Donald Trump (Getty Images)

Ruth Ben-Ghiat on Trump and the bitter American truth: "We do not have a real democracy"

NYU fascism expert explains the next moves in Trump's "authoritarian playbook" — and says it's almost too late



Chauncey DeVega
July 23, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, there's a poster which identifies "The 12 Early Warning Signs of Fascism." 

Here are the criteria:

  1. Powerful and continuing nationalism
  2. Disdain for human rights
  3. Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
  4. Rampant sexism
  5. Controlled mass media
  6. Obsession with national security
  7. Religion and government intertwined
  8. Corporate power protected
  9. Labor power suppressed
  10. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts
  11. Obsession with crime and punishment
  12. Rampant cronyism and corruption

This in too many ways is America in the Age of Trump.

Trump and his regime are engaged in a white supremacist counterrevolution against the civil rights movement, in which the human rights of nonwhite people are being revoked. This includes a recent effort to circumvent the Constitution by deeming that undocumented immigrants (overwhelmingly Black and brown people) should be erased from the population for purposes of congressional representation.

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Trump and his regime are criminalizing dissent. He has gone so far as to explicitly state that people who disagree with him are akin to Nazis and should be imprisoned or worse.

Trump and his regime have no respect for the rule of law, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or democratic norms and principles more generally. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he will not respect the outcome of the 2020 election if he does not win.

Trump and his regime have unleashed a secret federal police force to gas, shoot, beat and illegally detain nonviolent protesters in Portland, Oregon, and potentially elsewhere.

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In a predictable escalation, Trump — through Attorney General William Barr — has ordered that the regime's thugs be deployed to other Democrat-led cities to enforce "law and order." It is entirely plausible that Trump's secret police will also be used to help him steal the presidential election.

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, recently announced that the forces under his command may  "proactively" arrest people for crimes they have not yet committed. Such dystopian logic mixes George Orwell's "1984" with Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report."

TrumpWorld also reflects the horrible surrealism of the film and novel "Children of Men" turned into a lived experience for America and the world. Writing at the New Statesman, Gavin Jacobson observes:

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The way the film extrapolates from the here and now is the reason the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher thought "Children of Men" was unique. Writing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Fisher understood the film as a true depiction of what he called "'capitalist realism': the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it."

"Children of Men" does not take place at the end of the world, which has already happened, but within its chilling coda, where, as Fisher writes, "internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist". There is no desire to create alternate ways of living, or to make the end of times less awful. ...

The idea that we're out of time is what makes "Children of Men" both a mirror and augur of the world, and the world to come. At the end of history, cut off from its past and pessimistic about the future, and facing slow death under rising tides, humanity has resigned itself to a somnambulant life. It is a life of finitude, routine and conformity; one without vision, spontaneity or surprise, where we no longer seek to live larger lives or even strive for our continued existence. We have become Nietzsche's "last men".

Facing the onslaught of neo-fascism, the American people remain stuck in a state of denial, learned helplessness and fear. Donald Trump and his movement have American democracy and civil society in a chokehold.

Ruth 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 "Fascist Modernities: Italy 1922-1945" and "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema" and other books.

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Her opinion essays and other writing have been featured by CNN, the Washington Post, The New Yorker and the Atlantic. Ben-Ghiat's new book is "Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present," to be published in November.

In this conversation she warns that Trump's threats of violence against the American people — including against leading Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — are very real. Ben-Ghiat also explains that the American news media normalized Donald Trump because most journalists are unable to admit that the United States is a failing democracy.

Ben-Ghiat details how the American people (and America's political elites) remain in denial about the realities of neo-fascism and autocracy, because to admit the truth would mean confronting the fact that they must take action against such forces — and have not done so.

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You can also listen to my conversation with Ruth Ben-Ghiat on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The mainstream news media is finally using the words "fascism" and "authoritarianism" to describe Donald Trump and his regime. I have been using such language since Trump's campaign in 2015. You and other historians, political scientists, philosophers, mental health experts and others have also been sounding the alarm about Donald Trump and what he represents. We were largely ignored and branded as being hysterical. How does it feel to see the proper language finally being used to describe Trump and the threat he represents?

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I'm divided. I'm disgusted with how bad things have become in this country. I remember the first time I saw the word "authoritarian" on a chyron for CNN. It was actually because Sen. Cory Booker, who's been very smart about this crisis, was speaking and he used the word. CNN finally displayed the word on the screen, and I thought to myself, "Oh my God, the efforts of many of us are finally getting into the system."

Historians and others have been trying to engage in civic education, to help the public and journalists understand that yes, it can happen here. Ultimately, to see CNN and other major media outlets finally use the word "authoritarianism" to describe Donald Trump and this administration means that things are really bad in America right now.

Unfortunately, those voices in the mainstream American news media who are finally describing the Trump regime in those terms then fail to engage in a substantive discussion of the implications.

I think it's difficult for people to digest what that would mean, for a few reasons. One is that we are still operating with an old-fashioned idea of what authoritarian countries are like. That is one of the reasons I use the word "fascistic" as opposed to "fascism" to describe Donald Trump. When we use the word "fascism" most people think of an instant shutdown of democracy and brown shirts and other political thugs in the streets.

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Many people will also rebut the claim that Trump is fascist by using superficial examples such as "There's still a free press. People can still speak out." The reality is that today's authoritarianism works differently than it did in previous incarnations. Today's version of fascism does not need one-party states, for example. In discussing Trump and fascism, it is more effective to talk about how it operates at present.

What would the narrative be if the American media were covering the events which are taking place under Donald Trump, but in another country?

What is going on corresponds to what I call the authoritarian playbook. Donald Trump is not interested in governing the United States.  He's in office to enrich himself off public office, help his cronies and build his personality cult. Again, people are anchored to an old-fashioned understanding of what the presidency should be in a democratic country. It is very hard for the public to make the leap to how Trump is a fundamental break from American tradition.   

Now, if we start explaining how America is in fact in an authoritarian situation with Donald Trump and his administration, then another question arises. One of the reasons so many people are scared is that to admit the truth about Trump and authoritarianism then means they have to do something about it. Many people do not want to take that leap.

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Yes, there are protesters in the streets. But the American business elite also must make that leap by accepting the reality of the situation. History teaches us that it is conservatives who support authoritarians and their rise to power. The American business elites are going to have to change how they think. They are going to have to speak out against American authoritarianism and Trumpism. American business elites have to make a decision about where they stand relative to Trump and authoritarianism. 

The American people are going to need to make decisions about where they stand as well. It is easier to not make a decision. It is easier to just flip the channel, shift the topic, and pretend Trump and American authoritarianism are not really happening.

There is this cadre of establishment journalists, analysts and other members of the chattering class whom I describe as "hope peddlers." They are always trying to spin some happy story about a return to normalcy. They are also many of the same people who are stenographers of current events but not really speaking truth to power. We see this with much of the horse-race journalism regarding the 2020 election. They are operating from the wrong playbook for understanding authoritarianism and a failing democracy. One obvious example is the widespread assumption that there will even be a real election on Nov. 3.

Americans have no experience with authoritarianism and a failing democracy. America has never been invaded by a foreign power and occupied. Americans have never had a dictatorship. Of course, there is the obvious exception of black Americans and their experience with Jim Crow, slavery and oppression. But as a national lived experience for most Americans, the country has not experienced a dictatorship or anything like it.

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White Americans are now discovering what people of color have long known, that we do not have a real democracy in this country. Many Americans are finding it very difficult to wake up from the stories they learned in school about this being the freest nation in the world and a successful democracy.

At what point is it to late to save a democracy that is falling into authoritarianism?

Historically, when there are people who have signed on to their roles within an authoritarian fascistic state it is very hard to dislodge such people. They cling to the status quo of the corrupt leader for dear life. This happens because of cronyism and corruption. Everyone involved with the regime is made complicit.

Of course, this is what happened in Putin's Russia and other authoritarian states. The system is one of mutual complicity. That means not wanting to rock the boat because the whole system could come tumbling down. For example, if you think about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and how the public was waiting for them to start the impeachment against Donald Trump, there was a clear sense that they did not want to cause fundamental disruption. Why? Because the American political class is intertwined.

There was a sense earlier on with Trump that nobody wanted to rock the boat. I do think we as a country are in a different place now, given all that has happened with the Trump administration.

But the whole situation in America right now is still too upsetting and too uncertain for most people. The country's elites and the people in their circle know they could lose their privileges. They will potentially lose their careers. They'll have to make compromises. The hope-peddling which involves just staying the course is much more appealing. That is the reason why Nancy Pelosi recently said, "No, we're not going to impeach Barr. We're going to let the people speak through the election." That is the mentality of the country's political elites and a fear of rocking the boat too much.

Trump is very obvious. There is no subtlety in his threats of violence against the Democrats and his other "enemies," which include any Americans who dare to disagree with him and his movement. Why is still there so much denial of this reality by the American people and political leaders?

Sometimes people simple do not know what to do. They feel powerless. They can become numb because Trump and his agents are flooding the zone with waste, as Steve Bannon said of his right-wing takeover strategy. Therefore, it becomes very difficult to react to any one single crisis.

The huge danger is that it is quite probable that Donald Trump will be elected again. Trump will in fact try to put Barack Obama on trial. Trump is obsessed with him. Trump's obsession is not unlike that of other right-wing authoritarians with their predecessors.

Donald Trump is not kidding when he says he considers Barack Obama to be a traitor and wants to undo everything that Obama has done, to literally try to cancel Obama. Donald Trump is not kidding when he says he wants to put Obama in prison. It is important to take Trump's threats seriously.

How do you locate Trump's threats of violence — and the actual violence by his street thugs and other enforcers — relative to other examples in history?

This is why it's important to have an up-to-date sense of how authoritarianism evolves. If we keep using the fascism of the Holocaust and World War II violence as the standard of judgment, then Donald Trump and leaders such as Hungary's Viktor Orbán and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan are always going to look good. For example, mass detention rather than mass killing is the way that many authoritarians today operate.

The conditions in some of Trump's detention centers for migrants, refugees and other undocumented people have been labeled by outside observers as constituting torture. Many things that are happening right now in America under Trump resemble the security techniques that America used on other countries. One of the ironies of the Trump era is that all of that American military might that supported right-wing authoritarians abroad for decades is coming home to roost.

How did you interpret the rapid series of events with Trump's response to the George Floyd protests, his retreat to the White House bunker, the military's de facto refusal to follow Trump's orders for martial law, and the attacks he ordered on protesters?

It is a compressed cycle of many things that happen when authoritarians start to fall from power. There is the fleeing into the bunker and the protests — which are not only about Trump, they're about entrenched institutional racism. The protests continue because the American people know that there is an actual white supremacist in the White House. With the fleeing into the bunker there is also the retaliation, the barrage against the public from the leader. That is Trump's order to use the military against the protesters in Washington.

There is also another dimension to this cycle, elite defections. Members of the government start to speak out. There are people who finally decide that the leader has gone too far.  

There was a hint of this with Gen. James Mattis speaking out against Trump's use of the military in the United States against the American people and his threats of martial law. Gen. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, publicly said, "I was wrong. I shouldn't have been used for this photo-op."

Trump's photo-op, where he tried to look strong by walking to the church across the street from the White House after the attack on the protesters, was also right out of the authoritarian playbook. These events are very revealing as to how far Trump will go to stay in power — and the potential dissent and resistance from the highest levels of the United States military as well.

What is the role of death, masculinity and violence in a fascistic and/or authoritarian regime?

These leaders, including Trump, genuinely do not care if you live or die. They could not care less. You are just a tool to be used so they can stay in power and enrich themselves. That's the premise. That is why they lead people into losing wars. They repress them. They do things that some people consider self-destructive — but in fact there is no greater power for the egocentric, narcissistic authoritarian than having people sacrifice themselves for him.

An example of this was Donald Trump daring people to go to his Tulsa rally with no masks on in the middle of a pandemic. This has not been stressed enough in terms of the public's understanding of Donald Trump. Trump engages in male domination games with everyone. Trump even did it to Mike Pence when he announced that Pence would be his running mate in 2016.

What greater ego rush for Donald Trump than to have his supporters risk their lives for the joy of listening to him speak in person? Donald Trump will gladly send the American people to their deaths — his own supporters included — because they are just tools for him. Traditional understandings of what it means to be president in a democracy do not account for this. The public does not want to comprehend the behavior of Donald Trump.

Why are so many people willing to die for Donald Trump? For that matter, why are so many of his supporters willing to kill for him?

They are a death cult. During World War II, Germans killed themselves for Hitler. Trump shows how such things can happen even in a nominal democracy. The self-destruction for the leader makes it even more scary because it is voluntary. So many Republicans, Lindsey Graham for example, have prostituted themselves to Donald Trump. Of course such people have their own agendas and actually believe that they are using Donald Trump and not the other way around. No one is holding a death sentence over these people who have prostituted themselves to Donald Trump. It is not like one of the other authoritarian regimes where supporting the leader was and is a literal matter of life and death. Trump just fires people. In other countries a person who the leader was done with would be put in prison or killed.

If Putin is displeased with somebody, he finds a way to put them in prison, or sometimes poison them. The stakes in the United States with Trump are so much lower at present. What is going to happen to someone who stands up and does the right thing? They might not have as great of a career. They might not be asked to sit on boards of directors. They'll lose out on some money. They might be shunned at their church. But overall, it is not a life and death situation. It is a very sad situation that more people from Trump's administration and the United States government do not speak out. It is a spectacle of the cravenness of humanity that we are all seeing in the Trump era.

Let us assume that there is a presidential election in November and that Trump is defeated by Joe Biden. What happens next?

Authoritarian leaders do not experience defeat like other types of people. They are not normal people who would just give up the office and step down. Defeat is a form of psychological annihilation for a leader like Donald Trump. For men like Trump, authoritarians, their sense of self-worth is completely determined by adulation and having the power to bully people. It makes leaders such as Donald Trump feel good.

If authoritarian leaders feel that power is being taken away from them, they get very angry. They will do desperate things to prove to themselves that they are still loved. I would expect him to energize right-wing gun fanatics to create civil unrest because he wants to show the American people — his supporters — that without him being president the country will truly descend into anarchy. I would be very surprised that if Trump lost on Election Day to Joe Biden, he doesn't do horrible things. It is the only way that he can show himself, in his own fantasy world, that he truly is the savior of the country.

What advice would you give to the American people about the next few months and how to prepare for what may happen with Trump and the election?

All of our tweeting and all the things we do digitally do not mean anything if the American people cannot vote. Volunteer to help register voters. Help people make sure they are on the eligible voter lists. If there is an overwhelming Biden victory on Election Day, it becomes much harder for Donald Trump to successfully find a way to stay in office.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff 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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