Fascism is the outcome of a collective incapacity to think. This is how, in 1939, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges explained the success of Adolf Hitler. From his marginal observation post in Buenos Aires, Borges said that the predominance of an irrational logic was predictable in fascists who fanatically believed in the cult of their leaders. But what was shocking for Borges was that this irrationality was also present in anti-fascism. This was unexpected, and for Borges, unacceptable.
Borges cautioned his readers not to engage in this form of escapism by way of creating alternative cults of the nation. Arguments that fascism could not happen here or that it could not be the result of national traditions because the nation and the people were intrinsically good mimic the magical thinking of the fascists. They replace the fascist cult of the strongman with the uncritical cult of liberalism. Analyzing this situation at the time of the Nazis, Borges stated that “exclamations have usurped the function of reasoned thoughts.” Borges warned against the “liberal jihad against dictatorships” that fought them with the help of nationalist stereotypes. He criticized those with “the opinion that the inevitable and trivial fact of having been born in a given country or belonging to a given race (or a given good mixture of races) is … a sufficient talisman.”
Borges’s arguments hold true today. Of the many attempts to explain Trumpian attacks against democracy, the most erratic are those that invert Trump’s nationalism by claiming that he represents an anomaly situated outside of American traditions and history. Trump, it’s claimed, cannot present affinities with fascism because there is no such thing as fascism in America; this is why Trumpism belongs to a special historical pathway that separates the American caudillo from other global histories, especially the history of fascism and postfascism. According to these views, Americans are either too good for fascism or they are too dumb. Trumpism cannot be that bad or such a risk to democracy because American democracy will endure. In this view, rather than a by-product of global and American racist, populist, and fascist traditions reformulated in postfascist anti-democratic ways, Trumpism can be easily bracketed and summarily dismissed.
Two new books on strongmen and their followers provide powerful evidence against these views. Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present and Carl Hoffman’s Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies examine the nature of Trump’s authoritarianism, and present connections with other autocratic regimes, showing how the past and present of strongmen are deeply intertwined. While Ben-Ghiat presents a powerful historical reading of the ways of the leaders themselves, providing a history from above, Hoffman gives us a narrative from below, sharing his own “strange” journey among the Trumpistas. Whichever way you look at it, a distinct pattern emerges.
Ben-Ghiat distinguishes between three main periods in the history of strongmen: There is the fascism of the 1930s, the dictatorships of the Cold War era, and the resurgence of right-wing populists like Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, and Trump, among others in the present. The first period is characterized by fascism, which involved the destruction of democracy and the affirmation of totalitarian rule, with total war and genocide being the major outcomes.
After 1945, strongmen had to reformulate their ways for a world in which fascism had lost its mass appeal. Whereas Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are the primary examples of the fascist period, Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet are perfect examples of dictators who could not be as fascist as they wanted to be. In order to mask his old fascism under the new circumstances of the Cold War, Franco even organized fake elections in 1947 to confirm himself as leader for life. Strongmen like Franco, Pinochet, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi came to power via coup. They were often identified with a defense of the West (Franco, Pinochet), and they were usually supported by Western democracies, but at times, as in the case of Qaddafi, they were strongly opposed to them.
The third period is really different from the others in the sense that strongmen like Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, and Rodrigo Duterte have not managed to fully destroy democracy (at least so far). Coming to power in a period marked by the end of the Cold War and a subsequent crisis of liberalism, they are postfascist leaders who make democracy more illiberal, downgrading it to the limit but without reaching (so far) the dictatorial stage of the previous periods.
Across all three periods, the strongman relies on the same set of tools—extreme nationalism, propaganda, corruption, an extremist ideal of masculinity and violence—although each of these elements appears with variations over time. Extreme nationalism permeates a nostalgia for a better past that never actually existed. In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini presented his regime as a return to the times of the Roman Empire. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler promoted a racist fantasy of a Germany without Jews. In the United States, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” propaganda idealizes and seeks a return to the segregationist era before the gains of the civil rights movement.
Propaganda is affirmed through the cult of the leader and violent repression. In the name of the leader, who is presented as the embodiment of the people and the nation, and as its ultimate protector, violence becomes legitimate and even desired. Violence and repression are presented as the way to create transcendental changes in the history of humanity. Hitler exterminated millions of European Jews because he believed it would bring about a new historical era for the Aryan race. Pinochet tortured, imprisoned, and killed thousands of his opponents in Chile, arguing that these acts of extreme repression were at the service of saving civilization.
Both propaganda and repression have changed in our new century, becoming less conspicuous and more overt. If raw violence was the mark of dictators in the eras of fascism and the Cold War, the new-era strongmen like Bolsonaro and Trump have adopted more selective forms of repression and violence. Violence becomes more targeted, and less organized, than in the past (no mass killings or summary executions in the thousands). Deeply repressive acts such as the operation of detention camps in the U.S., the policy of child separation, and the enabling and celebrating of police brutality become structural dimensions of strongman rule. Although state violence is more difficult in a country with a free press, in the new media landscape populist leaders can bypass the press and communicate directly with their followers without scrutiny. In this sense, media and context change but not the patterns of strongman behavior. As Ben-Ghiat observes, “Twitter is for Trump what newsreels were for the fascists: a direct channel to the people that keep him constantly in the news.”
Notably, the strongman’s ultranationalist idea of the past always involves what Ben-Ghiat defines as a “state-assisted machine of libidinal gratification.” The strongman needs to control bodies, and sexual violence and the denigration of women are central to his rule. Machismo is a “strategy of political legitimation and a central component of authoritarian rule.” Strongman regimes put forward a reactionary model of masculinity that starts with the misogynistic monsters at the top. Mussolini was a sex addict who created a “state-assisted machine” to have intercourse with thousands of women, many of whom had just attended his rallies. After these sexual encounters—of which, Ben-Ghiat tells us, there were on average 15 to 20 per week—the women became persons of interest to the state security apparatus:
His fixers and secret police stood ready to force an abortion, pay for silence, or make life difficult for the women’s boyfriends and husbands. One thing was certain: once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again.
Qaddafi used the state security apparatus to create a system of sexual violence where young women were kidnapped and imprisoned as sexual slaves of the leader. Trump’s style of masculinity—his talk of grabbing women by the pussy—reproduces the obsessions and tendencies of his dictatorial predecessors, though in a different form.
Last but not least among the tools of the strongman is corruption. Mussolini, Qaddafi, Mobutu, and Pinochet used their power to build or keep their fortunes afloat. Mussolini set the template for corruption, shutting down investigations of war profiteering to please conservatives and industrialists who had supported him. As in Nazi Germany, racial persecution created big opportunities for his supporters and friends, as well as for state enrichment. Hitler’s funds were exempt from any accounting as “he ordered the Gestapo to destroy his records to hide evidence that he never paid taxes.” Mobutu and Qaddafi created a kleptocracy where it was difficult to distinguish between the leader’s personal finances and those of the state.
From military coups to the “new authoritarian ascents,” these leaders never consider the possibility of an ending to their rule. The “authoritarian playbook,” Ben-Ghiat observes, “has no chapter on failure.” This doesn’t mean strongmen don’t fail: The leader’s insistence on his intuition and personal genius over expertise often leads to crisis, mismanagement, and eventually disenchantment even among some of the most fanatical followers. Hitler trusted his gut to win what eventually became an unwinnable war that destroyed his nation and led to his suicide. The same applies to Mussolini. Trump and Bolsonaro minimized a global pandemic, promising miracle cures and ignoring the advice of scientists. None of them could see that an order built on lies and propaganda around their messianic leadership was not destined to last.
If Ben-Ghiat teaches us about the leaders, what about their followers? Who are the people who maintain a deep faith in such flawed individuals to the very end? Why do so many people follow the lies of the strongmen? Why do they believe in the cult of the leader despite misery, crisis, and disease? In short, why are they replacing thought with political faith? Ben-Ghiat cogently states that the secret of the strongman is that he needs the crowds much more than they need him. In this sense, both Hitler’s and Trump’s rallies had the same function: feeding not only the propaganda machine but also the leaders’ egos.
Carl Hoffman’s new book, Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies, dives into the Trumpista maelstrom, dealing with the so-called “Front Row Joes,” the most faithful pilgrims of the Trump cult. Traveling 5,000 miles and spending 170 hours in line in the arenas and the parking lots of MAGA rallies, Hoffman talks with people who believe that Trump is “Heaven sent” and that “Trump Tweets Matter” above anything and anyone else. Among this crowd, conspiracy theories such as QAnon, antisemitic paranoia about George Soros, and racist and homophobic theories about Barack and Michelle Obama are conflated with basically “satanic stuff” and an extremely authoritarian follow-your-leader mentality.
The people Hoffman meets regard Trump as divine, a hero of mythical proportions. These beliefs are part of the myth of the American leader that is widely shared among people who agree with him on everything, including his unique connection to God. In this specific sense of being a fanatic cult, Trumpism shares key affinities with the fascist history of crowd manipulation and propaganda through shared fantasies and redemptive expectations. “A Trump rally,” Hoffman writes, “is a sensual assault that hijacks your soul.” Attending one of these events is the experience of belonging to a group of people who look and think and eat and hate in the same way. There is euphoric dancing and singing before the leader appears. Village People hits such as “YMCA” and “Macho Man” play before Trump reaches the stage. The hype turns to fury when the leader himself tells the crowd how he is constantly persecuted. He shows them an alternative world without complexity, where “all of their hopes, and dreams and resentment” are addressed.
Within this echo chamber, the mixing of traditions of racism and misogyny with a profound anti-democratic ethos somehow translates into the deep experience of a transcendental moment, the witnessing of the passion of Trump. The narrative is that of a leader who has experienced vilification at the hands of enemies who are both secular (and thus profane) and intensely demonic. Within this narrative, they are regarded not just as enemies of the people but also enemies of God. Hoffman’s key insight is that Trump speaks in a revivalist millenarian language that his followers clearly understand. The Trumpist political religion works from the top because it involves feedback from below.
This dimension of Trumpism is not unique. Strongmen, and the followers who faithfully believe in their lies, are neither exceptional nor mere dots in the history of oppression. The U.S. is much like other places: a country with an intolerant political tradition that thinks of itself as emanating from the divine. The history of authoritarian rule shows that democracy cannot be taken for granted; it needs to be endlessly defended and shored up. Even if the U.S. can rid itself of Trump, we should continue to be alert. The people who made his reign possible will remain in the picture and, as Ben-Ghiat and Hoffman tell us, we cannot afford to ignore them.