Methods of Power: How do Authoritarians Rule? (Review)Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, fascism, authoritarianism, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen
David A. Bell is the Lapidus professor in the department of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.
The intellectual left reacted to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 in two very different ways. One group, like so many in the general public, immediately fell into full panic mode. The historian Timothy Snyder, for instance, rushed into print with a book called On Tyranny and in an interview declared it “pretty much inevitable” that Trump would follow Adolf Hitler’s example by declaring a state of emergency and staging a coup. Others urged caution. Snyder’s Yale colleague Samuel Moyn and Oxford’s David Priestland insisted in a New York Times opinion piece that “there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” Trump, they claimed, was in reality a weak leader, despite his ability to exploit populist discontent. What was needed, they implied, was a focus less on his tweets and more on the neoliberalism and endless war that had provoked the discontent that brought him to power in the first place. The debates continued right through the 2020 election, with Snyder and many others continuing to warn of jackboots in the streets and Moyn and numerous other commentators insisting that the warnings themselves mostly worked to distract our attention from the staggering structural problems that the country faces.
The events of January 6 might seem to have resolved the debate. Trump’s incitement of the Capitol attack was a treasonous crime. The ragtag rioters caused five deaths and put many other lives in danger. But what Moyn in these pages called a “parodic coup” (others dubbed it the “Q d’état”) in fact had no chance of delaying the certification of Joe Biden’s victory for more than a few hours, let alone of overthrowing the federal government.
The sharply different views of the Trump presidency reflect two very different understandings of politics. The “ring the alarm bells” camp has tended to see right-wing authoritarianism as a powerful, malevolent force that can operate in at least partial independence from prevailing social and economic conditions. It can arise and destroy democracy wherever people lack the moral and institutional force to successfully oppose it. Even the erosion of relatively minor norms can have serious consequences, because it sets a precedent for more important transgressions. The “let’s focus on the larger problems” group, on the other hand, attributes the current manifestations of authoritarianism to broader social and economic conditions. Its members hold that the United States, while pathologically dysfunctional, is pathologically dysfunctional in a different way from the societies in which fascist dictators came to power in the 20th century. There, the virtual collapse of political order and civil society as a result of world war and economic depression created an opening for revolutionary right-wing mass movements. Here, on the other hand, neoliberal forces have proved perfectly capable of preserving their economic and political power through America’s existing, deeply imperfect but fundamentally stable constitutional system. It is the very dominance of these forces that generated the recent populist upsurge—and under Trump, the same forces also managed very largely to co-opt and neutralize it. (It is no coincidence, in this view, that among Trump’s major legacies are corporate deregulation and tax cuts for the superrich.) America’s problems, in the final analysis, can only be overcome through fundamental economic and political reform.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a distinguished historian of Italian fascism and a prolific political commentator, belonged firmly to the alarm-bells camp over the past four years. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, she wrote an article titled “Donald Trump and Steve Bannon’s Coup in the Making.” Her new book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, elaborates on that position in a full-length survey of the ways ambitious strongmen can damage or destroy democratic regimes. The book features Trump prominently, but it sets him in a rogues’ gallery of authoritarians and would-be authoritarians ranging from Hitler and Benito Mussolini to late-20th-century dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Moammar El-Gadhafi, and Idi Amin to present-day populists like Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, and Jair Bolsonaro. These strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, all followed roughly the same “playbook” for seizing power and holding on to it, despite the very different societies in which they emerged. The strongman, she insists, is a modern political type—indeed, the modern political type. “Ours is the age of the strongman,” she states categorically.
Ben-Ghiat’s story, like Snyder’s, 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.
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