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Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Authoritarianism Around the Globe

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Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Authoritarianism Around the Globe

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes the similarities between current authoritarian movements and those of the past.

Ruth is a historian who specializes in authoritarianism and propaganda. She’s a professor of History and Italian Studies, as well as an MSNBC Opinion Columnist and frequent guest commentator on CNN, MSNBC, and other media channels.

Her most recent book, Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, examines how authoritarians use propaganda, virility, corruption, and violence to stay in power, and how they can be opposed.

Ruth also authored Fascist Modernities, about how Mussolini presented fascism as a unique solution to his people, and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, about the propaganda films created in Mussolini’s Italy.

If you’d like to hear more from Ruth, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter Lucid for free. Also, make sure to check out her website, ruthbenghiat.com, and follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.


Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

So they use their bodies as emblems of the nation, of national strength, that they're the defenders, and they're also sex symbols. And they use their physical personas. So, it's easy to just say, oh, that's just marketing or branding. But I wanted to take this masculinity seriously because it connects to their personality cults.

Ken Harbaugh:

My guest today is Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian who specializes in authoritarianism and propaganda. Her most recent book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, examines how authoritarians use propaganda, virility, corruption, and violence to stay in power, and how they can be opposed. Ruth, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Thank you.

Ken Harbaugh:

I feel like Mussolini, who you focus on, was, for decades, the forgotten strongman. He is arguably, though much more relevant to the current moment than the strongmen like Hitler and Stalin that popular culture more often refers to.

Was Mussolini's special relevance an early insight of yours? What made you focus on him in ways that other academics have not?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, it's a great question. And indeed, he's still kind of marginalized. And of course, Hitler with the Holocaust and his centrality, there's reasons that he is the main person that's remembered. But I didn't know when I…

Actually, I grew up in a town in California, Pacific Palisades that had a lot of refugees from Nazism, like famous people like Thomas Mann, the writer and composer. And so, I was interested in that first. And then at UCLA, I studied the refugees for Nazism. And then somebody said, “Why don't you study the Italian case because it lasted twice as long, and there's not as much work on it?” So, I thought, “Oh, that's interesting.” And indeed, I had no idea it would prove to be so relevant today.

And one of the main reasons is that Mussolini was a Prime Minister of a democracy for three years. And he was the first one. He was like laying down the template basically, and Hitler was watching him. And then after three years, to escape, he was indicted in an investigation for corruption. That's also very contemporary. And to escape like the end of his political career, he declared dictatorship. But during those years of democracy, he kind of chipped away at everything: at press rights, at freedoms. And so, that's why it's one of the many reasons he's so relevant to us now.

Ken Harbaugh:

It is relevant to our domestic example, and I definitely want to dive into that. But it's also relevant in that Italy seems to have taken a giant step backwards. You could not have anticipated that when you began this research journey.

Can you give us an update on where Italy is right now and the new PM, and the echoes of fascism and Mussolini today?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, it's really incredible. At the end of Strongmen, as the title implies, it's about male leaders. And that's why masculinity is a chapter. I do say that it's inevitable that in the future there'll be a female head of state. But I was thinking more of Marine Le Pen in France. I hadn't really thought about Maloney yet because her party was quite small. But what's happened is Italy has its first female head of state, and she's a neofascist. Now, she's calling herself a conservative kind of to mainstream herself. But her party carries forth the heritage of the original Neofascist Party that was founded after Mussolini was killed to keep the spirit and whatever else they could manage of fascism going. And the people don't know about this case, it’s so different than Germany. They didn't have a thorough equivalent to denazification. And so, they had this Neofascist Party that was allowed to not only be legal, but they had people in parliament. So, it was small.

And so, her party was founded in 2012. And she chose personally to keep in the logo of the party (and it's the governing party of Italy today and the coalition) a little flame. And that flame is the original logo of the original Neofascist Party.

And so, she was a hardcore neofascist militant. She was the head of the youth wing of the Neofascist Party. And so, if you analyze their government, who's in it, even people who are called like moderates, like the Minister of Finance, many of them have a background in the Neofascist Party. That's their lineage.

Ken Harbaugh:

You place a lot of emphasis in studying these fascist parties on the role of virility in animating the strongmen movement and persona. I am wondering how you apply that to an era in which women are increasingly assuming roles in fascist movements. Obviously, you have Italy, but in our country, you have Marjorie Taylor Greene who is auditioning to be Donald Trump's Vice Presidential nominee. You don't address it in much depth in your book. You do make a knot to Thatcher and Indira Gandhi. But two women who never threatened democracy per se. How would you update your thesis looking at how women have co-opted this strain of virility to move their followers?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, that's a really great question. And first of all, it's really interesting. It's been the right that's given women much more prominence than the left, I would say. And so, even though Italy has always had one of Europe's strongest center left, let's say, a female prime minister did not come out of that. It came out of the right.

And there's a whole strain of women now, and we can include Le Pen, and also, the president of Hungary, Katalin Novak, who was until recently, the Minister of Family for Orban in Hungary, who's an autocratic leader. And these women, two political scientists called this gender washing. It's when women leaders market themselves as standing for women. And indeed, some people were like, “Wow, Italy has a female Prime Minister, and that's so cool.” But the policies they advance are rolling back reproductive rights, defending the patriarchy. And these women actually like Maloney, she's really tough. And I think she's as much a creation of Mussolini who was one of her spiritual idols as Berlusconi, the Prime Minister who first helped her career and made her a minister in 2008, was a very pro-Putin government. She was all about Putin until very recently too.

But there are certain speeches where she does this abroad (she doesn't do it in Italy) where she screams. I would recommend everybody to go look at the tape of a rally she addressed in Spain for the Vox Party. It doesn't matter if you don't understand Spanish. She is haranguing the crowd like a female demagogue. It's really scary. She's screaming. And I have spent many, many hours watching Mussolini, I wrote a book on fascist news reels and cinema. And I thought, well, she has absorbed the lessons of these male figures. And so, basically, they internalized the machismo culture, some of them. And they also put forward policies that in the end, don't help women because it takes some of their rights away.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I want to draw that distinction between the policies promoted by fascist governments and the methods that they employ. Because you're right, Maloney's screaming speech is so evocative of Hitler and Duterte and other authoritarian leaders who may have radically different policies. I mean, Putin himself was a communist once, but is a champion of fascist wannabees because of his methods, because of the style of governance. How important is that as a distinction?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

It is important. And speaking of Putin, so one of the reasons I put the masculinity chapter in there, and in a way, given what's happened in Italy, and is happening other places, Strongmen, it's like a snapshot and it goes over a hundred years. It's important. That's why from Mussolini to the Present. I wanted to kind of write a history of right-wing authoritarianism and Gaddafi is in there because he's so connected to show that sometimes, left and right don't even matter to these transactional guys. But otherwise, it's a history fascism, right-wing military coups, and then these new people, and includes people like Putin who were communists, and now, are fascists.

But it's easy to just laugh at Putin's pictures where he is posing without a shirt and his machismo, and that's what Mussolini did too. He was the first leader to strip off his shirt for the camera. And so, they use their bodies as emblems of the nation, of national strength, that they're the defenders, and they're also sex symbols. Men and women admire them. And they use their physical personas. So, it's easy to just say, oh, that's just marketing or branding. But I wanted to take this masculinity seriously because it connects to their personality cults. And so, I've found that of course, there's tons of political science literature on gender, but people who study authoritarianism, it’s like they weren't really taking it seriously. So, this is the first book to say, “Hi, there are these tools of rule, and some of them we know: propaganda, corruption, violence, but how does masculinity work together?”

And so, for example, their personality cults. So, they have to be the man of the people, and yet, they have to be the men above all other men, and the man who gets away with everything. And that's why he's admired.

And this is operative for Donald Trump in our country too. He is the man who has the most beautiful women. And he gets away with everything. He has what others want. And that connects to corruption because they're the men who are untouchable, and Berlusconi also. No matter what they do, they don't lose their followers and their glamor for certain people.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there a risk of overemphasizing that characteristic of fascist movements where the leader is the nation?

And I'm thinking about the American context in particular where people equate the MAGA movement with Trump himself, I think and are blinded to the reality that it exists apart from and outside of Trump, and even should Trump leave the stage, we have a very dangerous movement in this country that might have been instigated as a personality cult, but goes much, much deeper.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, you said that perfectly. I totally agree, and I always try to look at the big picture. And so, what happens when these guys come into the system, into the political system, they spawn imitators, and they change the whole political cultures of their parties and beyond their parties. So, in a funny way, Trump in a sense is no longer needed. Now, it's very interesting, at the very beginning, he called Trumpism a movement. And that's what it always was. And he also took over the Republican Party and he submitted it to a kind of authoritarian discipline. There was a party line, very effective. But he spawned imitators. And like Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, has carefully studied him. He even imitates his hand gestures. He looked at what was working, but how he could go beyond him.

And this happened in the Philippines too. It's a kind of syndrome where if you have somebody who's really out there like Trump — during his campaign, 2016, he said, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn't lose any followers.” And this freaked me out, and I ran home. I was out and I saw it on my phone. I was like, oh my God, this is a terrible red flag. And Ron DeSantis would never in a million years say that because he's supposed to be the disciplined extremist. And yet, he embodies the spirit of Trump and carries it forward, as does Marjorie Taylor Greene. So, that's the tragedy of these guys when they get in this system, they can semi-permanently transform it. And their personality cults can also linger after they leave office, and benefit other politicians.

Ken Harbaugh:

And those other politicians become just another useful tool of a much deeper, more menacing movement. I'm drawn to this quote of yours on Fred Wellman's podcast, good friend, and he's been on this show.

You said “they” referring to the republican MAGA base, “They want an extremist who can win elections, and that, they think, is Ron DeSantis, who is equally extreme, but is too smart,” like you said, “to say things like, ‘I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone.’”

Winning matters above all else, at least to the elites in this movement. And if ditching Trump requires that, do you think they're prepared to do it?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah. And some of them already have. After the midterms, most of his extremist candidates tanked. So, some people turned against him. But the other lesson is you can never underestimate somebody like Trump. He still has plenty of hold over people.

To get back to your point about ‘we shouldn't only focus on the central figure, the Trump’, the enablers are very important. And I haven't updated this for a few weeks, but last time I checked, Ron DeSantis (just as an example) had 45 billionaires backing him for the presidency. He has an enormous war chest. And some of these people are people who used to back Trump. So, we have to see what the other people who matter to campaigns are doing and where they're shifting their loyalties. It's not only members of the party. Trump, he comes from the Russian School of kompromat, of collecting compromising information on people, and he's done this way before he entered politics. It's just how he operates. He threatens through information warfare, he threatens through physical, there's all kinds of stories of this for decades.

So, there's a reason. I mean, it doesn't come out very often, but you find stories like at peak points, like when the second impeachment where Republicans who voted to impeach him (Republicans, that's important) had to buy body armor. Or the RINO Movement where Eric Greitens posed with a assault rifle, so ‘We got to hunt these people down.’

And other means of senators, these reports of senators crying because they couldn't stand the stress if they even went against Trump in any way. And I look at those things because I study foreign authoritarianism and I turn my gaze on U.S. I'm like, “Hey, that's not a democracy here when the senators are crying because they're frightened. That’s something else.” All this to say we shouldn't ever discount Trump or count him out, because in Israel, Netanyahu's back again. The problem is again, once they're in the system, they can come back. And it happens. And Berlusconi also came back when no one thought he would.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, when you say we can't underestimate Trump, I assume you mean more than just, we can't underestimate his ability to return, which is a real threat. I've got to believe you're also worried about what he might do should he see an inevitable loss. I mean, somebody who has that kind of narcissism and lack of concern for democracy, who feels like he's going down, what do you think he is capable of within the Republican Party, and then I guess more broadly.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Well, January 6th was a clue, a violent coup attempt. Well, that was the culmination of the process of trying to overturn the election. And I mean, it didn't work as an armed operation. It didn't work. And the other parts of it didn't work because he hadn't what we call autocratic capture, where you have all the judges on your side. He didn't have time. Because we forget, these other people like Viktor Orban. Viktor Orban has been in power like over 10 years. So, Trump didn't have time to capture everybody, so it didn't work. However, it's coming out slowly how many elites inside all these agencies were collaborating with him and not just the GOP. They're texting with Mark Meadows until one day before January 6th, like, “Oh, how are we going to help leader?” You know, Mike Lee says, “I'm working 14 hours a day to help leader.” This is the cult. So, he's been very successful. And then the Secret Service, and then the Pentagon. It hasn't come out fully how many people were or are on his side, in the institutions. So, he's capable of anything.

And in my endings chapter in Strongmen, which was in a way, the most interesting chapter to write because the psychological aspect comes in. So, for a democratic leader with a small “D,” when they have to leave power, they expect it. It's like their time is up and they're going to think about their legacy. In the states, they're going to have their presidential library. But for authoritarian-minded leaders, it's like a death. They need the acclaim. They're also terribly worried about investigations and losing immunity, because they're very corrupt every single one. And so, they do desperate things. And there's studies about this. They can start wars, there's all kinds of things: stage coup attempts, self-coups, which is what Trump's was.

And that's another reason we should not count him out, and we have to be very wary. And now, he's just been allowed back on Facebook which is a total … I mean, I was going to say only in the States with someone who staged a self-coup be allowed back on major media platform. But they've been a partner of his since 2016. He provided them with a lot of income from ads and stuff. So, I don't know what the mix of reasons was to put him back on, but for democracy, it's a nightmare.

Ken Harbaugh:

In spite of all of that, you have resisted applying, as you call it, the F word, to Donald Trump. We're talking about fascism, of course. We'll keep this this episode PG. Why that resistance?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, I think I'm a little less resistant to doing it now. And there are figures. Like Tucker Carlson for example, he's a fascist demagogue. There's just no doubt about it, everything about him. I didn't want to use it before because I felt like because the reference point is always Hitler dictatorship. And people would say, “Well, you're speaking out, we still have a two-party system. So, what are you talking about?”

It's satisfying to call people fascists. And I take some heat from other people, like “You should be doing this.” But I preferred the word authoritarian, because actually, fascism was a historic movement and it exists, but in a different form today. Today, they come to power through elections. It's not a one-party dictatorship other than the communist states: China and North Korea, et cetera. So, I felt like it would mislead people to just say, there's fascism. And so, people would say, well, if we don't see Trump trying to abolish the Democratic Party, which is impossible, then we don't have anything to worry about.

Fascism was really just the first chapter of this broader right-wing authoritarianism. And we see in Brazil too, was Bolsonaro a fascist? So, they're all resembling fascists. We could call them fascists, and many do, and I do sometimes. But I still want people to really understand how it works today. And that's a lot of my interviews. I want people to understand that if we call it fascist, we shouldn't think it's going to look like the 1930s.

Ken Harbaugh:

In the case of both Brazil and the U.S., the proto-fascist movements tried to manipulate the system, work inside institutions to co-opt them. You alluded to the number of powerful people in important roles who aided and abetted Trump. You had a last-minute effort to place Trump acolytes and loyalists at DOD even at CIA that wasn't terribly successful. But some really scary stuff. But by and large, those institutions were a bull work. I am getting to the question about violence and the resort to an actual coup.

If you're not able to work inside the system, the authoritarian goes outside the system and calls upon the loyal faithful to grab pitchforks and torches and do what must be done. Is that a distinction worth making?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, I'm always up for talking about coups. So, a third of my book is on coups, and I didn't know that it was going to be relevant to the States. And this was the part I hadn't worked on so much before and I found they're terrifying. And my case study was Chile in the 1973 U.S. backed coup. But I talk about Brazil as well. And so, coups also look different today. There’s been a bit of a revival of coups, military coups, like in Myanmar. But these things change as well.

And what's so interesting about the U.S. and Brazil cases is, so taking Trump, he tried to get the military, as we know, to call Martial Law. That's why Michael Flynn was pardoned. And he was put there, and he's very dangerous. He's one of the most dangerous people in America. He's going around radicalizing people on his Reawaken America tour. But his role was to obviously, liaison to the military. And he tried to get a Martial Law imposed after Trump lost the election. And that would've been a form of military assisted coup. But he failed. So, what Trump did is he had been radicalizing followers and preaching that violence could be positive since 2015.

I was advised and worked with the January 6th committee, which was an enormous honor as a scholar and a first generation American. And I was interviewed twice and I wrote a report. And one of the parts of the report was how Trump used his rallies since 2015 to over and over (he's a propagandist) say that violence might be necessary, that protestors should be treated with violence. In the good old days, you could beat someone up and nothing would happen. So, for all these years, and then he cultivated extremists, neo-Nazis, skinheads, violent people, militia members. And January 6th, so when he couldn't get the military, he brought together all these people who had been followers: some GOP officials. And this is where our 400 million arms in private hands is very helpful. So, he had like a bespoke army of like a private army of thugs. And they're the ones who came and did the violent part.

And Bolsonaro did the same thing. And there, it's a little trickier because Brazil had a coup in 1964 and a 21-year military dictatorship. And Bolsonaro is from the army, and he gave so much power to the military more than any time since the dictatorship. He elevated so many officials in his inner circle. Many things he did, but he didn't get the military to stage a coup.

So, he had these hardcore fanatics who were camped out for months and they did the work. So, that's like coups also change. And if you study coups, it's a super interesting development, but that's why you got to have the cult of personality. You have to have the leader. Without that, they won't be waiting in agitation for you to give them the word to go. They have to be bonded to you.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can a coup in this era succeed without the complicity of the military?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

So, it's a little more complex. So, one of my rules from studying coups is, in a coup, some people have to act. They're the people who are breaking the glass, and others have to stand down. And that's especially important, and it's called dereliction of duty. And we saw on January 6th, oh, the reinforcement didn't arrive. I mean, I feel doubly sick when I watch the footage of the Capitol police totally outnumbered because I feel sick as an American, and I feel sick as a scholar of coups.

I called it a coup attempt. I wrote a piece for CNN the night of January 6th. And I was like, no, there had had to be widespread complicity in institutions, mighty America with so many police forces and law enforcement that this could happen. So, that's standing down. And so, when you're not using a regular professional army, it's all the more important. They almost succeeded. I mean, what was it, 40 feet? They got within 40 feet of Mike Pence or 60 feet. It was some very small distance.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, they almost succeeded tactically.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Tactically.

Ken Harbaugh:

And they almost succeeded strategically. If Trump had just gotten a few more people in those roles at the Pentagon, if Milley had had not raised his objections to Martial Law or the Insurrection Act, I mean, a Kash Patel in the right role could have effectuated the kind of stand down that would allow a coup to actually be pulled off.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

That's right. And a complete history of January 6th will also solve mysteries like why were the panic buttons taken out? And the whole question of military complicity which we don't fully know. I was very disturbed because I know that military commanders and even if retired, they only speak out on political matters if they have to. And on January 3rd, 10 living former defense secretaries, when they did that op-ed, all 10 of them together warning that the military should not overstep its boundaries, and it has to obey the Constitution.

Having studied military coup of Chile, which was a country where they said, “We're not going to have a coup. Our military is loyal to the Constitution, we're not going to be like all these Brazil and all these other places.” When I saw that op-ed on January 3rd, I thought, oh-oh, there's a real threat here. There's a real threat.

And I had been tracking, like there was also a letter 124 retired high officers, different branches in the military sent, they were on Flynn’s side, and they said there's a dire … basically, their letter was, we have to intervene because our nation's going to fall to communism, whatever their conspiracy theory was. But it sounded a lot like the rhetoric of Chile, the Chilean, once they had the coup. So, there was a lot going on. And it came close to the fact that those defense secretaries wrote that, means it came closer than perhaps the public knows even in that sector.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, because they're plugged in. They were hearing the rumors and whispers. What terrified me, arguably even more than that letter, was when the joint chiefs put out the equivalent of a general order reminding the force, the entire U.S. military, that its oath was to the Constitution, and not to any one individual. They left that individual's name out of it. But that was unprecedented. The idea that in America today, the joint chiefs would have to remind the people with the guns that their duty was to the Constitution and not to Donald Trump was truly terrifying.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

And in history sometimes, especially in these moments, because coups can sometimes be pulled off by astonishingly small numbers of active participants, then you go back to the people who are standing down.

But General Milley was a formidable figure and a bulwark. Had there been somebody else there, it may have had a different outcome. And he was reminding me of this. There was somebody like that in Chile before the coup who had his same job and they had to get rid of him, and they drove him into exile and then they executed him. But he was run out of office and who took his place? Pinochet. And that was before the coup. So, when you have this knowledge of the preparation and what do you do if there's one very powerful person standing in your way who’s pro-democracy, I'm triply grateful to General Milley for his ethics, and everybody else who isn't in the press, isn't in the media or public mind, but they're there, and we have an enormous debt to them.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, he had a team around him. I've been critical of Milley for some things in the past. But the attempt to remove him, and there was an attempt to remove him, was met with all of the joint chiefs saying, “We will walk across the Potomac if we have to arm in arm and resign together if you remove this bulwark.”

You've talked a lot about Chile and Brazil and other countries that have not been as lucky as we have. What are the significant aspects of the international dimensions of this movement? I mean, you have Americans advising the Insurrectionists in Brazil, you have CPAC inviting Viktor Orban to be a keynote speaker. These aren't just discreet nationalist movements, this feels bigger.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Yeah, my first book, it was called Fascist Modernities. And it was about how Mussolini got a huge buy-in because he promised to modernize Italy. But a lot of it was about how Italian fascism was kind of a … fascism was transnational. It had all these networks. There was a huge culture.

And when the access started, there was an enormous exchange networks, economic accords. We only think about the military, the access. But behind that was educational exchanges.

So, I studied these networks and so, I start to see that they're active today, the new fascists, let's say. And of course, Steve Bannon is a major hub and he lived abroad. He was in Italy. He advised Bolsonaro, he advises Trump. And so, the GOP, I think it's very important to say this and I said it on PBS and people from the Mail I got after, people were very shocked.

But the GOP, I do see it as an autocratic party. Its culture now, it's kind of out of democracy. That's why Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy theorist, extremist could actually be a major — she could be a vice president or she could be president one day, crazy as that sounds to people. But they're not only interested in wrecking democracy at home, they’re embedded and part of these far right networks that are global. And I'm going to be writing a piece about these networks what happened in Brazil and the role of Jason Miller and Bannon, this kind of Trump White House and Trump Bolsonaro connections and Eduardo Bolsonaro, it goes both ways. Who was at the White House on January 5th, because they have crew knowledge, they know how coups work. And it's really interesting to me. I was like, “Oh, why is Eduardo Bolsonaro there the day before the coup attempt? Okay, that's really interesting.” But the Brazil part sensitized the public to that one link. But there are the links with Orban. There are links now with Maloney, the neofascist in Italy, of course, the Putin, pro-Putin faction of the GOP, and Putin's been the funder of many of these. And Orban is kind of stepping up more because Putin's star has dimmed for some and his financial resources of slightly dimmed because of the war.

But we have to take these networks seriously and realize that those people, like Maloney, said that she sees the GOP as a kindred spirit and that they have exchanges. And I was like, oh, that's really interesting. I got to know more about that. So, that's an area that I'm going to work on. And it's like so I went back to my first book, and I was like, “God, it's all repeating.” I hadn't looked at that book in a long time. But I was like, “Geez, these same dynamics are happening again.”

Ken Harbaugh:

It feels like everywhere you look, these fascist movements are coming on the heels of progressive movements like the greater the hope for progress. And you look at this country with the election of Obama, his entire campaign, his entire appeal was built on the idea of hope.

The greater the faith in that is the greater the backlash. I don't know that there's a question in that, but it's just so disheartening.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Well, you know what, there's a positive side to this, and we are actually living through this global renaissance of mass non-violent protest. And we don't hear about … and there's a lot going on that people are realizing that authoritarianism is a scam. Its goal is to get people to act against their interests, to vote for people who take their rights away, who plunder their economy.

By 2018, I have analysis of how they plunder businesses. We need to hear a lot more about this. By 2018, one in six Russian businesses have been seized by Putin, and Bill Browder, whose own businesses were targeted, he told me that if you've got a business in Russia, because it's kleptocracy, if it grows to any value at all, the state will come after it. So, the war, Putin's genocidal war on Ukraine, and then the very bad performance of the Russian military has opened some people's eyes (I follow that really closely) to how the mighty Russian military — well, it's revealed to be totally ravaged by corruption. I had stuff in Strongmen about this already. That's what happens. Troop morale is crappy. Just like Mussolini sends people with old weapons and badly maintained equipment and terrible rations, rancid food, because they don't care about their people. So, that's one thing that's going on that's exposed the hollowness of authoritarianism.

But to go back to protest, 2019 was a global record for protests all over the world. Some were like against economic inequality like Chile, but they were all over the world. And then 2020, it continued even though the pandemic, and we had the largest social protest movement ever, Black Lives Matter. 20 million people came out to some event, and it was multiracial and multi-generational. And the biggest before that had been in 2017 with the Women's March. And now, look what's happening in Iran where it's very difficult to protest in Iran or in China. The Chinese waited until the protests were over and then now, they've detained people because they have their surveillance stuff.

But this is going on and it's not going to stop because the young generation does not want to live under a repression. And they also don't want to be extinguished because of climate, the climate crisis. So, there's various things that are coming together and you see that especially younger people. People are protesting in huge numbers, so that’s important to think about.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, any chance that I get to end on a semi-hopeful note when talking about coups and fascism, I’ll jump at. So, Ruth, it has been great having you. Thanks for giving us a glimmer of hope.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat:

Sure, it’s been a pleasure.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Ruth for joining me. If you’d like to hear more from her, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter ‘Lucid’ for free. The link is in the show description. Also, make sure to check out her website, ruthbenghiat.com.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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