In her book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat identifies five key “tools of rule” employed by dictators of the last century.
The first is what she calls “A Greater Nation:” the strongman vows to restore his country to its proper place in the global hierarchy. Thus Putin seeks to bring back the Soviet Union (if not the Russian Empire of the tsars), Berlusconi conjures up memories of ancient Rome, and Trump—who never grew as powerful as Pinochet or Mussolini but was absolutely a strongman—promises to Make America Great Again. Three of the other “tools of rule” are obvious: propaganda, corruption, violence. The fifth, by contrast, is not something much seen in scholarly work on dictators. Ben-Ghiat calls it “virility.”
“The strongman would be nothing without bodies to control,” Ben-Ghiat writes. “He needs crowds to acclaim his projects of national greatness on camera, taxpayers to fund his follies and his private bank accounts, soldiers to fight his wars, and mothers to birth all of the above. The systems Mussolini and other leaders created to procure bodies for sexual pleasure may be seen in this context. Far from being a private affair, the sex life of the strongman reveals how corruption, propaganda, violence, and virility work together and how personalist rulers use state resources to fulfill their desires.”
Strongmen present—or try to present—as what Trump’s acolytes would call “alpha males.” They don’t let women push them around or hen-peck them. Instead, they “grab ’em by the pussy.” Heck, if you’re a dictator, they just let you do it.
Many strongmen boast of their virile powers. Bare-chested photographs advertise the fitness and potency of Mussolini and Putin. Gaddafi, Berlusconi, and Trump vaunt control of desirable women . . . . Some broadcast their sexual stamina. “I can love four women at the same time,” says Duterte; “If I sleep for three hours, I have the energy to make love for three hours after that,” claims Berlusconi.
Far from being seen as tacky, outrageous, pathetic, or just plain gross, this disgusting behavior is part of the strongman’s appeal. Fawning men envy him—who wouldn’t want to cavort with Miss Universe contestants, or get with Stormy Daniels? Trump does what they can only dream of. He’s living their best life. “The appeal of these leaders for many,” Ben-Ghiat writes, “rests on their having the power to get away with things that ordinary men cannot, whether in the bedroom or in politics.”
What was a main reason voters went for Trump in 2016? They liked that he said whatever he wanted. He was a living middle finger to political correctness, a fuck-you to the woke mob. The Access Hollywood tape didn’t end his campaign, I’d argue, because it was both an extreme example of him saying whatever he wanted and a bedroom boast. A lot of dudes liked what he said to Billy Bush. Here was a guy who had four dozen sexual assault or rape claims against him, and kept right on going. Red Pill misogynists eat up that kind of thing.
Virility is an essential component of the strongman’s toolbox—but not one much written about by historians. Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat told me on today’s PREVAIL podcast, “is the first book to take masculinity and body politics seriously, and place them up there with propaganda, corruption, and violence as tools of rule. Nobody else has done this before.”
It is instructive to look at U.S. politics through this lens. As Noel Casler has often pointed out, Trump is an elderly man who wears a girdle, a diaper, lifts, a ladies’ watch, makeup, and a grandmother’s coif, and yet is perceived as an “alpha male.” His despotic heirs in the GOP have different methods of broadcasting machismo, but they all do it—even the women. Plenty of Republicans post videos of themselves shooting assault rifles or packing heat. Dan Crenshaw jumps out of airplanes and rocks the cool eyepatch. Matt Gaetz (allegedly) parties with teenage girls and breaks into SCIFs. Madison Cawthorn beats up trees. Jim Jordan comports himself like a caveman, famously eschewing the sports coat.
Some of these Republicans have to try extra hard. For example, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley is hardly a paradigm of straight white alpha maleness. Unlike Crenshaw or Tom Cotton, he was never in the military. Unlike Jordan, he was not a notable athlete. Unlike Gaetz, he does not have a reputation for womanizing. So it’s telling that Hawley, and Hawley alone, has explicitly made masculinity a key campaign issue. Last November, at the National Conservatism Conference, he delivered a keynote address on “the Left’s Attack on Men in America:”
But I want to focus tonight on the deconstruction of men, not because men are more important, but because I believe the attack on men has been the tip of the spear of the Left’s broader attack on America. And because this attack on men is already far advanced. . . .
[W]e must seek a revival of strong and healthy manhood in America. We need men who will shoulder responsibility, men who will start and provide for families, men who will enter the covenant of marriage and then honor it.
We need men to raise up sons and daughters after them, to pass on the great truths of our culture and history, to defend liberty, to share in the work of self-government.
We need the kind of men who make republics possible.
Here, Hawley puts out the Bat Signal for “traditional” men. Which seems innocuous, on its face. But what he’s really calling for is the further subjugation of men who don’t fit that mold: liberal men, progressive men, feminist men, bisexual men, gender-fluid men, trans men, gay men. Make Men Men Again implies that non-traditional men are not “real” men, and therefore it’s cool to target, other, shame, or otherwise attack them. “Round up the gays” is Fascism 101 stuff—and right in the wheelhouse of the effete Fascist who fist-pumped the Fascists besieging the Capitol on January 6.
The most likely successor to Trump at the top of the GOP ticket is Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. He is less bombastic, less personality-cultish, and less Let Me Show You How Big My Dick Is than Trump, Gaddafi, or Mussolini. But he, too, must display his virility. This is why, I believe, DeSantis has become the poster boy for covid denialism. I don’t think the MAGA men eschewing vaccines and masks are ignorant of science, necessarily; I think they see vaccines and masks as signifiers of personal weakness. And a critical element of the strongman ethos is this: Never appear weak.
DeSantis’s strange extended absence from the public eye, during the height of his state’s omicron surge, has never been fully explained. Was he helping his wife through cancer treatments? That does not typically require two weeks of isolation, or end with bringing someone immunocompromised to a rally of the antivaxed. Was he on vacation? Where did he go? Why was he posting old pictures to his Insta and hoping no one would notice?
If the rumors that he was deathly ill from covid are true—and the subsequent clips of him wheezing that were released upon his return to the pubic eye give credence to the rumors—DeSantis cannot admit this. Because strongmen must not appear weak, ever. As Trump might put it, authoritarians like governors who don’t get really sick from covid.
The macho posturing of Republican politicians comes across, to me, as cosplay. But we must bear in mind that the purpose of the cosplay is to demonstrate virility, one of Ben-Ghiat’s five “tools of rule.” It is part and parcel of the GOP’s sad descent into Fascism—and a helpful way to identify the potential tyrants in our midst.
Fascism is on the rise in the United States. Greg Olear talks to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history, expert on authoritarianism, and author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” about Mussolini & Hitler, Putin & Trump, and the dictator’s “tools of rule.” Plus: a song about the new covid cure.
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Photo credit: Trump’s now-defunct Twitter page.