Updated at 4:45 p.m. on November 20, 2021.
In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi invited his good friend Vladimir Putin to Sardinia, where Berlusconi had a vacation home, to discuss Italy and Russia’s business and energy ties. At a joint press conference held during the visit, the Russian journalist Natalia Melikova asked Putin a question about his rumored relationship with the former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. As an angry Putin stayed silent and cameras rolled, Berlusconi mimicked shooting Melikova. The Italian press dismissed this and similar acts by the prime minister as “gaffes,” treating them as little more than social faux pas. Yet they were much more than that. Humiliating women, or even mimicking shooting them, was central to Berlusconi’s strongman brand and a key to his power
Exercising an autocratic style of governance within a nominal democracy, Berlusconi cultivated an image as a virile leader untouchable by the law and able to have whatever and whomever he wanted, on demand. The commercial-television networks and ad agencies he owned mirrored his misogynist actions, saturating Italy with images of women in submissive and degrading roles. By 2011, when the Eurozone crisis forced Berlusconi out of office, he had survived 20 indictments and seven convictions for corruption, and a sex scandal involving a minor, without losing the support of his base or going to prison. But a United Nations Commission report that year warned that persistent portrayals of women as “sex objects” by politicians and the media lowered women’s social status, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination. “This man offends women and offends democracy,” a feminist manifesto published in La Repubblica had warned two years earlier.
Authoritarianism has evolved over the past century, and old-school dictatorships are now joined by electoral autocracies. Yet at least one constant remains: Illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equity and emancipation spark anxieties about male authority and status. A conquest-without-consequences masculinity, posing as a “return to traditional values,” tracks with authoritarianism’s rise and parallels the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics. We commonly associate autocracy with state restrictions on behavior, but the removal of checks on actions deemed unethical in democratic contexts (lying, thievery, even rape and murder) is equally important to its operation and appeal.
That’s why it’s unsurprising to see a culture of lawless masculinity developing within the GOP, which adopted an authoritarian political culture during the Trump years. Renouncing democratic norms, the Republicans have normalized disinformation, election subversion, and violence as a means of governance, as expressed in their support for the January 6 coup attempt and the fiction that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election.
It’s symptomatic that a recent Fox News chyron trumpeted the need to “embrace masculinity,” and that Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri now styles himself the defender of “traditional masculine virtues—things like courage and independence and assertiveness” against a left trying to “feminize” men. The fist pump Hawley gave to the insurgents who had gathered to assault the Capitol hints at the real political agenda behind such calls for renewed male strength.
The anime-style video that Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona recently released, which spins a male fantasy of being acclaimed for murdering a female adversary, typifies the feelings of empowerment that come from belonging to a group that has legitimized criminal behavior. In it, an idealized Gosar saves the nation, attacking President Biden with swords and killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Democrats have called for Gosar’s expulsion from Congress and passed a measure on Wednesday to formally censure him, the strategic silence of the GOP leader Kevin McCarthy gives tacit approval to this public expression by a sitting lawmaker of murderous misogynist rage.
Flamboyant virility has always tended to go hand in hand with authoritarian politics, which is driven by the need to possess and exploit bodies, minds, national resources, and more. It’s easy to laugh at the pectoral-baring performances of Mussolini and Vladimir Putin, and dismiss the rape jokes made by Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, but the strongman style of leadership responds to perceived threats to male authority by upholding patriarchal privilege and the rights of men to satisfy their “natural” male desires.
Trump announced his allegiance to this tradition early on. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he asserted in January 2016. In October of that year, his assaultive approach to women became public through the leak of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said). In spite of widespread predictions that the leak would be the end of the Trump campaign, it merely enhanced his macho profile.
The ethos of lawless masculinity is a lubricant of corruption, normalizing behaviors and redefining illegal or immoral acts as acceptable, from election fraud to sexual assault. These new norms attract collaborators who find it thrilling to be able to commit criminal acts with impunity. (Gosar used promises of blanket pardons to recruit participants for the January 6 coup attempt.)
Charismatic authoritarians diffuse models of power based on brute force, and soon the political system spawns individuals who earn status by imitating them. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had surrogates and proxies who repeated his hypermasculine performances and bombastic oratory, starting with his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who mimicked Il Duce's chin thrusts, earning the nickname “The Jaw.” The Italian writer Italo Calvino, who grew up during the dictatorship, recalled how his generation internalized the gestures, opinions, and behaviors of Mussolini from an early age.
Trump’s success at birthing mini-Trumps is notable, considering that he governed in an open society for only four years (so far, at least). Mike Pompeo, who as secretary of state violated ethics standards and screamed obscenities at a female journalist, boasted about leading through “swagger,” while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s 2018 campaign identity as a “pitbull Trump defender” has become so entrenched three years later that he routinely mimics the former president’s hand gestures.
In classic authoritarian fashion, Trump attracted collaborators by making it easier for men to act on their desires without fear of punishment. In 2019, his administration partly decriminalized domestic violence, limiting its definition to physical acts of harm (which effectively legalized sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological actions or threats of actions). Trump also defended men accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and populated high-profile government positions with men, including Steve Bannon, who were accused of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or inappropriate workplace behavior. How fitting that his chief of protocol, Sean Lawler, carried a horsewhip around in the office to intimidate co-workers.
Whether or not Trump returns to office, the GOP has made his brand of outlaw glamour its own. A real man takes what he wants, when he wants it, whether in the bedroom, the workplace, or politics, and pays no penalty. As the Republican quest to destroy democracy intensifies, so will abusive, predatory, and criminal behavior be further enabled and justified. For a century, “getting away with it” has been central to authoritarianism’s allure, and it will be no different as the American version of illiberal rule unfolds.
This article originally stated that Silvio Berlusconi once grabbed a female traffic cop from behind and simulated copulation. Though accounts vary as to the origin and veracity of this anecdote, the video clip linked to in the description was from a fictional, satirical film about Berlusconi.