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Authoritarians And Their Sons-In-Law From Mussolini To Trump: Partners in Corruption

Ruth Ben-Ghiat discusses the corrupt tradition of sons-in-law in the inner sanctums of dictators, their roles in corruption, and their potential as scapegoats.
Published:January 4, 2024
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Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

The essence of authoritarianism is getting away with crime, and corruption must be at the center of any analysis of how dictatorships operate. A large percentage of actions authoritarians take are about covering up corruption: demonizing and jailing journalists, judges, prosecutors and investigators, inventing narratives about their selflessness and purity, and establishing "inner sanctums" composed of cronies, sycophants, and family members who will keep their secrets, dispose of their enemies, and share in the profits from illicit activities.

I discuss these inner sanctums in my book Strongmen as symptoms of the dysfunctions of autocratic governanceHere, I focus on a figure who is key to their operation: the leader's son-in-law. The ultimate insider-outsiders, sons-in-law are convenient tools for autocrats who often designate their actual sons as candidates to succeed them (which has happened among autocrats one of every three years since 1994, a phenomenon known as hereditary succession).

Freed of this burden, sons-in-law have a different role. They are often given key jobs in the state corruption machinery or the parastate apparatus. Such jobs build power due to their great potential for illicit profits —power that a paranoid autocrat might not want someone outside of the family to have— but also carry lots of exposure, giving the autocrat plenty of ammunition to throw the son-in-law under the bus if a scapegoat is needed or disloyalty is suspected.

Greasing the Wheels of the Corruption Machine

The leverage and control the leader can exert over the son-in-law is also why left and right-wing authoritarians have placed these figures in economic policy and management positions that have a high potential to enrich the family.

When Chile became a laboratory of neoliberal policies during the military dictatorship, leader Augusto Pinochet put one son-in-law, Julio Ponce, in charge of the government agency in charge of privatizations and awarded him control of a chemical company with a $67 million annual profit. Another son-in-law, Jorge Aravena, got a large insurance agency. In Cuba, President Raúl Castro appointed his son-in- law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez, as head of the armed forces' Business Administration Group, an entity with large powers over Cuba's economy.

A Mini-Duce

At his most powerful, the son-in-law can be a proxy for the dictator. That was the case with Benito Mussolini's son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, who was widely hated by Italians for trying to be a "mini-Duce." As Mussolini's biographer Laura Fermi wrote, Ciano's nickname was “the Jaw” because “when Mussolini thrust out his chin, Ciano thrust his own half an inch farther.”

This outward adulation likely contributed to Il Duce choosing Ciano to be Foreign Minister in 1936, but it did not help Ciano to later avoid death by firing squad. He had voted in July 1943, along with the majority of the Fascist Grand Council, to remove Mussolini from power for incompetency and Mussolini did not spare him when he returned to power as head of the Nazi puppet state, the Republic of Salò.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, and British PM Neville Chamberlain, Munich Sept. 29, 1938. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

No wonder Pierre Janssen, the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's Belgian son-in-law, waited for the tyrant to be terminally ill before publishing a tell-all book about his father-in-law's colossal corruption and profligate spending, starting with the $65,000 cake served at his wedding to Mobutu's daughter. "If you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way. If you steal too much too quickly, you’ll be caught,” was Mobutu's philosophy, and Janssen spent his time in the inner sanctum recording each deviation of state resources into the coffers of his father-in-law, which over time plunged the country further into extreme poverty.

Orban, Erdogan, and Trump Continue the Tradition

Today's strongmen appear to be using their sons-in-law in similar ways. How did Viktor Orban’s son-in-law István Tiborcz, a businessman, become one of Hungary's richest men? Orban's government awarding Tiborcz's company large contracts without real competition is a likely factor, as is EU funds being directed by that government into favored businesses, but Orban made sure that corruption probes initiated by the European Union against him were dropped. "The system is about having its tentacles in the highest levels of government," said former Fidesz party insider Akos Hadhazy in 2022. With their unparalleled access to the leader, sons-in-law are key to that system. 

As for Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of his sons-in-law, Selchuk Bayraktar, is extremely valuable to him. Bayraktar is Chief Technology Officer of a family firm that produces the military drones that are revolutionizing warfare. At a time when Erdogan is becoming much more bellicose, with expanded geopolitical and imperialist ambitions, having a son-in-law at the forefront of Turkish military technology is an asset. Bayraktar is one reason The Economistwarned in Dec. 2023 that "Erdogan's relatives are becoming increasingly powerful."

The Turkish leader's other son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, has played a more typical role.
Albayrak was accused by multiple foreign governments of illegal activities while serving as Energy Minister. Turkish-German Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücul was arrested in 2017 on charges of propaganda for reporting on Albayrak's corruption, which came to light when Albayrak's emails were hacked.

Rather than remove Albayrak from government service, Erdogan "solved" the problem by moving Albayrak to a new job as Treasury and Finance Minister. After two years, with the Turkish economy in a downward spiral, Albayrak resigned from that position, but left his allies in control of his fiefdom. In 2022 he published a memoir defending his economic programs that failed to mention his father-in-law by name.

We shall see what this bold move portends, but Albayrak can always spend time with his friend and fellow corrupt son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who spent years self-dealing as a Trump administration "presidential advisor."

Citizens for Ethics reported that Kushner and Ivanka Trump made up to $640 million in outside income during Trump's presidency. Kushner, like Ciano, came from a corrupt family, and played to autocratic son-in-law type by making himself useful to Trump, arranging side deals of long-term economic and geopolitical interest to the family (the "Abraham Accords" among Middle Eastern autocracies is a good example), guarding secrets, acting as a fixer, and amassing information that could be useful as "insurance" in the future.

Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and President Donald Trump at a White House Hanukkah reception, Dec. 11, 2019. Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/SIPA USA AP

The House Oversight Committee was already investigating the $2B Saudi investment in Kushner's new hedge fund, Affinity Partners, when the news broke about Trump storing classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. They included information on areas such as nuclear technology (which the Saudis have long coveted).

It is telling that Trump was quick to divert media attention in 2019 from the House Oversight Committee's investigation of Kushner's use of private email accounts for state business.

Trump called the majority-Black Congressional district of that committee's chair, the late Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess,” knowing the storm over his racist remark would move the spotlight off of the family business.

Like Erdogan's son-in-law Albayrak, Kushner released a memoir in 2022 to whitewash his reputation. Having cashed out, he would likely stay away from government if Trump returns for a second term. Trump used him, but he used Trump, too.

And that's how it's always been in the transactional world of autocrats. Janssen observed that Mobutu may have stolen from the Congolese people, but everyone in his inner sanctum was stealing from Mobutu, his children included. In the end, a son-in-law best expressed the bleak world of the autocrat, who purports to be a family man but is plagued by an inner emptiness that no amount of money and power can alleviate.

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