Why Do Authoritarian Leaders Appeal Today?

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October 4, 2018

Why Do Authoritarian Leaders Appeal Today?

The age of the strongman

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

  • Anxiety
  • Democracy
  • Politics
  • Race
  • United States

The following essay were presented as part of the day-long conference “Democracy in Trouble?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. As the post-Cold War democratic order is straining under the dual threat of authoritarian and exclusionary movements on the national level and transnational oligarchic networks, the goal of the conference was to take account of the different facets and causes behind these developments. Originally published on the Mitchell Center’s website, these pieces are also natural fits for Public Seminar’s Vertical “Liberal Democracy in Question.”

Ours is the age of the strongman. In Hungary, Russia, and many other places, authoritarian leaders attempt, with varying degrees of success, to undermine the rule of law, purge state bureaucracies of non-loyalists, make public office a vehicle for private profit, use propaganda to spread their versions of reality, and target sectors of society that uphold the integrity of facts, evidence, and inquiry. Even if they hold elections, they use intimidation and a mix of semi-legal and legal tactics to get the outcome they need to be able to claim that their repressive agendas are the expression of popular will. Wherever they rule, a culture of corruption and “brutalism and intolerance” spreads like blight to incentivize allies to help them dispense with their enemies and to encourage everyone else to adopt the self-censoring and compliant behaviors that make their colonization of state and society easier. [1]

The strongman’s ascent in our time reflects the weakness of his biggest nemesis: democracy. His politics of “resentment and retrenchment” and his redefinition of the nation as bound by faith, race, and ethnicity rather than rights appeal to those who are skeptical of liberal democratic visions of collective governance and security, humanitarianism, and international cooperation.[2]

Studies of populist movements and political systems help us to understand our time of transition by examining how and under what circumstances democracy fails and how to interpret those new political entities that have shot to power (like Italy’s Five Star Movement) but may still be difficult to classify.[3]

Yet we’re also living through a lesser-studied shift in models and values of political leadership that privileges force over consensus and sees humanitarianism as a sign of weakness. For every Justin Trudeau still standing, there is an up and coming demagogue like Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini who enjoys wide popularity even though — or because — he threatens his enemies on social media, calls for “mass cleansings” of immigrants in Italy, and would rather work with foreign autocrats than the center-left of his own country. The flag of the much-maligned European Union, with its egalitarian circle of stars, could not be more at odds with the mentality of strongmen, who think in hierarchical terms (with them on top) and collaboration in terms of what most benefits their image, power, or bank account.

Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 has created an unprecedented situation: An American President aspires to make the United States a partner in this international assault on democracy. But the problem is larger than Trump: Republican elected officials publicly take positions that recall Beijing or Budapest: State Representatives John Bennett and Al Baldasaro were not alone in calling for the execution of Trump’s rival candidate Hillary Clinton, and neither was Texas Governor Greg Abbott when he joked about shooting journalists. The Pandora’s Box opened in America with Trump’s election will not easily be closed even if he is removed by election or investigation. Trump is no madman or fluke, but the American expression of a broader turning away from liberal democracy that is reshaping our world.

Looking back over a century of strongman rule yields some patterns that help to explain this trend. First, whether in the 1920s or in 2017, strongmen find favor at moments of uncertainty and high anxiety, “when the usual system of political representation no longer yields results or inspires public enthusiasm,” as Wolfgang Schivelbusch states. Economic shocks, in the form of depressions or recessions, increase openness to untested alternatives. Sensing a void, these rulers act to fill it, sometimes reshuffling the political field by creating new movements and political arrangements and always communicating in original ways — including through violence, the language that gets everyone’s attention. [4]

Authoritarians succeed when they know how to exploit these moments of anxiety and transition as the basis for compelling stories that create communities of belonging and designate enemies. Strongmen stand out for trafficking in tales of national crisis in order to pose as saviors. Declaiming your people’s decline and telling them how others humiliate them may seem a counter-intuitive political strategy. It is certainly not in the repertoire of liberal democratic politicians to use tombstones and graves as symbols of where the nation is headed, as Mussolini did in 1927 and Trump did in 2017. Yet this “negative politics,” as the philosopher Avishai Margalit terms it, is incredibly efficient. It plays to feelings of marginalization and victimhood, creates collective enemies (other countries, internal saboteurs, international organizations), and sets up state aggression as self-defense. [5] This story of victimhood can even work on citizens of a superpower: It has been remarkable to hear Trump tell Americans that their country is actually a rusted-out landscape of “disrepair and decline,” that foreign countries have taken advantage of for years.[6]

The nation in distress fits into a larger alarmist tale about the decline of an entire civilization. Every strongman makes political capital out of some form of this crisis narrative, which is a potent delivery mechanism for his racial attacks: barbarian hordes at the borders (or already in the country) jeopardize our ways of life and identity, take our jobs and dilute our gene pool. Crisis narratives are driven primarily by racial and existential rather than economic anxieties, which is why their logic and rhetoric is so similar across a century. The ones that circulate now in America and Europe, for example, recall those of the interwar period in their concern with demographics — the decline of white births — and fear of the “invasions” of white spaces by peoples of color on the move. Mussolini’s 1934 article, “Is the white race dying?” finds an echo in the pronouncements of today’s leaders such as Orbán and Putin, who in 2016 warned Russians that decreasing birthrates could lead to “degradation and primitivism.”[7]

It’s no wonder that the strongman also thrives in this climate because he is a man: Renewing old male archetypes for a new age, he represents many things to many people: father-protector, hero, sage, savior, villain, and seducer, while also embodying what the people most need a man to be in that specific place and time.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a Professor of Italian and History at New York University.


[1] Pippa Norris, “It’s Not Just Trump,” Washington Post, March 11, 2016:.

[2] Barack Obama, speech July 17, 2018, Johannesburg, transcript released by Obama’s office.

[3] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die; Cas Mudde, Populism; Yascha Mounk,Democracy vs the People; Jan-Werner Müller,What is Populism?; John Judis,The Populist Explosion; Federico Finchelstein,From Fascism to Populism in History; Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism.

[4] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals, 50.

[5] Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory.

[7] Benito Mussolini, “La razza bianca muore?” Il Popolo d’Italia, September 4, 1934; Putin, quoted in the transcript of the September 19, 2013, meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club.


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