Today's selection -- from Strongmen by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Benito Mussolini’s philandering was an integral part of his leadership image:
“'Duce, I saw you yesterday during your tumultuous visit to our city,' wrote Michela C. of Siena in December 1925.
Our eyes met. I told you of my admiration, devotion, revealed my feelings to you .... Before your visit I was the unhappiest woman in the world. Stuck in a bad marriage, with a cold man .... I feared I would never know love in my life. Now I know that I love you ... I understood that I had touched your heart from the heated way you looked at me just before I fainted.
"History does not record whether Michela C. was one of thousands of women who, during two decades of Mussolini's rule, became part of his state-assisted machine of libidinal gratification. Young and less young, rich and poor, they came to his attention at rallies, events, or through letters they wrote to him. We don't know if Michela was among the five to twenty different women per week who received an invitation to meet Il Duce and climbed the stairs to his private quarters in Palazzo Venezia. When they emerged, 15 minutes later -- the time it took for the 'brief and violent' encounters he favored -- they were persons of interest to Mussolini’s security apparatus. His fixers and secret police stood ready to force an abortion, pay for silence, or make life difficult for the women’s boyfriends and husbands. One thing was certain: once Mussolini entered your life and your vagina, you were never free of him again.
"The strongman would be nothing without bodies to control. He needs crowds to acclaim his projects of national greatness on camera, taxpayers to fund his follies and his private bank accounts, soldiers to fight his wars, and mothers to birth all of the above. The systems of Mussolini and other leaders created to procure bodies for their sexual satisfaction may be seen in this context. Far from being a private affair, the sex life of the strongman reveals how corruption, propaganda, violence, and virility work together and how personalist rulers use state resources to fulfill their desires. Gaddafi was unusual in establishing a bureaucracy dedicated to this project, but whenever the ruler has a sex addiction, as he and Mussolini did, it subtracts time and energy from governance -- up to several hours a day in their cases.
"Many strongmen boast of their virile powers. Bare-chested photographs advertise the fitness and potency of Mussolini and Putin. Gaddafi, Berlusconi, and Trump vaunt control of desirable women, the former by surrounding himself with attractive female bodyguards and nurses, the latter two with former models and beauty pageant queens. Some broadcast their sexual stamina. 'I can love four women at the same time,' says Duterte; 'If I sleep for three hours, I have the energy to make love for three hours after that,' claims Berlusconi. 'As a masculine egotist he sees women solely as beauties made for pleasure,' reflected Mussolini's much betrayed mistress Margherita Sarfatti at the end of her biography Dux. Most of the leaders featured in this book would fit that description and be proud of it.
"Presented by their personality cults as the ideal blend of everyman and superman, authoritarians make ordinary men feel better about their own transgressions. These were probably not as lavishly bad as what the leader was engaging in: hosting sex parties with underage women in attendance (Berlusconi), being spanked by porn stars (Trump), or keeping the twin sister of your wife as your mistress (Mobutu). The appeal of these leaders for many rests on their having the power to get away with things that ordinary men cannot, whether in the bedroom or in politics.
Putin with bikers 2019
"Gaining favor after periods of economic and political gain for women, the strongman seeks to reverse shifts in social norms that threaten patriarchy and the satisfaction of 'natural' male desires. Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg's 1930 call for 'the emancipation of women from the women's emancipation movement' was typical. So was Berlusconi's 2009 warning to Italian women that the state could not protect them from sexual assault, hinting that their own attractiveness made them fair game: 'We can't deploy a big military force to avoid rapes. We'd have to have as many soldiers in the street as there are beautiful Italian women.' For a century, women have been the strongman's adversaries, along with prosecutors, journalists, and the political opposition. His machismo is not just empty posturing, but a strategy of political legitimation and an important component of authoritarian rule.
"Putin is a case in point. His body display is an integral part of his identity as defender of Russia's pride and its right to expand in the world. The Kremlin releases images of him in macho poses, like the ones taken of him fishing during a 2007 vacation in southern Siberia. The government also deploys images of him as a hypermasculine thug to send a message when his power is threatened, as when he posed with bikers in a black leather jacket in August 2019 as tens of thousands of Russians protested him in the streets.
"Strongman rulers also display their virility to and for each other. Public events, like meetings and summits, where millions will be watching, are ideal occasions. Machismo figures heavily in their mediatized brand of politics. Hitler, preparing for his first in-person meeting with Mussolini in 1934, stoked the fires by telling an American journalist that he preferred 'man to man diplomacy.' Putin’s virile friendship with Berlusconi was genuine, but the Russian is trained in the science of attraction and knows how to simulate male fellowship, as when he walked hand in hand with Modi for the cameras in Saint Petersburg in June 2017. Trump bonded with Orbán as they sat together at the White House in 2019, their craggy faces and heavy bodies projecting a kindred brutalist power. 'It's like we're twins,' Trump exclaimed."