Byline Supplement — Exposing the Hypocrisy of Faux Populists with Ruth Ben-Ghiat
My latest report in Byline Supplement is a recap of our Byline new team meeting with the famed historian and ‘Strongmen’ author
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“Attacking the press is like insurance for strongmen while they're on their way up. Because when something comes out about their corruption or crimes, whatever it's going to be — they need the public to already feel that the press is biased and to already have turned against the press, and at the very least, feel that the press is discredited or not reliable.”—Ruth Ben-Ghiat
While on my way to meet the Byline team in New York, I used the time to transcribe our interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who joined Byline’s November news meeting for a Q&A. The historian and ‘Strongmen’ author is soft-spoken and subtle, so when I see her words reflected back at me, it’s unbelievable how powerful they are. She offered so much intel on how the media should be handling these strongmen and what we as pro-democracy activists can do to call out the hypocrisy of faux populists.
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Below is an excerpt from the report, and as always, I am authorized from Byline to allow Bette members to read the full report upon request at bettedangerous/gmail, if you are unable to subscribe at this time:
Heidi Siegmund Cuda: I am honored to introduce my friend Ruth Ben-Ghiat — she wrote the pivotal book Strongmen: Mussolini To the Present, (published in the UK as Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall) which looked at 100 years of fascism, totalitarianism, and the fascinating relationship between Mussolini and Hitler. She is a professor of Italian studies at New York University. But what many people might not know is she's actually originally a Southern California girl. And I wouldn't mind starting there, because some of the people that you were raised near, were exiled during the rise of Nazism and that had an influence on why you chose this path. So if you wouldn't mind, please share a snapshot of that.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Thank you for having me. And thank you, Heidi. It's funny when we all think about how we got started with what we do today, it was kind of improbable because my mother's from Scotland, and lives in England. And my father's originally from Jerusalem, Sephardic Jews — my grandfather's from Yemen.
So I was first generation, and they settled in Southern California, in a beautiful little town near Malibu, called Pacific Palisades, and this was where many exiles from Nazism settled, and a lot of famous ones — Thomas Mann, Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg.
So their kids and grandkids were around, and my father would take me library book sales and there'd be first editions of Weimar Germany authors. Their books were like having the ghosts of these people around. And Shoenberg’s son was briefly my teacher in high school.
I started thinking about, what did it mean when a dictator comes in — because of my background, I grew up with Holocaust stories. But what did it mean to have to uproot yourself? And so I started being interested in Nazism and talking to people whose families had been exiled. And from there I decided to work on Italian fascism, because there was less scholarship done on that and it lasted twice as long. So that's how I got started. And I didn't know then it would be so relevant today.
Stop Glamorizing Autocrats
HSC: So we want to talk about what media can do to help shore up democracy, and we just had a big win in America, and I wouldn't credit media so much for it. I think it probably dates back to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But one of the key things that you said to me recently about media and dealing with autocracy is that we in the media have to stop glamorizing these autocrats. And can you speak on that? I thought that was a very important point.
RBG: One of the reasons I wrote Strongmen was to warn people, particularly Americans, that it can happen to you. There are patterns. And what Trump was doing with this incitement to violence and destroying the truth had been done before, and we can be prepared.
And so I wanted to debunk these kinds of myths that seem kind of indestructible, like Mussolini makes the trains run on time, and such authoritarianism myths as safe streets and no crime and ‘I alone can fix it’.
Unfortunately, these strongmen are very skilled practitioners of capturing media attention.
January 6 — A Cult Leader Rescue Mission
HSC: You refer to January 6 as a cult leader rescue mission. And I think that's a really important point, because I'm finding that no matter how many indictments Trump has, there are those who will continue to serve him and believe in him. So can you talk about that cult leader rescue mission and the cult dynamics at play?
RBG: It's really interesting that the personality cult dynamics hasn’t really changed for 100 years.
This victimhood thing is very important in the bonding. It keeps people tethered to them. And then if they get into trouble, as Trump did when he lost the election, and they're in distress, we know that followers of leader cults, if their objective, their love and devotion, is in trouble, they become very volatile, and they can be manipulated. And so that's what happened. Of course, there were all these discourses, and these things were set up way before January 6…
So no wonder everybody rushed to the Capitol. And as I always suspected, if he’s a real authoritarian, he must have a coup. And a third of the book is about coups. And I didn't know it was going to be so relevant.
But one way we can strike back is point out the brazen hypocrisy of these people — what I call the faux populism. An example — the now stepping down Polish Prime Minister — a guy who is railing against globalists, and then he's an international banker. Or, of course, the famous case of Brexit — the faux populism — what was the end supposed to be? Who were the architects of it?
I mean, Trump is the biggest globalist of all…
There's a reason that one of the most dangerous professions in the world is investigative journalism — everywhere. And that's what you need to do. Exposing the corruption, exposing their BS — the example I just gave about the faux populism. That's part of it.
Also, recognizing that in places like the UK and America, the toolkit and framework that the media used and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones had a whole summit on this that I was at last fall — the frameworks that were being used don't work anymore. We can’t take democracies for granted.
As always, Ruth gives us so much to think about.
In the last 24 hours, I’ve given you much to think about — from Dr. Steven Hassan, Hunter Biden, Aquilino Gonell, and now Ruth — there won’t be a quiz, but I do so hope their words give you comfort in these murky times.
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