Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present Review

I don’t remember how I ran across mention of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, but it sounded like the kind of book I would be interested in. When I got my copy from the hold list at the library and looked at the jacket, though, I was concerned. The author of the book, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, it turns out is, among other things, a political commentator for CNN. To me that isn’t a positive, considering that I think CNN is a raging garbage fire. Also, more relevant to this situation, I found a book I read last year from another author, who like this one, who is a professor and provides political commentary for CNN, to have some bad blind spots. Also, not in the positive column was that on the inside of the front of the jacket of the book there was a blurb from Sarah Kendzior, who, from what I have heard of here, seems to be a grifter. Reading the book, I came away with the belief that the concern was warranted, as there were some statements in the book that were fairly obviously misleading and false based on what I already knew.

I’m not anywhere near an expert on any of the historical items mentioned, so maybe the issues I noticed are the only ones and they only deal with recent happenings, but that they are so glaring would lead to wonder how much else is not accurate. One example of this involves none other than CNN, of all things. Here is the line:

To expand viewership to the United States, exposing Americans to Kremlin propaganda, RT America has hired Fox News talents like Rick Sanchez and Scottie Neil Hughes.

When I read that I wondered if she was referring to the Rick Sanchez who best known for his time at, and firing from, CNN. It turns out that it was. Based on what is on his Wikipedia page, he did later have a fairly limited role at Fox News. Emphasizing his involvement with Fox News seems misleading. I also thought Scottie Nell Hughes (her name is misspelled Neil in the book) also worked at CNN. That was also correct. Not only that, but according to a Washington Post article by Rachel Chason, she was never an employee of Fox News:

Hughes worked as a paid contributor at CNN during the 2016 presidential campaign. She never became a contributor at Fox News or Fox Business.

She was a “regular guest” on Fox News, before, not after, she was involved with CNN:

Hughes, who was a regular guest on Fox News and Fox Business from 2013 until 2016, said that when she ended the relationship with Payne, the network blacklisted her.

Worst-case scenario here, Ruth Ben-Ghiat was intentionally covering up that these people were involved with CNN, but it seems more likely that wasn’t the case.

Another example of this involves this description of the famous “Access Hollywood tape”:

Trump said in 2005 about groping and kissing women, unaware he was being recorded by Billy Bush, producer of the Access Hollywood television program Trump was appearing on.

Billy Bush was a host of Access Hollywood, and that was the context of him being with Donald Trump. A quick check didn’t pull him up a having also been a producer. On IMDB he has one producing credit, and it isn’t Access Hollywood. Also, Billy Bush wasn’t recording him, Access Hollywood was doing the recording ahead of the segment being filmed.

Another example that I noticed involved this claim:

In 2019, Trump called the late representative Elijah Cummings’s (D-MD) majority-Black congressional district “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” to turn attention away from Cummings’s investigation (as chair of the House Oversight Committee) of daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s use of private email accounts for state business.

Seven pages later, she notes this:

In contrast, many of his tweets on policy issues echo ideas aired on Fox News moments earlier.

The connection between those two statements is that the “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” comment came “about an hour after a Fox News segment portrayed Baltimore as dirty and dangerous“. Is it possible that it was intended to “turn attention away” from something, yes, but the simpler explanation is that he just tweeted about whatever was on Fox News.

The last example of this that stood out to me:

In keeping with traditions of authoritarian corruption, the Trump administration also used resources allocated for relief related to the pandemic to reward allies and consolidate patronage networks. Phunware, a data firm employed by the Trump reelection campaign, received $2.85 million from the $2 trillion stimulus fund, or fourteen times the average payout.

Reading the cited source for the Phunware claim makes that statement seem unsupported, at best, as the money they receive came from a generally available program in that stimulus, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The size of a company would impact how much money they received, so receiving more than the average isn’t somehow an indication of any sort of corruption.

Those may be far from the only issue, as when I went to look up something to write about another unrelated issue I found with the book, I found with the book I ran into another example of apparently misleading information. Here is the relevant quote:

This 1929 portrait, which highlights his intensity and masculine capability, became an iconic image after 1933.

Below that is a photo listed as “Adolf Hitler, 1929.” with credits “HEINRICH HOFFMANN /  EVEREST COLLECTION / AGEOFSTOCK “. I had a hard time finding the image, and when I found it at agefotostock, I found it is labeled “Adolf Hitler, in a military uniform, when he was Chancellor of Germany. Ca. 1933-1938. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann. (BSLOC_2013_9_172)”. So something is wrong here.

If the right photo is included in the book, I don’t see the claimed “masculine capability” in it. While less of an issue than the inaccuracies, I came away thinking that the author was reading too much into a lot of things.


Based on the inaccuracies I ran across, I would recommend avoiding the book. Even if those weren’t there, I didn’t find the book all that good, because of the aforementioned over reading of things and the book being largely a collection of disparate items instead of a cohesive narrative.

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