*Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read more of her work at Lucid.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
It was painful to watch, and highly revealing. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was keeping it together on a big trip to Japan whose purpose was to produce images of him as a statesman that will help his presidential ambitions. Although he has not yet announced his candidacy, he looked the part in photos of his meetings with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other high officials: shaking hands and smiling is something he has mastered.
Then it all fell apart when a journalist asked about his faltering poll numbers with respect to former president Donald Trump. "I'm not...I'm not a candidate, so we'll see if and when that changes," he responded, his wildly bobbing head and saucer eyes making for a surreal and intense spectacle. Mid-sentence, he had to turn his head and avert eye contact to avoid the painful probing.
When an ambitious leader whose authoritarian bullying has gained him power in his domestic fiefdom steps out of his comfort zone and onto the global stage, a stress test ensues that many fail. Such personalities only feel safe when they can control everyone and everything around them. If those protections are removed due to a change of context —say, a press conference on foreign soil— their fragility is, to their horror, displayed to the world.
As Florida governor, DeSantis has followed authoritarian leaders who depict themselves as decisive and forceful to cover up a seeming sense of inner emptiness and insecurity that no amount of power can ever fill. The fear of exposure and criticism is why this genre of leader creates "inner sanctums" staffed with sycophants, family members, and flatterers whose job is to shield him from the truth.
Surrounded by his wife Casey and his far-right attack-dog consiglieri, DeSantis does not seem to see the downsides of his need to show the world that no one is above being controlled and punished by him. This compulsion is why, along with the usual GOP targets (the LGBTQ community, "woke" educators, Blacks, and immigrants) he has gone after the Special Olympics and Disney.
Typically for authoritarians, amassing more power has only made him more arrogant. He interferes in areas previously beyond gubernatorial authority, asserting his power to make appointments, including to the State Supreme Court, without Cabinet approval. He also treats many of his fellow Florida Republicans as rivals to be shut out, humiliated, or brought to heel.
Some of those Republicans are now paying him back by supporting Trump for the GOP nomination. "There are no second chances. It's well known you can't go against him. If you cross him once, you're dead," says a former Florida state legislator, speaking anonymously, of DeSantis's brutal leadership style.
Authoritarian history offers context for this behavior. Lacking objective input, such leaders start to believe their own propaganda, which increases their megalomania and grandiosity (cue DeSantis's disturbing campaign ad about God creating him as a fighter on the 8th day). Exiting these protective bubbles for events held in foreign democracies can be deeply disturbing, as Mussolini found out a century ago.
In 1923, as a new prime minister of a coalition government, Mussolini visited London and Lausanne. He had unleashed years of Fascist violence in Italy, intimidated the King into inviting him into power, and posed to the world as the savior of Italy from Marxism. Yet he feared criticism and brought along an entourage of threatening-looking Blackshirts for protection.
That didn't bother the conservative London Times, which called him “a masterful man” for taming the Italian left, but Lausanne was a tougher sell. “Mussolini: Biggest Bluff in Europe,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in the Toronto Daily Star, finding Il Duce ignorant, boastful, and vain to the point of not realizing that the book he was holding at a press conference to remind everyone of his intellectual stature was turned upside down.
The last straw for Il Duce was being boycotted by foreign journalists in Locarno, Switzerland in 1925. By then Mussolini had been a dictator for a year and his personality cult was booming. Fascist Party secretary Roberto Farinacci had declared the party a “religion” founded on “loyalty and devotion” to Il Duce, and when He appeared in public in Italy (the pronoun was now capitalized, as for Jesus Christ or God), people thronged to touch him. Used to being in his cocoon of manufactured Italian adoration, Mussolini was unprepared to find only a handful of journalists at the Palace Hotel for his press conference—the majority had walked out to protest his violence. Incredulous, he approached a group of leftist journalists in the lobby and was mocked to his face by a Dutch reporter. The Duce “almost broke a blood vessel...and stalked away,” wrote the Chicago Tribune reporter George Seldes, who witnessed the exchange (Seldes would later be expelled from Italy for telling the truth about the ailing Fascist economy).
Tellingly, Mussolini did not set foot outside of Italian territory for twelve years, and then only to the dictator-friendly environment of Nazi Germany in 1937. Why should he risk being humiliated when he could stay home and humiliate others, starting with the Italian and foreign press?
The history of authoritarianism suggests that small moments of psychological distress and confrontation in front of the cameras are worth our attention as we evaluate rising leaders and the damage they can do. DeSantis's extreme reaction in Japan in response to a question about his electoral vulnerability speaks volumes about his character. It aligns him with a tradition of authoritarian leaders who bully and repress others in a futile attempt to vanquish their own feelings of insecurity. That never ends well.