Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s detailed discussion of modern autocrats jumps back and forth in history, from strongman to strongman, throwing an illuminating light on the gross consistency of the strongman playbook. She lays bare the always intimate symbiosis between the strongman and the wealthy elites he courts during his rise and rewards for keeping him in power. If you are a member of a wealthy elite, and your strongman doggedly protects your privilege, what else do you really need from government? On the other hand, for the average citizen, the thrill of committing violent mayhem against local and foreign “enemies”, with the blessing of Dear Leader, is about all you get, outside of stirring propaganda, confirmation of your hatreds and autocratic rule. Every strongman requires obscenely privileged wealthy backers and squads of angry men, standing back and standing by, to intimidate and bloody all enemies.
At random from this great book, when Italian rogue, whoremaster, construction, media and advertising magnate Silvio Berlusconi took power in Italy in 1994, after running as the candidate of the first corporately created political party, Forza Italia (a one stop corporate influence shop that had clubs all over Italy, ran his marketing campaign, auditioned candidates, lobbied government, etc.), he refused to divest himself of control of his huge business holdings. He appointed his daughter, Marina, to run the holding company that controlled his major businesses. In this way, as far as he was concerned, he’d solved the entire question of conflict of interest and government ethics, he simply made a bold political, not technically illegal, move nobody could stop him from making. This was when he first became Prime Minister in 1994. More recent examples of this same thing, by strongmen and would-be strongmen, immediately leap to mind.
Accordingly, Ben-Ghiat wastes no time making a connection that needs no mention, instead moving on to talk about the way the strongman’s rogue nature draws people to him. He thrills them by proclaiming strict law and order for enemies, and complete impunity for himself and his cronies.
Strongmen often demonstrate their power and virility by flaunting their ability to have unlimited sex with a parade of women. Ben-Ghiat describes the practices of Muammar Gaddafi and his bunga bunga rooms. Berlusconi credited Gaddafi for the term, which to strongmen means unlimited sex, with or without consent. Berlusconi loved the term bunga-bunga and used it to describe his own sex parties . Gaddafi’s bunga bunga room was more of a rape room, for good looking teenaged girls picked out of crowds by a special team always on the look out for young beauties. Berlusconi consorted with a more professional class of women, he was very wealthy, didn’t mind paying for sex, and had a reputation as a rascal to uphold. Other recent strongmen have the professionals they pay for sex sign binding non-disclosure agreements in exchange for hush money.
This embrace of hyper-sexuality and entitlement to sexual gratification is part of the patriarchal “macho” cult of personality myth of the virile strongman, you know, you can walk right up and grab ’em by the pussy, really, seriously. Transgressing the law, and the norms of polite society, is intoxicating to mobs, and a sexual thrill to men who envy the leader’s power to command sex. Ben-Ghiat doesn’t go into detail about Mussolini’s sex life, aside from noting that he was at it for a good part of every day (in ten minute intervals, apparently) and that the cheering crowd was an unfailing aphrodisiac for the priapic womanizer El Duce. Ben-Ghiat includes this sexual predation as part of the strongman’s universal drives: to accumulate bodies, territory and wealth. Again, brings many things from not long ago to mind.
Ben-Ghiat notes that strongmen can tolerate women in power, but only if they are subservient to the strongman. She describes the misogyny that Angela Merkel faced whenever she met with a strongman. Berlusconi made her wait, standing in front of his deak, while he took a long phone call. He referred to her as a “unfuckable lard ass” (the Department of Justice is currently defending an American former president for delivering a more delicate version of the same line, directed at a female journalist he also called a liar, at a press conference, part of his “official duties”). Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand. Putin made her wait for hours and then, knowing her fear of dogs, unleashed his dogs near her. The German Chancellor said of Putin “I know why he has to do this, to prove he is a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
This terror of their own weakness is the driving secret of every strongman. Ben-Ghiat asks “who would the strongman be without the crowds that form the raw material of his propaganda? His secret is that he needs them far more than they need him.” The pageantry that is the hallmark of every strongman regime “plays to his bottomless need for control and adoration. Of course, having it all is never enough for men who live in a secret state of dread at losing everything. Even as the strongman proclaims his infallibility he is pursued by the demon of fear. He’s wary of the people he represses… of individuals who can prosecute him, of elites who can turn on him and of enemies who wish to remove him from the face of the earth.”
Only a strongman understands his fellow strongmen on this level, which is why they tend to validate each other publicly. It is all love between macho strongmen. The love of the crowd reassures them. We all recall the “lovefest” of January 6 when some of the best people, in one of the largest crowds in history, got a little carried away kissing and hugging the police in their overwhelming adoration of our recent strongman. We could all feel the love.
Wait a second, you say mass media magnate Berlusconi fought to stay in power to avoid prosecution? Berlusconi, as Prime Minister, had the power to get Italian Public Television hosts fired for saying things he didn’t like, though he owned the three most popular television stations in Italy, featuring scantily clothed women, he had no direct control of these public TV hosts. Exploiting corporate conflict aversion he was able to remove critical voices from the mass media, effectively silencing public critics. He managed to remain unaccountable for many arguable crimes, bold risks, committed before and after taking office, though his top minister was later imprisoned for Mafia ties and a few others faced legal consequences, just not Silvio. Other strongmen have not done as well as the Italian forerunner of Donald J. Trump. Some ended badly, Saddam, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Hitler.
Every strongman must successfully exploit the mass media of his day to gain power and control public opinion. Radio was a boon to Mussolini and Hitler (as it was to FDR here), TV to more modern strongmen. “Social media” is today’s coin of the realm for strongmen. Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (gruesomely murdering and dismembering a prominent critic with complete impunity) employs a gigantic army of internet trolls (“the flies”) spreading every message useful to his glorious, reformist rule and drowning out anything critical (MBS also doesn’t hesitate to imprison or butcher critics and rivals, clearly).
In regard to the internet age, a sobering realization dawns when thinking of our once and future Unitary Executive, Donald J. Trump. He could never have become president, in spite of his genius, in spite of being a self-made millionaire at age eight and all the rest, without the unregulated, powerfully influential battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook. Before the ubiquity of internet echo chambers, before TV (which gave us JFK), the technological breakthrough for early modern stongmen was mass produced affordable radios. Mussolini and Hitler were pioneers in live radio broadcasts of their live mass rallies. It was amazing the effect leaders could have on millions listening at home, by delivering a direct message to each individual citizen in a compellingly personal way. “Social media” is the most directly “personal” form of mass messaging yet. Look, the leader spells just as badly as you do, LOL!
Dr. Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment, saw at once that Hitler in the studio, trying to do radio, was a complete dud. Wooden and not the faintest bit charismatic in front of a studio microphone, Hitler’s rally-stirring genius only blossomed when the human geiger counter began to work a crowd into a frenzy. Goebbels only aired live Hitler performances, where his beloved idol really shined. The Fuhrer’s mesmerizing live performance was helped by body language training from a top German actor, he also worked with a skilled hypnotist, studying techniques to hone his native talents, constantly tweaking his Hitler brand, which Goebbels lovingly produced. Talk about reality TV.
Ben-Ghiat notes that for many it is intoxicating to commit criminal acts with impunity. “The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people, the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power, endows life with energy, purpose and drama.” This criminal culture filers down from the top. “Making government a refuge for criminals who don’t have to learn to be lawless hastens the contagion effect. So does granting amnesties and pardons, which indebt individuals to the leader and make blackmailers, war criminals and murderers available for service.”
African strongman Mobutu hired the public relations/lobbying/political consulting firm of Paul Manafort and self-proclaimed rat-fucker Roger Stone to launder his corrupt, bloody reputation for the rest of the world.. Manafort’s job, immediately prior to volunteering to work for free as Trump’s campaign manager, was grooming Russian oligarch-backed strongman Viktor Yanukovich  to become strongman president of Ukraine. After Yanukovich was elected a massive anti-corruption movement ousted him from power, he fled Ukraine (to Russia) and was replaced as president by the young Jewish lawyer, comedian, TV star and anti-corruption candidate Volodymyr “I need you to do me a favor, though” Zelensky. Manafort was never prosecuted for his direct, secret dealings with the Russian secret service in connection with their help in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, but was convicted of other felonies, for which he was later pardoned by the president he’d loyally served, and refused to incriminate. As was Stone, Flynn, Bannon and a rogue’s gallery of other icons of transgression and polished criminals including Michael Milken. Y’all know the drill.
In relation to the strongman’s need for experienced criminals and dirty-tricksters, Ben-Ghiat cites Hannah Arendt for the proposition that “murderers were most likely to survive in Nazi death camps, not least because the SS appointed criminals to be be capos in charge of disciplining their fellow prisoners. Criminals proved to be some of the Nazis best torturers since they were highly imaginative when it came to pain.” Pinochet was a big believer in torture, with the official backing of the US government that made his rise to power possible.
Strongman states are chaotic, violent and destructive, yet they claim economic growth superior to what is available under democracy. Some categories of people prosper under a regime that helps cronies and financial elites concentrate capital and privatize public goods. Non-cronies and ordinary citizens better just get on line for the rallies and cheer loud as hell for the strongman.
Ben-Ghiat turns to Arendt again:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and ficion, i.e. the reality of experience, and the distinction between true and false, i.e. the standards of thought, no longer exist.”
Every strongman harnesses the power of mass media to influence and intimidate, dismantle the public’s ability to think critically, and create the ideal subjects of strongman rule. All the strongman needs, beyond that and massive financial backing, are a few people with public gravitas who can harness the law, as Bill Barr did for Trump, to advance the strongman’s needs. Ben-Ghiat describes Barr’s March 2020 attempt to get Congress to declare a state of emergency (Covid-19) to allow him to detain, indefinitely and without trial, members of the Left who he accused of “a systematic shredding of laws and undermining the rule of law.”  Barr told cops that he was engaged in an “unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.” He sure was, but only certain ones.
From a bruising, norm-busting presidential campaign, to Trump’s Bannon-composed America-first “American Carnage” State of the Union, which Dubya called “weird shit”, to the January 6 MAGA riot Trump organized, incited and defended after losing the election he claims to have won in a landslide, Trump and his allies followed the strongman playbook step by step. Create an inhuman enemy bent on destroying society, an existential threat, offer yourself as the only savior, keep your war chest full of dark money, control the mass media to convince masses that black is white, up is actually down, use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate the thoughtful, who tend to hesitate and deliberate rather than taking the bold, violent action the strongman is always ready to inspire, et, viola, you are on your way to creating a strongman state.
Ben-Ghiat points out that for strongmen politics is always personal. She notes that all strongmen are also “personalists” holding no real ideals beyond what is best for them personally. “Thirsty for profit and holding a propriety view of office, personalist rulers exploit their nation’s natural and human resources for economic gain.” Bolsonaro warned indigenous communities that they must adapt to his exploitation of their Amazon rain forest habitat or disappear. “Trump’s authoritarian bargain with elites — profits for them, political support for him — motivates his administration’s enthusiastic embrace of climate change denial.” She notes that as of May 2020 he’d rolled back a hundred environmental regulations, greatly increasing profits for his most highly polluting donors.
Strongmen, like all perpetuators of unfair systems, require maximum opacity for their most controversial operations to flourish. Here’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat, ending with a nice snapshot of corporate media’s famous “conflict aversion”, and its tacit support for the status quo, no matter how grotesque:
“To counter authoritarianism we must prioritize accountability and transparency in government. At the heart of strongman rule is the claim that he and his agents are above the law, above judgement and not beholden to the truth. Accountability also matters as a measure of open societies because the old yardstick, elections, is less reliable. New authoritarian states often simulate democracy. The nominal democracies governed by personalist rulers often act like autocracies. In Trump’s America, as in Berlusconi’s Italy, the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, celebrity and politics, blend together until nothing means anything anymore and everything is a confidence game. The corrosive effects of the shift away from standards of accountability and truth were evident in the reaction of CBS news journalist Nora O’Donnell to Trump’s January’s 2020 State of the Union speech. Although the speech contained numerous false statements about economic growth during his presidency, O’Donnell hailed it as ‘a triumph by the Reality TV president, a master showman at his best’.”
Everyone of these motherfuckers, in their day, a master showman at his best.
A century later, the term bunga bunga became popular again as part of a joke on the internet.[n 1] This joke was then narrated by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at his dinner parties (in a version which featured, as prisoners, former ministers from the centre-left opposition party led by Romano Prodi).
This expression was then frequently quoted by the Italian and international press during the 2011 investigation surrounding Silvio Berlusconi’s child exploitation acquiring a quite different meaning as “an orgy involving a powerful leader”; it was allegedly taught to Silvio Berlusconi by Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was also the unwitting originator of the phrase Zenga Zenga.
In Italy, the term “has become an instant, supposedly hilarious, household expression”.
Recent explanations disagree on its meaning, or perhaps illustrate the range of its reference. It “is said to be a sort of underwater orgy where nude young women allegedly encircled the nude host and/or his friends in his swimming pool”, “an African-style ritual” performed for male spectators by “20 naked young women”, or erotic entertainment of a rich host involving pole dancing and competitive striptease by skimpy-costumed “women in nurses’ outfits and police uniforms”, the prize being prostitution for the host.source
Ukraine was by no means the roughest place Manafort ever worked. His roster of clients going back to the 1980s has included Congolese and Filipino dictators, along with a guerilla leader in Angola. But even this range of experience did not make the Party of Regions an easy customer for Manafort. The reputation of its leaders had been stained with blood since at least 2000, when some of Yanukovych’s political patrons were implicated in the murder of Georgy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who was abducted and beheaded that year.source
Yet while the world is consumed by this pandemic and when he thought no one was watching, Attorney General William Barr proposed granting himself immense, permanent powers extending far past the needs posed by this threat.
For example, the proposal grants Barr personally the power to ask any chief judge to hold a citizen, “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” What qualifies as such disobedience or emergency is left, once again, to Barr. So Barr would be able to hold any American—man, woman or child—indefinitely at his own discretion, whether related to COVID-19 or not, without trial.
The proposal also prevents people with COVID-19 from even applying for asylum. The most vulnerable populations around the world, including children with credible fear for their lives whom we are required under the Refugee Convention to protect, would be needlessly turned away.source