Strongmen: Excerpts from the New Epilogue to the Paperback Edition, Publishing Today!
Welcome to Lucid! I’m pleased to offer subscribers these exclusive excerpts from the new epilogue I wrote for the paperback edition of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, which publishes today. The book covers the authoritarian playbook of propaganda, virility, corruption, propaganda, and the promise of national greatness. One-third of the book is about coups, from Hitler’s failed one to the successful operations of Franco, Pinochet, and Gaddafi. This narrative, together with the chapters on how strongmen have been resisted and how they fall, gives perspective on the events we are living through now. You can order the book here.
The conflicts described in this book between authoritarians and those who resist them have intensified over the last year. In the United States, long a supporter of both foreign autocracies and open societies, the struggle between illiberalism and democracy has become a central theme of American politics and a source of grave divisions in society. Four years of Donald Trump's authoritarian-style presidency cemented the GOP's abandonment of consensus politics and the norms and customs of democracy.
The dramatic events that followed Trump's loss in the 2020 election, through the January 6, 2021 armed assault on the Capitol, offer clues to the challenges American democracy will face from within in the coming years.
Seeing this period through the lens of authoritarian history gives clarity and context to what, for America, was uncharted territory. Trump's behavior in these months built on the desperate acts autocrats have always engaged in to avoid having to leave office.
He explored a military intervention to facilitate a re-run of the election, and he also attempted the favorite 21st century despot trick of electoral manipulation, alleging extensive voter fraud and pressuring state officials, such as Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to "find votes" sufficient to overturn the results.
Yet by the end of 2020, with the armed forces and electoral options looking less viable, Trump's inner circle focused on the event that could seal Trump's fate: the Electoral College certification of Biden's victory on January 6, and a "Stop the Steal" rally, months in the planning, to be held near the Capitol that day. "Big protest in D.C. on January 6," Trump tweeted on December 19. "Be there, will be wild!"
Like all shock events, January 6 will take years to digest and investigate. As an act of domestic terror, it connects to a tradition of far-right extremism. Yet it can also be seen as a coup attempt (technically, a self-coup) by a sitting president who sought to interrupt the democratic process to remain in power illegally.
Trump insiders and GOP elites funded the January 6 rally and created the proper psychological and political atmosphere for an intervention. Propagandists like Alex Jones did their part, and the far-right corners of the Internet lit up with chatter as the day of the fateful Electoral College meeting approached. "Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in," said a commentator who came to the FBI's attention.
An authoritarian's followers can also become especially volatile if they feel he is endangered. Storming the Capitol was not just an act of populist rage, but also a last-ditch leader rescue operation. The film shown at the rally paid homage to Trump's personality cult, and a close-up of his face lingered on screen as his supporters streamed to the Capitol, becoming the latest people to commit violence on the strongman's behalf.
As some armed individuals charged the Capitol, others stood down to let operations proceed. The Pentagon's three-hour plus delay in approving reinforcements for the beleaguered Capitol Police facilitated the breach of the Capitol. Such non-action can be strategic. For counter-terrorism expert Malcolm Nance, it was as though "the entire national security apparatus was deliberately turned off."
It may be tempting to think of the estimated 800 individuals who stormed the Capitol as outliers: militia members, Proud Boys, and other extremists. But dozens of retired and active-duty law enforcement, military, and government personnel also took part, as did 57 state and local GOP elected officials. The coup designation matters because January 6 was an inside job.
Whether or not Trump runs for office in 2024, the GOP will use the autocratic tools of electoral manipulation, voter suppression, criminalization of protest, violence, and disinformation. After January 6, nothing is off the table: extremists might well view the failed coup as a trial run. "That's what we fucking need to have, 30,000 guns up here," said one rioter that day, frustrated that he was not entering the Capitol more rapidly. "Next trip," someone answered him.
Authoritarian history shows that while democracies have often failed, so have autocracies, which fall victim to systemic dysfunction and the rapacious nature of those who govern them. The story of the strongman, rife with tragedy, also offers lessons in hope and resiliency. It urges us to invest in democracy protection rather than take our freedoms for granted. The costs of not doing so are far too great.