A conversation between Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Patrick Weil
In The Madman in the White House, Patrick Weil resurrects a forgotten episode, President Woodrow Wilson’s destructive and irrational handling of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Ruth BenGhiat explores the "strongman" playbook employed by authoritarian demagogues from Mussolini to Putin, who promise law and order, but then legitimize lawbreaking. In this conversation, the two historians explore the ways in which leaders can challenge vulnerable democracies, and what lessons the past holds for our present.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies (NYU). She writes about fascism, authoritarianism, propaganda, and democracy protection. She is an advisor to Protect Democracy, and an MSNBC opinion columnist. She appears frequently on MSNBC, PBS, and other networks. Her latest book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020; paperback with a new epilogue, 2021), examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century.
Patrick Weil is a senior research fellow at the French National Research Center in the University of Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne, and a Florence Rogatz Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School. His work focuses on comparative immigration, citizenship, and church-state law and policy. His most recent book, The Madman in the White House (HUP, 2023), is a rich study of the role of Woodrow Wilson's personal psychology, how his rigidity contributed to shaping the new world order after World War I, how it baffled diplomats and Sigmund Freud, and what they made of it. It is shortlisted for the 2023 Cundill History Prize.