STRONGMEN: Mussolini to the Present- The Rising Tide of Online Authoritarian Influence with Ruth Ben-Ghiat 

Navigating a deeply divided, polarized world filled with vulnerable souls to the siren calls of conspiracy theories, I find it essential to shine a light on the shadows where undue influence thrives. In this discussion with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, we discuss the subtle and often sinister ways authoritarianism intertwines with the psychological mechanisms of control. We connect the dots from my experiences with cults and coercive persuasion. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is an NYU professor and expert on fascism and authoritarianism, a celebrated author, MSNBC columnist, and consultant, including for del Toro’s Oscar-winning ‘Pinocchio.’ Her book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present explores the tactics of illiberal rulers and the history of resistance against them. With a focus on unraveling the complex tapestry of undue influence in modern politics, my discussion with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat sheds light on the intricate relationship between authoritarianism and its psychological underpinnings. 

My journey from the depths of indoctrination as a member of the Moon cult, my deprogramming in 1976, and my journey to becoming a scholar in undue influence have sensitized me to many facets of this phenomenon. I am acutely aware of the allure of certainty presented by recruiters for authoritarian leaders. In our discussion, we excavated the underpinnings of despotic control, unearthing the alarming congruence between historical and current tactics used to grip the hearts and minds of people. Authoritarian leaders, much like cult figures, have a penchant for cloaking their agendas in the guise of nationalism or salvation, trapping the unsuspecting in their ideological nets. Ruth’s poignant reflection on the enduring legacy of fascism and authoritarianism, charting its evolution from Mussolini’s Italy to today’s political landscape, is an excellent historical example. It reveals how historical strongmen set a precedent for contemporary leaders, perpetuating a cycle of control through propaganda and violence. Central to this discussion is the recognition of machismo as a powerful tool in an authoritarian’s arsenal, a theme that unites past and present in a cautionary tale of power and persuasion. They also exploit the media’s pervasive reach, distorting reality through a lens that serves their narrative and silencing dissent with a shroud of fear. This tactic is a chilling echo of coercive persuasion, a strategy meticulously designed to captivate and dominate. 

The evolution of media’s role in supporting authoritarian agendas and being their propaganda’s machinery in the relentless churn of the digital age cannot be underscored. In the past, printed word and airwaves were king. Today’s digital platforms reign supreme, casting a net of influence that spans the globe instantaneously. This new dominion of discourse has given rise to an insidious ‘firehose of falsehood’—a torrent of disinformation that assaults the pillars of truth upon which our democratic institutions stand. Putin and the KGB are masters of this methodology. They create tons of crazy stories and wait to see what gets traction. Then, they amplify. Fourth-generation warfare also uses this method, but its goal is fear, hatred, polarization, uncertainty, and a distrust of experts, science, and institutions. 

We are witnessing a pivotal moment in history where the tools of social media, once heralded as gateways to a more connected world, are now co-opted by authoritarian interests. The fabric of our reality is being contested in the trenches of Twitter (X) feeds, Facebook (Meta) posts, and viral videos, with algorithms curating a reality that often blurs the line between fact and fabrication. This digital deluge is not merely a passive flow but a weaponized stream calibrated to erode trust, foment division and reshape the collective consciousness. The echo chambers thus created are potent echo chambers of power, where authoritarians can amplify their narratives unchecked, warping the public perception at a scale and speed that traditional propaganda could never achieve. 

It is also essential to understand the treacherous waters of the cult of personality, where political figures assume a god-like status among their followers. These leaders deploy a narrative replete with themes of persecution and redemption, casting themselves as the sole lifeline in tumultuous times. Their inflated self-image and diminished empathy set a stage where their whims dictate reality, and supporters are too often willing actors in this orchestrated theatre of power. The implications are dire: individual thought is subsumed by collective chant, and personal agency is surrendered to the altar of the movement. It’s a dynamic I’ve seen play out with destructive consequences in cults and now, with increasing frequency, on the political stage, where the stakes include not just individual lives but the very fabric of our democratic society. Ruth’s involvement with Protect Democracy and media engagements underscores her commitment to applying historical lessons to safeguard democratic values in the present. 

Acknowledging the shadow of authoritarianism is merely the prologue to a much larger narrative of resistance. But to counter this pervasive influence, Ruth and I together emphasize the imperative of rallying the voices of the disillusioned—those who have emerged from the fog of manipulation and can now articulate its dangers. These individuals become the harbingers of truth, wielding their experiences as shields and swords against the spread of autocratic ideologies. Civic education is another powerful tool, fostering clarity and understanding to counteract misinformation. On a local level, community engagement and reconnecting with core values can serve as a grassroots antidote to spreading authoritarian narratives. These strategies are not merely theoretical but practical imperatives for those committed to upholding the liberties and values that undergird our way of life. Even Ruth’s initiative seems to be educating the public on these issues through her writing, media appearances, and her book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” which delves into the methods illiberal leaders use to maintain power and the historical resistance to such figures. 

The constant bombardment of content, often laced with emotional triggers, is not a mere by-product of the digital age; it is a calculated instrument of authoritarian strategies designed to fragment and polarize society. This constant emotional arousal is a calculated assault on our cognitive defenses, encouraging binary thinking and reducing the space for nuanced discourse. The antidote to this malaise is nurturing media literacy to parse the torrent of data and fostering mindfulness to prevent the hijacking of our emotional equilibrium. Such self-awareness is essential if our democratic dialogue is to survive the relentless pace of technological change and the insidious agendas that aim to exploit it. It’s a call to engage in civic education, support leaders who uphold accountability, and embrace bipartisan collaboration to fortify the institutions that safeguard our freedoms. 

The emphasis is understanding the importance of staying informed and engaged. The lessons of history and contemporary examples highlight the constant need for vigilance and informed action in our interactions with the world. 

For those interested in delving into the intricacies of undue influence, my books “Combating Cult Mind Control” and “The Cult of Trump” provide in-depth perspectives on these issues. The Freedom of Mind Resource Center is also available, offering a wealth of information for individuals addressing the challenges posed by cults and extremist ideologies. If you want to understand more about these dynamics or contribute to the ongoing discourse on maintaining a resilient democracy, your participation is welcome. 


Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s website 

Lucid | Ruth Ben-Ghiat | Substack 

Authoritarians From Mussolini to Trump  NY Times book review By Francis Fukuyama