump got the nomination, this didn’t happen for 6 months. But, so January 2016, I said if he gets the nomination, he is going to have a personality cult like Berlusconi, like Putin. And no one would publish this outlet because it seemed very strange. It seemed totally irrational. So, I only got it published because I opened a blog, created a blog on Huff Post, where there is no editorial, anyone can do it practically and that’s how it got published. But this happened repeatedly so I was able, because of my training, to predict a lot of what Trump would do because of this authoritarian playbook. But, one thing, Americans, although there are so many people in America who are there because they fled authoritarian states or they are immigrants from, they are just worldly and global. But a lot of Americans didn’t want to believe that this could happen in America. So, there was a lot of denial about Trump.
So, American people decided not to elect them again and this definitely tells us something about American society, American people, that they were trying to protect their democracy and democracy institutions. But on the other hand, we see that almost 50% of, or half of the society were trying to get him elected, and he also was elected as a president in the past but what does this tell us about the American public. I mean, does it tell us about the authoritarian tendencies in the American people, American nation? How do you see this?
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat:
Well, what we have right now is like two nations in one. And something that is very different in America to other countries. And turns out to be more dangerous is that we have only these two huge parties. In many of the places in the world, there are many parties, and so they can form a coalition to block somebody. It means that if there is a radical party, a radical right-wing party or whatever, they can be neutralized. But here we have that one party, the Republican Party was taken over basically by Trump and now it’s becoming an authoritarian party. So, the split of Americans where Americans mobilized to vote Trump out in the middle of a pandemic and with a lot of electoral voter suppression, and they did that and I always remind people of that, because that’s, it is very rare actually in history that you can interrupt somebody like Trump. And in fact, he may come back, who knows? Because they are really never gone until they are prosecuted. That’s one of the lessons. We did that, but the people who, we also see, on the other hand, he was able to have a true authoritarian cult of personality. And think about what it means that he was able to make tens of millions of people believe that the election was stolen. This is an incredible feat of propaganda. And so, we have these two realities in the country today.
What about Germany? Germans are such an educated and secular nation. How do you think that they were trapped by Hitler? They fell into fascism and Hitler’s rule before the Second World War? How did it happen?
Germany is a very interesting example because Hitler, he worshipped Mussolini and he took a long time to get into power. And the whole 1920s, he was not successfully for most of that time. Nobody wanted to buy Mein Kampf. He went to prison because of this, “putsch”. And Mussolini was always trying to get him to be his mentor and Mussolini didn’t want anything to do with him because he said, “You are not successful.” So, it really was the great depression, crisis. Because what strongman do is they proclaim themselves the emblem, the embodiment of the victimized nation. All of them do this victim complex. And so then they are in a good place if there is a real crisis like the Great Depression. He had already been building his persona and as the kind of “I am going to save the nation” and so that’s what did it. And then of course, how did he actually get into power though? He was appointed by German conservatives. Another theme in the book which is a sad theme is that over and over again conservatives and elites, business elites, political elites, they put these men into power, they help them get to power. Because they think that they are going to solve their problems. And in the fascist years, let’s get rid of the left. Or whatever the agenda is. And then inevitably, they get cast aside. And sometimes they become the victims of these strongmen. But this happened even in Chile where you had a coup in 1973. You think, “Okay, well, no elites helped except the military.” But once the coup was there, the Christian Democrats who were like the equivalent of the German conservatives, they actually gave their support to Pinochet because they thought that he would restore order and then give the democracy back. And so that of course didn’t happen. So we see this and we see this, we saw this in 2016 with the kind of GOP political elites and some business elites backed Trump even though Trump was saying he could shoot somebody, he was very open about his violence. And so you have this kind of blindness over and over again and the first big example was Germany.
What about the way they lose their power? I know that every one of them loses the power in different ways, but what are the patterns, what are the similarities?
So, the biggest principle is that, you know, they never ever go quietly. They psychologically need to stay in power to have immunity for prosecution, they cannot leave properly. And it’s more of an issue today because they, we have, they keep elections going, right? So, then they fix things like Putin. Putin solution has been, you know, took him 20 years, it takes a long time to do this but he is in a position he can’t be, he could rule in theory until 2036 and now rules by decree. Or in Turkey. So, that’s another way of keeping rivals. Everybody finds his own way. Today because they don’t have the old fashion dictatorships, right? So, they have to find another way to fix this system. But, you know, sooner or later they cause resistance movements against them, especially young people. Because you can only be corrupt and in Putin’s case, he is a real kleptocracy. He is sucking all of the productive resources strive of the nation. And Erdogan is, you know, they go after business. And this is a story we need to have much more reported in the media. Because this is business elites, “Go there, it’s so efficient. They are going to modernize, they are building airports. They are doing all these good things. When in fact, these autocrats are going after businesses. And, and so slowly over time they, many people grow disaffected with that. And that’s when they sometimes do desperate things. So, that’s what, the most interesting chapter to write was how they fall. And of course, Trump, it was very clear he wasn’t going to leave. And he tried everything he tried to have military support, he tried to fix the election. And then at the end, he went for violence.
As far as I understand, you are hopeful in Turkey. The victory of the mayor of Istanbul. So, do you think that this would be a game-changer in the future? Do you think that Mr. Ekrem Imamoglu can appear as a potential candidate for president in the future? Is this what you see?
I am not an expert on Turkish politics, but I studied that very carefully and I wrote about it in the book. Because I was very moved, very impressed by this anti-populist playbook really that he used, and everything he did, and the message of radical love and going to the streets instead of, you know, having these masses, the leader who has this false emotion. You know Erdogan is always crying, and yet he is always threatening people. And Ekrem did something totally different. And so, this could be replicated. And now he had to go a lot because of course Erdogan did not want to, he tried to fix the system. So, I find this very hopeful. I also find hope in the fact that many young people, it’s really, everywhere in the world you see a lot of the opposition to autocrats is from young people. And young people are, they are the most, what’s the word, vulnerable to this information because they are online so much. But you also see that they are the ones, that’s where resistance against autocrats always starts. And that’s one reason all of them go after universities and schools because they know that’s where people start to resist. Because that generation they think, “I have everything to lose, I want freedom”. So, I am hopeful in a medium-term that there will be more of a support for a different kind of politics.
So you are saying that Erdogan would accept if Ekrem Imamoglu would be a candidate and if he would lose the elections in the future, he would accept the reality or the consequences.
I don’t think he would, no I don’t, I don’t. If judging from his behavior in now, what I observed, and judging from the personality and actions of all the leaders like him, because they have very, of course there is individual differences, but they have similar personalities especially when it comes to if they feel they are going to be ruined. They act in similar ways. And they never voluntarily leave. So, I can’t predict what he will do. But it would be difficult for him, you know you call a state of emergency which has been on and off for Turkey, it’s been extended. And then it would depend on what the people do, the grassroots.