Unmasking Strongmen: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Truth

Author and political commentator Ruth Ben-Ghiat at ASU on May 2

By Dawn Beeson
April 25, 2024

In today's political climate, the rise of authoritarianism and the assault on truth are concerns on a global scale. The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict’s May 2 event, "Strongmen and the Assault on Democracy and Truth: Is It Time to Use the F-Word?," featuring historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, tackles these issues and more. Ben-Ghiat, an author and political commentator, appears frequently on MSNBC, CNN and other networks.

The event is part of the center’s Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era. This project promotes dialogue and understanding of issues that shape our collective future.

Ben-Ghiat will explore the impacts of surging anti-democratic and anti-expertise movements in conversation with the CSRC’s John Carlson and Tracy Fessenden.

The demand within elements of government, the press and sectors of culture to pursue and speak the truth is failing. Disinformation riddled with words like authoritarianism and Fascism floods popular media. The word "Fascism" especially carries weighty historical meaning, and its use in contemporary conversation sparks debate about the nature of authoritarianism and its impacts on democracy. Some may argue this is not the time to invoke such strong labels. Others, like Ben-Ghiat, use it regularly. 

Ben-Ghiat's book, "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present," dives deep into ways authoritarian movements rely on lies, violence and a false construction of reality to further their goals. She cites parallels between the Fascist movements of the early 20th century and our contemporary moment. 

"Mussolini and Hitler talked about political enemies as vermin... Trump is very closely echoing speech that has resulted in violence, and he is telling us he is going to crack down and have mass arrests. Authoritarians always tell us what they are going to do, but we often don't listen," Ben-Ghiat cautioned in a CBS interview

The question, "Is It Time to Use the F-word?" reflects the importance of recognizing such behavior and challenging the narratives public figures present to us as absolute truths. 

In a February 2024 interview on MSNBC, Ben-Ghiat noted, "The essence of authoritarianism is removing restraints on the leader and making him immune from prosecution by domesticating government... They take away the rights of millions." In an era of misinformation, events like this model the power of informed discussion, education, and an engaged public in building resilient democracies and fostering a just world.

The Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era project is supported by a generous grant from The Henry Luce Foundation Religion and Theology Program.

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Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Professor of History and Italian Studies
New York University

Thursday, May 2, 2024
3-4:15 p.m.
Registration required

The global rise of authoritarianism and anti-democratic efforts in the United States have prompted many to use the F-word — “Fascism” — to characterize our current moment. In what ways does the political ideology of fascism capture or misrepresent what’s happening in political life today? In particular, how do strongmen and authoritarian movements rely upon lies, violence and a false construction of reality to further their goals? Join us for this moderated conversation with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian, commentator and author.