Cults of Personality

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 1

Silvio Berlusconi addresses a crowd in Milan in January 2018. The infamous media mogul and former prime minister of Italy continues at age 84 to be a force in his country’s politics; he is currently serving as a member of the European Parliament. Berlusconi’s populist, autocratic regime made him perhaps the most revered — and loathed — figure in Italy since Benito Mussolini. And his self-styled nickname? Il Cavaliere: “The Knight.”

Photograph by Delbo Andrea via

Remember Silvio Berlusconi? Sex scandals, shady deals and a cult-like following marked the former Italian prime minister’s lasting grip on power. It’s a playbook with a long history and a troubling appeal nowadays, says NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat. On our first episode back from the winter break, she walks Will and Siva through the characteristics of political strongmen — and the lessons they offer for American democracy in the post-Trump era.

Ben-Ghiat’s research shows that authoritarian leaders tend to rise to power with rhetoric and policies that are contrary to the democratic values their own supporters hold dear. Putin, Berlusconi, Erdogan, Trump, Orban... they all say they support the “working man,” but their politics empower the wealthy and corrupt. They may let their supporters believe they’re against globalization, but often they hide their assets in foreign countries and profit from businesses that export jobs. And while they talk tough on “law and order,” Ben-Ghiat says, they relish acting as if they’re above the law.

About our guest

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her research focuses on fascism, authoritarian leaders and political propaganda. Ben-Ghiat has published hundreds of essays in the popular press and has been an expert source on TV, radio and podcasts. She is the author or editor of seven books. Her most recent work is Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020). Follow Ben-Ghiat on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.

This episode was recorded in January and posted on Feb. 2, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat breaks down the playbook of authoritarian leaders from Benito Mussolini to Vladimir Putin, equipping readers with what they need to know to recognize, resist and — hopefully — prevent authoritarian rule.

Just before President Trump was sworn in, Ben-Ghiat accurately predicted the autocratic tendencies he would exhibit in office, from undermining the judiciary to demanding loyalty oaths and using his authority to seek personal gain.

And just after Trump lost in 2020, she realized that — like other strongmen before him — he’d have hard time accepting defeat.

The hypermasculine image is an important piece of the puzzle for these guys, Ben-Ghiat has noted. And they just love to compliment each other: An eerie self-satisfaction infused the Oval Office meeting, in 2019, between Trump and Victor Orban of Hungary.

From around the web

After three separate, tumultuous terms as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi returned to Italian politics as a senator, only to be forced from elective office again, in 2013, this time amid accusations of tax fraud. ... And now he’s an E.U. legislator. Kevin Sullivan explains in the Washington Post how and why many Italians still find Berlusconi so charming.

For more on Berlusconi’s life and politics check out this short video from Brut Media.

Mussolini — once a socialist — got his start supporting populist economic policies, only to become a fascist dictator and preside over the murder of thousands of political opponents.

Most autocratic leaders come to power, as Mussolini and Hitler before them, through the ballot box. But a more recent innovation is playing constitutional hardball and bending their countries’ legal regimes to remain in power, rather than simply declaring a dictatorship. Tim Horley, Anne Meng and Mila Versteeg analyzed this phenomenon for The Atlantic — months before Trump made fraudulent claims in court in an attempt to overthrow his election defeat.

The machista mentality is perhaps no better epitomized than in Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer turned head of state. If you miss seeing him shirtless in Siberia, revisit Time’s 2019 profile of Putin.

Can’t get enough authoritarian bromance? Nikkei has written about the tight bonds between Putin and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and other warm relations among ruthless southeast Asian leaders.

Ben-Ghiat makes a strong, if implicit, case for holding Trump legally accountable for his abuses of power, even though he’s now out of office. Some commentators argue that impeachment is the only way the country can fully recover from Trumpism; but others say prosecuting the former president will only enrage and embolden his base. Well, let us know what you think!


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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