"Drain the Swamp," And Other Myths That Cover Up Authoritarian Crimes
As authoritarianism spreads around the world, we see its cherished myths and themes gain new life. Holocaust denial is on the rise, as is attraction to strongmen leaders. Two propaganda points have been particularly influential over a century. First, the idea of authoritarianism as an efficient form of government. Second, the presentation of illiberal leaders as reformers who will crack down on crime. Far from cleaning up the country, "drain the swamp" campaigns have targeted those who call out the leader's lawlessness and corruption.
Mussolini the "Modernizer"
The first leader to convert a democracy into a dictatorship, Benito Mussolini (1922-1945) marketed Fascism as a modern and efficient political system. As he claimed in his 1926 autobiography, having one individual who implemented the national will ended the tedium of consensus politics and the "childish game" of voting. Abolishing worker rights? A sound management strategy. "We do not waste time in brawls and strikes which...imperil our strength and the solidity of our economy," he wrote.
The idea that Mussolini made the trains run on time depended on the suspension of press and other freedoms for its credibility. Journalists were banned from mentioning accidents and delays, and official statistics communicated "not so much the actual state of things as what the regime would like the people to believe,” as the anti-Fascist Gaetano Salvemini observed. Trains running on tourist routes were prioritized, though, and the Fascists tried to keep violence out of sight in tourist areas. The exiled Italian scholar G.A. Borgese grew tired of hearing Americans return from vacation and praise Mussolini for making Italy "safe and clean."
Mussolini literally drained the swamps, impressing millions as he transformed the Pontine Marshes into New Towns like Aprilia, where he made a shirtless appearance in 1938. Yet the Fascists' 1924 murder of Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti to prevent him from exposing Fascist Party corruption revealed their true priorities. Likewise, Mussolini made headlines with his crusade against organized crime, but fired the official who discovered collaborations between the Mafia and the Fascist Party. Fascism not only did not defeat the old Mafia, but added a new one that operated under state authority - a precedent for today's authoritarian states. As the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and poisoning of Alexei Navalny suggest, Putin has followed Il Duce's approach: preach against corruption in public, facilitate it in private, and silence those who investigate it.
Putin the "Dynamo"
Putin came to power in 2000 as a modernizing reformer, his tough-guy talk and physical fitness presented as evidence of his dynamic approach to governance and life. Yet his energy has been primarily directed toward building a kleptocracy and a media environment that conceals it through censorship and information manipulation.
That's why we don't hear enough about how clan networks allied with the Russian government prey upon and persecute businesspeople. Thousands of business owners have gone into exile, escaping the fates of over 70,000 others who were jailed or faced criminal proceedings from 2002 to 2012 on technicalities or fabricated charges like tax evasion. By 2018, one in six business owners faced prosecution. By 2019, 3% of the population held 89% of the country’s financial assets.
Putin also stands for the hypocrisy of "anti-globalists" who rely on global financial institutions and partners to fund their infrastructure projects, store their cash in offshore havens, and launder their assets. Since 2006, Putin and his associates may have removed several hundred billion dollars from Russia. Some of that wealth was likely cleaned with the help of the Trump Organization, given that Russian investors had long been a central revenue source for the company.
Trump the "Efficient Businessman"
Trump channeled a century of authoritarian propaganda when he claimed in March 2017 that he would streamline the federal bureaucracy and prioritize ethics reform. Of course, his "drain the swamp" slogan and anti-big government ethos also evoked the Ronald Reagan years. Yet they took on a new meaning when harnessed to populist rage about elites supposedly privileging foreign interests over American ones, and Trump's promise to bring corporate efficiency to the White House. "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he had boasted in July 2016, accepting the Republican nomination.
As Trump's negligent handling of the coronavirus pandemic made clear, his idea of "fixing the system" had nothing to do with public welfare and democratic governance. Rather, he shared the autocrat's aim of turning public office into a means of generating profits for himself and his family. Until the pandemic curtailed travel in 2020, he spent almost one-third of his time in office visiting Trump Organization properties to promote his brand.
Unsurprisingly, one outcome of "drain the swamp" was Trump’s firing of any official who would not be complicit in his corruption, like FBI Director James Comey and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Another was converting federal agencies into easements for corporate plunder, as when a former executive from the Monsanto chemical company took over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And Trump's "anti-globalist" rhetoric fronted an administration whose cabinet officials, like Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, were enmeshed in networks of international capital. The Trump Organization's own business model involves licensing Trump's name globally and carrying loans from Bank of China and other foreign entities.
For one hundred years, strongmen have claimed that authoritarianism is an efficient mode of governance, even as they use disinformation and intimidation to hide the destruction they cause. Certainly, some people prosper: leaders help elites to concentrate capital and privatize public goods. And the stadiums, airports, and highways that proliferate under strongman rule convince many that the leader has improved the country.
Yet such gleaming monuments cannot cover over the catastrophic loss that results from plundered businesses, disappeared people, exiled families, and massacred communities. It is up to us to keep these histories of ruin in the public record. They are a reminder that, far from bringing greatness, authoritarians have a destructive effect on the societies they govern.
This article is paired with my interview with William Browder, to be published on Friday, April 2, 2021. Browder's companies were raided in 2005 and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison. Browder is currently on Putin's "kill list" for his lobbying efforts to pass the Magnitsky Act that punishes human rights offenders.
Mussolini in Aprilia, July 1938. Ullstein bild via Getty Images.
Putin rides in a motorbike festival in Novorossiysk, August 2011.
Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images
Trump at the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, July 2016.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Benito Mussolini, My Autobiography (New York, 1938), 240, 281.
Gaetano Salvemini, “Mussolini's Battle of Wheat.” Political Science Quarterly, 46, 1 (March 1, 1931), 38.
G.A. Borgese, Goliath: The March of Fascism (New York, 1937), 330.
Christopher Duggan, Fascism and the Mafia (New Haven, 1989).
Amy Knight, Orders to Kill. The Putin Regime and Political Murder (New York, 2017).
Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who Owns Russia? (New York, 2015),
J.C. Sharfman, The Despot’s Guide of Wealth Management (Ithaca and London, 2017).
David Enrich, Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction (New York, 2020).