Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Donald Trump "looks like Mussolini" but can be overcome

Scholar of Italian fascism says the label doesn't quite fit Trump — but his authoritarianism is just as toxic

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 10, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Benito Mussolini; Ruth Ben-Ghiat; Donald trump   (AP/Evan Vucci/CNN/Montage By Salon)
Benito Mussolini; Ruth Ben-Ghiat; Donald trump (AP/Evan Vucci/CNN/Montage By Salon)

Political violence is a symptom of an ailing democracy. By that standard, America is not well. Donald Trump and the Republican Party injected it with poison. During the 2016 presidential campaign Trump appeared to threaten Hillary Clinton and his other opponents with violence — even suggesting that his followers could use "Second Amendment solutions" to remove her from office if she won the presidency. Trump also encouraged his supporters to physically assault protesters and promised to pay their medical bills if they did so.

As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Trump's eventual victory unleashed a wave of hate crimes across the United States targeting Muslims, Jews and people of color. White supremacists have taken a cue from Trump's naked embrace of racism and bigotry and have killed at least four people since the election in November.

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There have been violent clashes between Trump supporters and those who believe that he and his movement are fascists and represent a grave threat to American democracy and freedom. In keeping with his plutocratic authoritarianism, Trump has targeted journalists and the news media as "traitors" and "enemies" of the American people. Two weeks ago  Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressional candidate in Montana, physically assaulted a reporter from The Guardian. Such violence did not appear to hurt his support among voters; Gianforte went on to win that state's special election.

In many ways, Donald Trump's embrace of political violence is a reflection of his personal values. Trump proudly proclaimed that he could shoot a person in the middle of the street and still be elected. In 1989 he took out full-page ads in several New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of young black and Latino men accused of an infamous rape. After being convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, all five men were later found innocent. Trump has refused to apologize for wrongly calling for their deaths. Trump has also embraced President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has conducted a campaign of state-sponsored murder against drug dealers and drug users.

Donald Trump has been accused of sexually predatory conduct and has bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, an action he boasted he could get away with because of his fame and money.

What role does political violence play in Donald Trump's appeal to his voters? How is it related to his authoritarian politics? What does Trump's embrace of violence reveal about his masculinity? What does the future hold for a nation where political violence is becoming increasingly acceptable?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and an expert on the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Ben-Ghiat is completing a forthcoming book on authoritarianism and political strongmen and has written extensively about Trump's rise to power and the dangers to American democracy he represents.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

How do you think Donald Trump rose to power? Was this something out of left field?

There are times in history where someone comes out of the blue who coalesces the forces of discontent and anxiety and hope. This kind of leader usually comes from outside traditional politics and knows how to be all things to all people. Then there’s the charisma. Because the kind of attachment that Trump's followers form is based not on a party or a principle — because Trump is not very dedicated to the Republican Party — it’s based on an emotional bond. These men appear and they're a kind of savior with this rhetoric of “I will fix it. I will care for you.” This has happened before in history and now in the United States with Donald Trump, we have an opportunity to analyze this in real time.

He’s really an expert in manipulating emotions. On a basic level his supporters are in love with him. He is their avatar. Do you think that’s a reach?

No, I do not think that it is a reach. I'm a historian of visual propaganda. When I look at a tape of a rally, I look for postures. I look for the T-shirts, and it’s quite extraordinary. Trump is a type of literal political "strongman" for his people. He appears as John Wayne. He appears as a bodybuilder, like a Schwarzenegger-type. At his rallies, people love to play with cardboard cutouts of his head.

In addition, Trump uses his body to convey a sense of heroic masculinity to other men. For example, he had a type of "death match" handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is a handsome, younger man. Trump is always trying to best the other man. To do this he engages in a type of ritual humiliation of all men who want to be around him. This is a kind of bullying that I call the "culture of threat."

What Trump is doing is telling a story. It’s an extension of 1980s Reagan-era action movies. But we also have to call out the target of the violence. It is not white folks. Trump is signaling that he can enact violence against black and brown people and get away with it.

Trump is also using the genre of the Western. When you're shooting someone in the street, it’s the showdown and Trump towers above in his fortress. A lot of his rhetoric of being threatened, being victimized — it’s a morality play. The thing that is extraordinary is that the more familiar morality play and showdown dated back to the Cold War, where it was clear that Russia was the "Evil Empire," according to Ronald Reagan.

Here we have a profound shift: Who is the evil person above all? The person of color in his own country. Then there is also a profound distrust or disdain for liberal democracy. At the local level, [Trump’s] the avenger. He’s the person who sits with a gun in his hand and Fifth Avenue is his street. At the national level, he plays the cowboy who’s going to defend our nation, except the joke is that he’s a vessel of Vladimir Putin.

How do we locate Donald Trump relative to toxic white masculinity, authoritarianism and fascism?  

It’s a big question. I do not call Donald Trump a fascist because I want to respect the fact that historically under fascism you ended up with a one-party state. I think it’s important to respect that difference, in part . . . to show how things have changed.

However, today you do not need to have a dictatorship or a one-party state in order to accomplish your goals. You can take a democracy and change it through expansions of executive power and other repressions until you have the same effect on the subject population and a quasi-rubber-stamp parliament, without declaring a dictatorship.

Now with Trump, he uses fascist tactics. One of them is the testing of the population, the media and the elites at the beginning. This is so key. There are many things Trump does that are fascistic without having to become a one-party state dictator.

What would be a better word to describe him: a plutocratic authoritarian, an American fascist, something else?

He’s an authoritarian.

How is Trump similar or different to other authoritarians you have studied?

The classic dictators were usually very concerned with race. A lot of what Trump is doing is trying to turn the clock back on demographic change. There’s this panic around the world today about what I would label as "mobile populations." These are refugees, people who are supposedly going to invade our borders. This explains the fixation with walls and controlling space.

How do we make sense of the connections between emotion and authoritarianism, either culturally or personally?

The whole spectacle of fascist aesthetics is designed to desensitize you. We still see that today, after 80 years. We haven’t progressed much from this. Think about it: If you live in a place where there are informers everywhere, you start to self-censor. This could be self-censorship if you’re a journalist or if you're an ordinary citizen. You have to live in a kind of shut-down manner unless you're going to become what used to be called a "dissident." There’s a sense of disaffection in America which Trump has been able to exploit.

Michael Moore in his movie "TrumpLand" called a certain type of white male, such as Newt Gingrich, for example, "the dying dinosaurs." These are a group of people who suspect — especially if they read the Census — that by 2042 America will be a "minority majority" country. This is fundamental to Trumpism and to his supporters. They're in a panic about this. The dying dinosaur is also the man who can sexually harass women without any consequences.

That gets us to "political correctness." When Trump says, “I'm not politically correct,” he's really saying, “Now you can do what you want. You can be self-actualized.”   

That’s right. Again it goes back to the point of how "fake news" is an alternate reality that people are very invested in. This is their certainty. It’s a certainty that goes with their emotional state. Once people make these bonds of attachment with this kind of charismatic ruler, it’s hard to break them.

Let's consider Greg Gianforte in Montana. It was clear he was going to win anyway even though he had assaulted a journalist. There are a whole lot of Republican voters who are excited and titillated by violence and wanted to support Gianforte.

Greg Gianforte becomes a masculine hero. He becomes the heartland versus the elite, even though he’s a wealthy businessman. Again this is suspending a lot of reality for this narrative to work. I think that right now with all the Russia investigations and Fox News imploding, the right-wing public is looking for heroes — and heroes who first, of course, are also victims.

Somehow, as often happens, this assaulter becomes a victim, which is how he tried to spin it in his statement. He becomes a victim of the media. Then we go back to the media being vultures. Trump openly admires violent people. He himself says violent things. This becomes internalized and legitimated or rather was already internalized by people like Gianforte.

The SPLC has documented a huge increase in hate crimes since Trump's campaign began in 2016. There have also been the recent white supremacist murders in Maryland and Portland as well. 

What happens is that the bar for behavior shifts. You can become used to seeing violence, but it’s also that doing violence becomes more acceptable. We think of normalization in a bureaucratic way. We decide to accept these institutions and these things which we thought were rogue before. Normalization is a form of decriminalization. It’s when Trump can say, “I’ll shoot someone” and he does not get booted out as a candidate. He wins. You decided to accept what used to be considered lawless. There’s trickle-down violence, just as there’s trickle-down racism. Trump sets the tone.

How do you think America will be changed by Donald Trump's presidency? Are these changes permanent and irrevocable? Or are they temporary?

If Mike Pence becomes president, all of the social-racial agenda will likely continue because that’s why he was put there. Pence is the mainstream Republican, for a party which has moved significantly to the right. That will go on and it will be a fight to preserve reproductive and other civil rights.

To end on something positive, there’s been an undeniable, enormous resurgence of activism and also patriotism. Ultimately, I think that it’s doubtful that Trump is preparing the way for an even more hard-line authoritarian.

What do you think history can teach us? What sort of leverage can historians provide for us in this moment?

That’s a great question. We are living through one of these rare times in life when events are outstripping our capacity to understand them. First, it was the shock of the election. People were depressed. They didn’t know what to do. Then the blitzkrieg of all the travel bans and all of the shocking events that Trump engineered. People feel very disconcerted and frightened. History is useful because you're able to step back and see patterns: This has happened before, and this is how it was defeated. This is what we have to look for.

I'm not sure that people learn from the past even if it’s presented to them because I feel that the temptations that someone like Trump represents are only combated by looking within ourselves. The attraction is the attraction of power — and to be more specific, an attraction to white male power. This proves very seductive to many. The attraction of wealth, of glamour, all these things go into why Trump has been successful as an image-maker and why he was able to be accepted as our protector.

Until those internal things are settled, it’s hard to say that — just because I tell you he looks like Mussolini, you're going to say, “Forget that. I don’t like him anymore.” Historians are able to look back and also to the future. I for one am glad that I've been able to write and give comfort to people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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