Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, is a political commentator and cultural critic who has received Guggenheim, Fulbright, and many other fellowships for her academic work on fascism and its memory, war, and visual propaganda. Since 2016 she’s used her historical knowledge of how authoritarian leaders seek to undermine democracy to predict what Trump would do once in office (authoritarian playbook). In essays and interviews in The Washington Post The Atlantic, CNN.com, The New Yorker she’s argued that Trump’s use of language, his attempts to personalize public office, and his establishment of a culture of threat in America are consistent with a century of authoritarian rulers.
Her New Yorker article on why Fascist monuments are not only intact but also admired today in Italy caused a media storm in Italy and prompted a national debate about what to do about the legacies of fascism at a time of resurgent right-wing politics.
Ben-Ghiat’s interest in fascism came from an unlikely place: Pacific Palisades, California, where she grew up – and where many famous exiles from Nazism had relocated. Hearing about their struggles led her to investigate (in Fascist Modernities and in Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, her award-winning study of fascist visual propaganda) what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold and why fascism appealed to so many.
Strongmen: How The Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall (to be published by W.W. Norton) builds on this expertise. It puts the Leader at the center of a global history of authoritarian rule from Mussolini and Hitler to Gaddafi and Pinochet to Erdogan, Putin, and others of our age. The book draws on cultural history and gender studies as well as years of research in a dozen archives around the world to examine how strongmen use persuasion and violence to stay in power. Why do so many people admire these rulers, and stay loyal to them no matter what they say or do? How does the strongman leverage his masculinity to present himself as the nation’s ideal leader? What are the strongman’s weaknesses, and how can be resisted and removed from power?
Ben-Ghiat is an strong advocate of public history and the value of the humanities. In this spirit, in 2014 she created and edited a popular multi-media series for CNN.com on the legacies of World War One.
She sits on the Board of Directors of the World Policy Institute. In 2013 she received an Award for Outstanding Service for her work for the Institute of International Education‘s Scholar Rescue Fund, which assists researchers threatened by repressive governments.
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