This piece was written by Walker Bragman.
After supporters of departing President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in an attempt to halt the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, I spoke to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, an expert on fascism.
Ben-Ghiat is the author of the new book, “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present,” which is described as “the first study to place President Donald Trump in the context of a century of authoritarian leaders that use a playbook of corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power.”
I asked the professor for her thoughts on this perilous moment in American history. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.
WB: Can you explain the similarities you see between Donald Trump and fascist leaders of the past?
RB: Basically, he’s using this — what I call this authoritarian playbook, which is these tools of propaganda. And these men start to use them on their way into office — they use them when they’re campaigning nowadays because nowadays you have to run for office. So he’s used propaganda, which includes making people loyal to him, so you have rallies. And then they become dependent on him and everybody else’s reality, including the press, is denigrated.
[Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini was the first and then you have Hitler doing that. And you have corruption, where public office is turned into something for private gain. This is something the fascists did too, but it’s more a hallmark of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan today. They involve their families as co-conspirators.
And you have incitements to violence. It works out very differently over a century, where today, you have less mass public violence and you don’t have huge concentration camp systems and exterminations are less common. You do warehouse people — well, Erdoğan does and the Chinese do. But one thing that’s extremely similar to fascism is the use of these kind of paramilitarites, these non-state actors — in our case, the militia people, far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys. And these, of course, are not part of the army. They’re often very opposed to the army in some ways.
Authoritarian leaders know how to manipulate and bond with these groups, and then that’s what Trump did. He had them kind of on call, and used them when he needed them. And that takes us all the way back to the Black Shirts and the March on Rome from Mussolini, who’s a more relevant precedent actually than Hitler because he started out as a prime minister of a democracy and he had these militias under his control.
WB: The storming of the Capitol this week was a dangerous, unprecedented escalation and many prominent voices including Rep. Ilhan Omar and incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have called for Donald Trump’s removal in the wake of it. Do you agree with these calls?
RB: Yeah, I think it’s high time to remove him. He’s demonstrated irrational, corrupt, unfit behavior for years and if nothing is done — and not only with Trump, but all the people who aided and abetted this insurgency on the 6th — then it sends a message both to Trump and his family and to all the future people who want to come in and finish what Trump has started: to wreck democracy and impose some kind of law and order rule. And so, what’s worrying is many people invested a lot in this counter-revolutionary project Trump has — to crack down on the left and people of color.
If you don’t send a message then it shows people that you’re weak and you don’t really care and then it’s going to encourage more people to be lawless.
WB: Do you see any particular moments in history that you would draw a parallel to now?
RB: One thing is unique and we can feel really good about it. It's very rare in history to interrupt a process of authoritarian capture, which is what we were on, by voting somebody out. And you know, people voted with great difficulty due to the pandemic and voter suppression, etc., and they did it. So, of course, all that's gone on in the last month is because Trump is not a democratic president with a small "D" but an authoritarian one. Like all of them, he doesn't know how to leave office. He refuses. That's unprecedented.
But there is a precedent, and it's not a perfect analogy. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet was dictator for 17 years, put in by a U.S.-backed coup. He was voted out. Now again, there'd been 17 years of real repression, so it's not the same. But he had a year before he had to leave office and he spent the year trying to sabotage the new democracy and stack the Supreme court, and he passed laws making it harder to prosecute him and his army officers who have engaged in torture. So that's an interesting precedent.
WB: Yesterday’s events — particularly the stark contrast in law enforcement response to the Trump supporters compared to the Black Lives Matter protesters months earlier — have renewed calls to defund the police as an institution of the far right. Indeed, far-right infiltration of law enforcement is a well-documented phenomenon. How concerned should we be about police militarization?
RB: So they're related, but they're different. The militarization of the police started way before Trump. What men like Trump do in a country: They come in and they kind of weaponize and energize all the anti-democratic and extremist things that were already going on. So, Obama and Bush were the ones who were militarizing the police. And some of the studies by the FBI on infiltration of police and military by extremism were done at the end of the Obama years.
So it's not new. But it's very different when the call for giving these people legitimacy and making them feel good, like they have an ally, comes directly from the White House. That's a whole other ballgame, and that's what Trump has done. And in fact, I was very struck, but not surprised when he called off his goons yesterday — told them to go home — he said the election was stolen from "us." So he's still including himself in this community with him.
To get back to the police: This couldn't have happened without the police deciding to use a very different, soft approach. And really one that passes over to collusion because they were taking selfies inside the Capitol as though these people were not doing anything wrong. Not only did they let them in, but they let them out. And then, you know, there's social media pictures where these insurgents were going to have drinks and dinner in Kansas and in D.C. as though they had just gone on a motorcycle ride. And this was due to the police.
I think this is a wake-up call for some who hadn't figured it out after the summer — the extent to which the police are ready to collaborate with the far right. But there's also something I want to mention of non-action. Most authoritarian leaders who use their militaries have been helped by non-action of the police. So they just decide to do nothing. And that's an action too. That's a choice to do nothing.
WB: This is a long question, so bear with me: The most concerning aspect of yesterday for me, watching on my television at home, was the sense that maybe this is just the beginning.
In July, the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate released a report stating that “Extreme right-wing terrorist groups and individuals in a number of States have sought to exploit COVID-19-related anxieties and grievances, using conspiracy theories to advance their existing narratives, increase and diversify their support base, and build bridges to other groups.”
We are in the middle of a pandemic, teetering on the brink of full-blown depression. Even before COVID struck, 78 percent of full-time workers were living paycheck-to-paycheck and 40 percent of adults were struggling to afford basics. We’re also facing a likely future of climate-driven scarcity.
A declassified 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security warned, “the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn… could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing[sic] extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.”
In 2018, Emil Verner, a finance professor from MIT, published an op-ed in The Hill based on an upcoming study of his, warning that “After a severe financial crisis, it’s common to see a surge in political polarization and in the popularity of populist parties, especially on the far right.”
So my question is this: Do you share any of these concerns, or am I completely off base?
RB: I was going to shout, "yes," several times during your [question]. It's all true. Unfortunately, these conditions favor men like Trump, who promise to fix the system and be saviors and point out and capitalize on how bad everything is now. This was the newness of Trump in his nomination speech and his inaugural speech where he was talking about the U.S. as a failed wasteland. Many people were shocked at that, but that's part of the playbook.
The other part is, as you have scarcities — for example, there's going to be a big fight over water — it encourages in our country these kinds of survivalists and people who accumulate private arsenals and paranoia, and it's every man for himself. That's already their mentality, so that could grow.
But it also encourages big concentrations of capital. And one story that needs to be told more is how the faux populist Donald Trump has been completely allied with big pharma and agribusiness, and he’s served them very well. So all of these situations you describe which are not related to the United States — they came home with Donald Trump.
I believe, yes, he's the start of something. And you could see January 6 as the start of something that is very difficult to turn back once it gets a presidential legitimation.
WB: What steps would you like to see Congress and the incoming Biden administration take to disempower extremist right-wing groups and ideologies?
RB: I think that rigorous investigations of infiltrations of those groups into institutions — from the police, the military, but also government — I think that's very important. A fact finding update. Because all of those made big inroads during the Trump years. And we don't really know the magnitude of it right now. Once it's identified, and it's partly already identified, we need kind of... there's a whole protocol for deprogramming people for bridge-building within the military using people who used to be in those groups to work with people. It's been done with terrorists. It's been done with jihadis, there's a model for this. So that we need the political will to do those kinds of things.
WB: Do you worry that we are not doing enough to address the pandemic anxieties that people have or the material conditions that the pandemic is creating?
RB: Yeah. We're headed for — as you gave the statistics — mass deprivation and mass hardship. The Biden administration is inheriting huge challenges, and part of Trump sabotaging, à la Pinochet, was to do nothing about it. But that's also because Trump truly doesn't care about anyone. He doesn't care if you die. He just doesn't care. So, he was never going to do anything about that. But yeah, that's, been sacrificed as it always is with authoritarian rule. These leaders only care about profit and power for themselves and their cronies. They couldn't care less what happens to anybody else. That's why they have such a destructive effect on their countries.
WB: And in way, they seem to rely on the distress — those conditions — to point to them in order to scapegoat their enemies.
RB: Yes. They need people to be polarized, afraid, and dependent on them. Then they transform government and society into — it used to be called the little Hitlers: people who are like them who reinforce those values throughout society.
And Trump's had huge success within government. All the federal agencies have been purged and people forced out. You know, hostile workplaces. That story needs to be written. Across the board, a huge cultural — I mean, as in like a bureaucratic political culture in those agencies — they're all, Trumpified now. There's a lot like, Stephen Millers. In my book, I call him a quiet extremist, the most dangerous kind — like desk killers. There's a ton of those people now and corrupt people, lawless people. So, yeah, there's a lot to do.
WB: How important are cultural narratives and diversity in popular media in the fight against the far right?
RB: They're super important. In fact, in the conclusion to the book, I talk about the need for the press and society to — I said, democracy needs heroes. It's easier to focus on the villains. So for example — this is just a random example, but Dana Loesch, the former NRA spokeswoman, got a profile in the New York Times style section. She's very good looking so she's like the glamorous villain. But I was like, well, why not do profiles on people who are fighting to protect democracy in life? And that's happened in certain segments of society, like with Black Lives Matter, for sure, but we need a broader, pro-democracy, pro-rule of law — we need those heroes to be profiled.
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