Ep. 35: Ruth Ben-Ghiat Explains What Comes Next in Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Assault on Democracy
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and an expert on fascism and authoritarianism. She is the author of several books and her opinion essays and other writing have been featured by CNN, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.
Ben-Ghiat warns that societies often succumb to authoritarianism and fascism not in one dramatic moment – such as a military coup — but gradually over time.
She also issues an ominous warning: Because Donald Trump is an authoritarian who is waiting for an opportune moment when he can declare a national emergency or other crisis and then suspend the rule of law and the Constitution.
His evangelical supporters loved every minute of it. That night, Christians who claim to be citizens of the Kingdom of God went to church, cheered the depraved words of a president and warmly embraced his offer of political power. Such a display by evangelicals is unprecedented in American history.
I usually get angry when members of my tribe worship at the feet of Trump. This time, I just felt sad.
Trump and his allies label Democrats, liberals, progressives and anyone else opposing him as traitors and enemies of the United States. The most recent example: at a rally last Thursday in Toledo, Trump said that Democrats were “vicious horrible people.”
None of this should be surprising. Trump is following the authoritarian’s playbook almost to the letter in his assault on American democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law. The question is not whether Donald Trump is an authoritarian and would-be dictator but rather whether anything or anyone is capable of stopping him.
I recently spoke with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat in an effort to better understand where America is on its road to fascism and authoritarianism in this fourth year of Trump’s regime.
Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and an expert in fascism and authoritarianism. She is the author of “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema” and other books. Her opinion essays and other writing have been featured by CNN, the Washington Post, The New Yorker and the Atlantic.
As you watch the Trump regime’s ongoing authoritarian assault on America, how do you feel?
I feel very resolute. It is very important not to feel helpless and desperate. In a funny way, I’m not frustrated with the Trump supporters because I understand how the process works. Of course, I’m very upset that there are in fact Trump supporters and I have zero sympathy towards them. But once individuals bond to an authoritarian leader it is a process, like a train that has already departed the station. It is very hard to stop and is well underway.
How is this constant state of temporary hope and then inevitable disappointment impacting the American people? For example, Trump has been impeached. Yet now he will be acquitted by his servants in the Republican Party. The American people are in a manic state because of Trump’s regime.
This is all happening a little bit at a time. Surveying the history of authoritarianism, only in a military coup do you really have an instant change. A person leaves the house in the morning and five hours later they are living in a dictatorship and there is mass violence. But otherwise, even Mussolini and Hitler took many years to get into power.
The shoe drops slowly, and it is hard for many people to discern what is really happening. This is especially true when there are multiple things happening at one time. For example, William Barr and his attacks on the rule of law and how he is part of this right-wing Christian counterrevolution in America. Yes, Trump is impeached, and that is a type of pushback against him and his forces. What judges are doing to slow down Trump’s agenda is very important too. It is very important to not give up because that is what authoritarians want the public to do.
Authoritarian leaders want you to believe that resistance is futile and that you should just give up. If we give up and resign ourselves to the conclusion that impeaching Trump is not going to have an effect, then he has won. Impeachment is extremely important because it will be on the record, marked in the history books as opposition to Trump and his agenda.
Three years into Trump’s regime, why are so many Americans still in a state of denial about this crisis?
They have no reference point for what is going on in America right now. Providing that reference point is one of the things that motivates my work. Many people are also scared. Many people in the news media are afraid to really engage the fact that Trump is an authoritarian because if they do so then reality becomes too threatening, and therefore they would have to take a different stance publicly.
Is this a lack of historical context and knowledge? Is it cowardice?
As I said earlier, only in a military coup do we really see sudden change in a society. Most people are not trained to recognize what is going on with Trump’s authoritarian agenda. If these leading media voices admit that they are living in the middle of a fascist, authoritarian takeover, then what are they going to do about it? Compare the United States to Hong Kong. Those incredible human beings are out there in the streets in Hong Kong day after day, month after month, because they know really well what the stakes are. The American people either do not understand those facts or they do not want to inconvenience themselves and disrupt their lives. That lack of mass protest and resistance is also an indictment of a particular American way of life where people are overly comfortable and take too many things for granted about their culture and democracy and their own lives.
Applying your historical framework and expertise about fascism and authoritarianism, what are Donald Trump and his regime an example of?
Donald Trump is an example of someone who comes up in history, and the way forward has been prepared for him, in this instance by the Tea Party and the Republican Party.
The road was already prepared for Trump by eight years of Barack Obama and how that created a type of mass anger and rage and panic among many white people. People like Donald Trump appear in history and their role is to undo social and political progress. Trump is a figure who is trying to undo everything that Barack Obama stood for and accomplished. But of course, historical figures such as Donald Trump add something new. Trump comes in and he has a “movement.” Trump does not have a political party. At first, Trump said that he was above politics. This is another common thread among authoritarians.
When we say that Trumpism is a “movement,” what specifically do we mean?
Donald Trump said, “This isn’t a party, it’s movement.” Trump did this to excite his potential followers and get their loyalty. At a traditional Republican convention or campaign rally, there are not loyalty oaths. There are not MAGA hats. All successful movements have rituals and symbols. Donald Trump is a marketer. He knows that symbols and rituals and having a movement is how you get people excited. Nobody is excited to show up for the Republican Party. But the Tea Party? Donald Trump? MAGA? That is something different. There are actually people who are addicted to Donald Trump’s rallies. They are following a movement. Of course that movement has now taken over the Republican Party — and Trump transcends the GOP.
Trump is establishing what is known as “personalist rule.” This can happen in failing democracies and in actual authoritarian states. Personalist rule is a process wherein the state comes to revolve around the personal agendas and needs of the ruler. This includes the need to defend the ruler’s corruption. To defend the ruler from the law and judicial processes and investigative journalists. Another indicator of personalist rule is when the leader’s personal obsessions, such as Trump’s wall, begin to monopolize and overtake other policies. This would not be possible and sustainable without the leader’s supporters coalescing in a movement.
There is an obsession in the mainstream news media with Trump’s “white working class” supporters. In that reporting, one of the repeated narratives is that those people feel some type of kinship with him. Somehow, in their delusional minds, Trump’s supporters believe that a supposed billionaire is actually like them. He is “oppressed” and “victimized,” as they are. The premise is absurd. But why is it so compelling for some people?
That is the personality cult. For Trump’s rule to work — as with Putin and other autocrats and authoritarians — the leader must be both an everyman and a superman. The leader is a populist in the sense that he speaks the “language of the people.” Almost all of these types of leaders have a sense of humor where they make crude jokes that get people to laugh. Politically incorrect jokes. Their humor is corrosive, of course. But the jokes work in showing that these types of leaders are very much of the people. Donald Trump uses a fourth-grade vocabulary. He is also very visual. He performs with his body. Yet Donald Trump is a billionaire, and supposedly a great success. The combination of all those traits is very attractive to his followers. “He’s a super success story. He’s done this, he’s done that.”
Consider the expression “TrumpWorld.” It is an accurate description. The goal of Trump and his allies is to colonize society and the media 24/7. To achieve that goal, they need attention and to get inside people’s heads. This is TrumpWorld. Authoritarian leaders also present themselves as victims of coups or other attacks by their enemies. This makes them look vulnerable. These types of leaders talk about emotion in their speeches. Trump does this. He’s always talking about “love” and “hate,” relative to his friends, enemies and rivals. This makes Trump’s followers bond to him because they feel very emotional and want to take care of their leader. This is a very successful strategy by authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump.
Part of the power of the Trump cult is how he promises to be their savior, protector, friend and father figure.
It is no accident that during the impeachment process Donald Trump has said that he is going to stay in office for 28 years. Of course, that is not physiologically possible. But what matters is the fantasy, because Trump is terrified right now. Leaders of that type create fortresses around themselves in a million ways. They do this with flatterers, lackeys and family. Authoritarian leaders like Trump do not want to hear any criticism. They also want and need total control over people because that settles the anxiety.
Trump does this in other ways as well. He does not have permanent appointees. This means they do not have to be confirmed by the Senate. Authoritarian leaders are actually terrified and brittle people inside. That is why they retreat inward. Donald Trump will not take any real questions from the news media. The authoritarian leader’s ego will not permit any questions, and the longer they stay in charge the worse it gets for a country because they lose all sense of reality. Leaders like Donald Trump make bad decisions, such as starting wars. One of the things that scares me the most is that Donald Trump is extremely destructive. Authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump delight in being destructive. Sometimes such people are also self-destructive.
How does authoritarianism impact people’s sense of time and history?
Part of the experience is the anxiety of the minute. Twitter facilitates this because it is not just how many people check the news, but also journalists drip out news stories in the form of small tweets. This is not just one presentation of a story and the facts. It is not like reading the front page of a newspaper and getting the whole narrative at once. Twitter is a filter for information and experience that is constantly changing. People lose perspective on what is important and what is not.
Our capacity for discernment goes down and our anxiety goes up. Everything is made to feel urgent. Yet the more time people spend on Twitter the less time they are doing anything about Donald Trump and the crisis. Twitter is just an example of this problem. But it is the prime example because it is an unhelpful mechanism psychologically, emotionally and politically because it’s like a mass venting session without much real world impact.
How should we understand the ways that Trump and his movement conflate their love for him with loyalty to the country and what it means to be a “real American”?
The civil service has been purged and ruined under the Trump administration. The civil service makes government work. The State Department is a particularly sad example. Career civil servants have been purged because of ideological tests. This can take the form of leader loyalty — which is an ideology of loyalty. It could mean Trump removing experts who know that climate change is real. Civil rights as well. For example, The Department of Health and Human Services under Trump now has a “civil rights office” devoted to the “rights” of right-wing Christian evangelicals who believe their freedom is violated by doctors who agree to perform abortions. The state has been hollowed out. Expertise is gone and ideology rules. The state, the government bureaucracy and civil service are now just a vehicle for the authoritarian leader’s goals.
The end goal is for Trump, Barr, the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally is to have their own secret police. I keep returning to the question of civil disobedience, protest and corporeal politics as a response to this threat to democracy. Are the American people just cowardly? Have they already surrendered? Is the news media just afraid of the truth? Calm my nerves — or not — about the Trump’s regime’s plans to have political police and other enforcers.
This brings up the question of madness versus method. One of the objections that gets leveled at people who offer these types of analyses about Trump and authoritarianism is, “No, Trump’s just impulsive.” He’s not mentally ill. He may have some dementia, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. Trump’s spokespeople have been very clear that Trump wants his own intelligence and security services.
Such goals are part of the counterrevolution that has been slowly chipping away at democratic institutions, norms and laws under Trump and the Republican Party. Trump is going after the country’s trust in the FBI and intelligence services. All the relevant structures of government that could obstruct what Trump wants to do are being chipped away. What Trump has been doing up to this point is not at all an accident in that regard.
It takes a lot of time to prepare the public for such an outcome. It requires information and psychological warfare. Trump is very expert in those areas. Chip away at reality and objectivity, and then the public is ready for full-on authoritarian rule. The Nazis knew this very well. The public must be shaped and prepared. This is what Goebbels excelled at. The Russians excel at it. Once the public is shaped and prepared, the authoritarian regime can do what it wants.
What is the Trump regime preparing the American people for?
Not only Trump, but many other people around him, including Republican elected officials, have been speaking like authoritarian thugs. They say things such as, “Hillary Clinton needs to be executed.” That is how fascists speak. Making such threats is a type of trial balloon. If Trump wins in 2020, those trial balloons of fascist threats will be able to be made real. Even with all the horrible things that Trump has said and done, his popularity remains stable. Trump’s followers have not deserted him. The 2020 presidential election is almost a referendum and a mandate for Donald Trump to finally do what he’s been threatening to do all along.
What were some moments when the rise of Trumpism, and what feels like a type of inevitability and path dependency, could have been stopped?
This is called “gatekeeping.” Authoritarian leaders and their movements are very clear about being violent. Authoritarians always tell you what they are going to do. It’s just that the American people are not ready to hear it. We do not want to hear the truth that Donald Trump is not kidding with his violent threats and promises. When Trump would not release his tax returns, that was a damning signal of how imperiled America is and was. When Trump said he could shoot someone on the street without losing any followers, that was another moment where I knew we were stuck on a very dangerous path. No American presidential candidate in modern history has threatened to murder someone as part of his campaign. Such behavior is what political thugs do.
The Republican Party’s leaders and other influential voices could have prevented the corruption of the system by this violent outsider. That was one path. The other path was and is to accept Donald Trump fully and claim he’s your savior sent from God. That is the path America is now on.
What comes next with Donald Trump in 2020 and the presidential election?
Exacerbation of the polarization. The goal is to leave people so confused about the truth that they are more and more dependent on Trump while also being increasingly disaffected. Trump may capitalize on some horrible event happening to the United States. Donald Trump has made some very scary declarations that the way to unite a country is through some catastrophe. Trump says that he hopes such a horrible thing does not happen but that is the way a leader can unite the county. Donald Trump has stripped anti-terrorism programs of their resources. He has defunded many national security programs that combat terrorism. If a calamity took place, Donald Trump would use it to declare martial law or some type of ongoing national emergency.
We don’t have to tell you what dangerous times we face.
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Like other dictators, authoritarians, autocrats and political thugs, Donald Trump believes
His evangelical supporters loved every minute of it. That night, Christians who claim to be citizens of the Kingdom of God went to church, cheered the depraved words of a president and warmly embraced his offer of political power. Such a display by evangelicals is unprecedented in American history. I usually get angry when members of my tribe worship at the feet of Trump. This time, I just felt sad.
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