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"Strongman" author Kenneth C. Davis on how democracies fall and teaching the Capitol insurrection

January 17, 2021

Full Lesson

Kenneth C. Davis/Photo by Nina Subin


In this NewsHour EXTRA Educator Zoom, historian Kenneth C. Davis and author of “Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy” (Henry Holt & Co. 2020) discusses the role of teachers as truth disseminators when teaching about current events, including the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. Davis also discusses the need for robust social studies programs for saving our democracy, in light of the speed in which authoritarian regimes were able to rise to power in the 20th century.

On Jan. 7, 2021, one day after the Capitol riot, PBS NewsHour EXTRA hosted a Zoom with Davis, Dr. Yohuru Williams, history professor and head of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, as well as more than 100 teachers and support staff from across the country. To hear Dr. Williams, click here. For the full Zoom, click here.

In the first video, host Sari Beth Rosenberg, 19-year veteran AP U.S. history and government teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City, interviewed Davis about the need for teachers to provide students with the truth and media literacy education. They also discussed why some students were not surprised to see the events at the Capitol unfold.


In the second video, NewsHour’s Victoria Pasquantonio spoke with Davis about his book “Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy” which came out this past fall. Davis profiles Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein–all men from modern history, despots who ruled in our own lives or that of our parents or grandparents.

Davis’ take on the Washington Post’s motto of ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ is how very often democracy dies in broad daylight.

He discusses the strongman’s “playbook” — societal conditions and personal attributes that made it possible for these five men to rise to power with relative speed and murder their own people. Davis’ take on the Washington Post’s motto of “Democracy dies in darkness” is how very often democracy dies in broad daylight.

A few years ago, three decades after writing history books for adults including the Don’t Know Much About series, Davis began writing for a young adult (YA) audience. His previous YA book “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents and Five Black Lives” and his first YA book “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War” were featured on NewsHour. He regularly holds Classroom Skype visits with students of all ages throughout the country.







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Media literacy education

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate and create all types of media, including news media.

All of NewsHour Classroom's resources contain lessons in media literacy, including questions like who produced the piece and what do you know about them?

Start by evaluating this video introducing NewsHour Classroom here.