While authoritarian rulers are often weak and paranoid characters, their personality cults depict them as men possessed of uncommon physical vigor and toughness. Mussolini, the first to use mass media to build his cult, became a divo for his skill at showing off his often shirtless body on camera. He threshed wheat alongside peasants, wrestled a lion cub and straddled horses and heavy machinery.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has replicated the formula. Trump, less fit, borrows other men’s bodies to make the same point. In November 2019 he tweeted an image of his head photoshopped onto the torso of Sylvester Stallone’s character from the 1982 film “Rocky III.”
Having a direct communication channel with the public is key to maintaining personality cults. The propaganda strategies used, like rallies, have stayed remarkably the same, even as information mediums have changed. Mussolini used newsreels, Hitler used radio, Berlusconi and Libya’s Moammar Kadafi used television, India’s Narendra Modi uses Instagram (and holograms, as during his 2014 election campaign, to appear simultaneously at many rallies), and Trump uses Twitter, with his misspelled words and grade-school vocabulary playing into his “everyman” persona. Over a century, a paradoxical truth holds: The more skilled the leader is at mediacentric politics, the more his admirers see him as authentic.