With the rise of populism around the world, there is increasing concern across the West that the tropes of authoritarianism are creeping into—and possibly even threatening—liberal democracy. These tendencies are visible in the strongman style of Russian president Vladimir Putin, posing shirtless while fishing or horseback riding. While the U.S. remains a liberal democracy, some authoritarianism-influenced imagery has entered its public sphere in recent years. Donald Trump also embraced a strong-man image, first as a celebrity businessman, later as the president of the United States. Trump adopted striking visuals with his personal appearance, but also with his administration’s branding: the bright red “Make America Great Again” hats, the rallies, and the overtly glamorous Trump women by his side. Trumpism was, and is, visually recognizable as a brand. To what extent is the popular appeal of strongman imagery and other authoritarian visuals a political problem for liberal democracy? Does liberal democracy 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 argues, tends to be visually striking, an increasingly important political asset in a time of change and uncertainty globally. Political moderation is essential to the sustenance of liberal-democratic order, but it doesn’t lend itself to powerful messaging. Extremism does, whether from left or right. Through cults of personality around individual leaders, or negative messaging about certain members of the population, authoritarian rulers offer supporters a sense of camaraderie that is difficult for proponents of democracy to counter—difficult, but not, Ben-Ghiat says, 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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