With the rise of populism around the world, there’s been an increasing concern across the West about the tropes of authoritarianism creeping into, and possibly even threatening, the political idioms of liberal democracy—not least in the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. Like his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, Trump projected himself as a strongman figure—originally as a celebrity businessman, ultimately as what was once called “the leader of the free world.” Trump himself seems to have had little doubt about the role this image—or the role of imagery generally, from the bright-red “Make America Great Again” hats, to the spectacular rallies, to surrounding himself with super-glamorous women—played in his political success. Trump had long been a kind of brand; Trumpism was a new kind, manifestly capable of disrupting conventional American politics to the point of crisis. To what extent has this recent history showed strongman imagery and other authoritarian projections to be an ongoing political danger for liberal democracy? Does it have a branding problem?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University, is the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. Illiberal imagery, Ben-Ghiat says, is emotionally compelling imagery—an increasingly important political asset in a time of change and uncertainty globally. Political moderation, as essential as it is to the sustenance of any liberal-democratic order, doesn’t lend itself to such an asset. Extremism, whether from the right or the left, does. Through cults of personality built around individual leaders, or negative messaging about certain groups in a population, authoritarian movements offer supporters a sense of camaraderie that’s difficult for proponents of liberal democracy to counter—difficult, but not, for Ben-Ghiat, impossible: “The way in for liberal democracy is to find messaging and imagery that is about what we share—and that makes people dream.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Why do you think liberal democracy has a branding problem?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: It’s built into its nature, because liberal democracy depends on reason over emotion, on consensus, and on finding agreement with people who don’t think like you. All of those things wouldn’t translate graphically or visually as easily as the fist, or racial salute, of the political extremes.

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