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Book Notes | ‘Strongmen from Mussolini to the Present’

November 17, 2023, at 2pm

Author Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written a well-researched and carefully documented history of autocratic leaders in the 20th and 21st centuries. Starting with Benito Mussolini, who wrote the strongman playbook, Ben-Ghiat discusses Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, Recap Erdogan, and Donald Trump, among others. 

She describes characteristics that help strongmen gain power including opportunism, a way with words, an ability to tell lies, temper outbursts, and a willingness to use violence whenever necessary. Their assent to power was often through military coups or elections with voter suppression and fraud. Once in power, they maintain that power with relentless propaganda, corruption, violence, and a promise to their populations of a greater nation. They usually feel a need to demonstrate virility and dominate and abuse women. 

Ben-Ghiat carefully describes what a disaster these strongmen are for the populations under their control. They routinely lie, suppress freedom, imprison opponents, murder, and torture to maintain control. Strongmen have a tendency to make decisions based on intuition, refuse to change their views based on new information, are unwilling to listen to others, and lack respect for the rule of law. 

Overwhelming, depressing, but very important

They attempt to neutralize anyone who might expose their wrongdoing. Strongmen also use their power to enrich themselves by a variety of techniques including extortion, kickbacks, plundering of state resources, and “nationalizing” and then stealing the property of enemies. Using such techniques, Vladimir Putin, for example, has amassed an estimated net worth of $26 billion.

Finally, Ben-Ghiat tells us how the rule of strongmen ends. Often the end is unpleasant. After Mussolini was executed, Italians urinated on his corpse. Gaddafi was hunted down by his countrymen and beaten to death. Recognizing that something like this could be their end, strongmen do everything within their power to maintain control.

Also of interest, Mussolini was the first autocrat to say he was going to “drain the swamp,” and Berlusconi, when under criminal investigation, was the first to claim he was the victim of a “witch hunt.”

The UMRA book group members often used words like “overwhelming” and “depressing” to describe the book. However, all seemed to agree that the topic covered was very important as the battle between democracy and autocracy continues around the world.

—John Bantle, UMRA Book Club member




Book Club I to meet November 17

Fri, Nov 17 2023, 2pm

Event to be held via Zoom.

.John Bantle will lead the discussion of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarian demagogues, when the UMRA Book Club meets via Zoom at 2 p.m. on Friday, November 17. From Mussolini to Putin, this book details what authoritarian leaders have in common and how they can be stopped. 

Email Pat Tollefson for more information. To read summaries of the book club’s discussions, go to umra.umn.edu and search for “Book Notes.”

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