A mercurial hothead, Mussolini reveled in his role as a political disrupter. His crisis-mongering platforms contained a confusing blend of socialist and nationalist tenets, trafficking in contradiction and paradox, the better to challenge traditional ideas about politics. “Does Fascism aim at restoring the State, or subverting it? Is it order or disorder?” he taunted Italians in print six months before he took over as prime minister.
His grassroots followers spoke more directly, terrorizing Italy’s hinterland as a prelude to claiming control. Taking Mussolini’s incendiary rhetoric to heart, his blackshirts beat and executed thousands of political opponents—including priests—at rallies and on trains, in shops, schools, and taverns. Everyday violence primed the country for an exceptional outcome: In 1922, Mussolini staged a march on Rome and demanded the post of prime minister from the terrified king.
Italians learned in the 1920s what Americans are learning in 2016: Charismatic authoritarians seeking political office cannot be understood through the framework of traditional politics. They lack interest in, and patience for, established protocols. They often trust few outside of their own families, or those they already control, making collaboration and relationship building difficult. They work from a different playbook, and so must those who intend to confront them.
The authoritarian playbook is defined by the particular relationship such individuals have with their followers. It’s an attachment based on submission to the authority of one individual who stands above the party, even in a regime. Mussolini, a journalist by training, used the media brilliantly to cultivate a direct bond with Italians that confounded political parties and other authority structures and lasted for 18 years.
Trump also cultivates a personalized bond with voters, treating loyalty to the Republican Party almost as an afterthought. It’s why he emphasizes the emotional content of his events—he “feels the love,” or fends off “the haters.” Early on, he introduced a campaign ritual more common in dictatorships than democracies: an oath pledging support to his person, complete with a straight-armed salute. Securing this personal bond is a necessary condition for the success of future authoritarian actions, since it allows the leader to claim, as does Trump, that he embodies the voice and will of the people.
Mussolini’s rise to power also exemplifies another authoritarian trait America has seen during this campaign: The charismatic leader who tests the limits of what the public, press, and political class will tolerate. This exploration begins early and is accomplished through controversial actions and threatening or humiliating remarks toward groups or individuals. It’s designed to gauge the collective appetite and permission for verbal and physical violence and the use of extralegal methods in policing and other realms. The way elites and the press respond to each example of boundary-pushing sets the tone for the leader’s future behavior—and that of his followers.