Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Trump's coup is not over; his enablers aren't done

Author of "Strongmen": We're in a dangerous "state of exception," and it's too early to say democracy will hold

Published December 2, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images)

Dismiss Donald Trump and the GOP's attacks on the 2020 election at your peril, warns Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and author of the new book, "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present." In our recent interview for Salon Talks, Ben-Ghiat — a professor of history and Italian studies at NYU — observes that Trump probably hasn't actually studied other leaders in history who transformed functioning democracies into authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, his actions line up almost perfectly with many who have done just that, from Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy to Vladimir Putin in contemporary Russia.

"For the strongman, politics is always personal," Ben-Ghiat explains which may sound ironic given that "strongmen" are all about displaying virility. As she explained in our conversation, they tend to take every slight personally, and that's certainly the case with President Trump, who constantly complains that he's a victim who has been treated unfairly, which for some reason has endeared him even further to his supporters. 

Even with Trump on his way out in January, Ben-Ghiat makes clear the threat of authoritarianism in America is not over. She explains that the Republican Party is increasingly embracing undemocratic methods to acquire and retain power, from voter ID laws to blocking Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. Some GOP elected officials — thankfully, not all — even enabled Trump's efforts to overturn or delegitimize the 2020 election results.

Ben-Ghiat's book it serves as a wake-up call for any who believe what we are seeing is nothing more than an extra dose of our "normal" hyper-partisan politics. If we as a nation don't attempt to rein in the use of undemocratic or anti-democratic tactics, the U.S. may end up featured in future history books as a former democracy that slid into authoritarianism. Watch my Salon Talks with Ruth Ben-Ghiat below or read the following transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your new book on authoritarianism, "Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present" is a scary must-read. Not because of the past, but because of the present. Let me first get your reaction as an expert to what we have seen recently in the headlines, with Donald Trump literally trying to overturn the results of this election.

I turned in the book in the summer of 2020, and I was just reading over the ending chapter. I found a sentence that said that Trump might try to stay in office to avoid prosecution and to keep his grifting going. I said it in a more elegant manner, but what we're seeing is not at all surprising, because today authoritarians come to power through elections and then they manipulate elections to stay there.

Some journalists are hesitant to use the word "coup" because to them, that conjures up tanks in the street. But would it be fair to say what Trump is trying to do is an electoral coup or political coup, where he clearly lost the election, but he's spreading misinformation to overturn it and keep himself in power?

Yeah, I'm very glad that a third of the book is about the age of military coups. And then what happens where we get to the age where they're coming in through elections. This qualifies as what's called an "auto-coup" or a self-coup, where somebody who's already in power tries to manipulate elections and uses propaganda and threats to stay there.

For a classic coup, you need law enforcement and the military. And that's why, I was quite heartened that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, went out of his way and made a pointed declaration, saying that the armed forces are going to obey the Constitution and not an individual. We all know who that individual is. I don't think he's going to succeed by traditional military-coup means, because that's not what you do anymore. It's more like law-warfare, where you use lawyers and bureaucracy. Paperwork can kill democracy today, basically.

Clearly Joe Biden and many leading Democrats have made the strategic decision not to join this battle, to stay above it. Maybe on Twitter, you see some members of Congress, but they certainly have not flooded the zone calling this out. It concerns me that it almost feels like an unintentional appeasement of Donald Trump, letting him say what he's going to say because democracy is going to win out at the end of the day. Does history tell us that's a good or bad strategy?

I'm really glad you made that point, because I think one of the hard truths we have to face is that the GOP is an authoritarian party. The other day they issued a very aggressive declaration, saying they're going to fight to liberate the country from tyranny, which is this old right-wing line that democracy is tyranny and authoritarian government is freedom. So they went out in a new aggressive way, saying they're going to back [Trump] all the way to the end.

We're in a situation where Erdogan in Turkey and Modi in India, who are not liberal rulers, have called Biden to congratulate him on the election, but the GOP will not concede. In this situation, it's very important that the Democrats come out very strongly, because the history of authoritarian shows that Trump is a bully and if you don't push back against him, he will take more advantage and consider you to be a lesser opponent. I think they're going to have to change their messaging, because things are getting very, very frightening, very, very serious. Being above it all is not going to work.

I get the sense from Democrats in power that if they join this battle, then it makes it partisan and maybe antagonizes the Republicans who are not on board. A little over 50 percent of Republicans think Trump is the rightful winner, and about 30 percent think Joe Biden is. The Democrats actually almost seem happy with that 30 percent. I fear that each day this goes by and you don't see Democrats on Fox News or on Newsmax making the counter-argument, it gets more and more traction.

This is the same framework that has hampered the media from adequately responding to Trump. Here's the issue. Very early on, before Trump was inaugurated, I published a CNN op-ed saying that Trump was following the authoritarian playbook. Now, it makes sense that Americans would only have a democratic frame of reference, because we've never had a dictatorship. We've never had a foreign occupation.

But seeing Trump in anything less than an authoritarian frame allows you to make a lot of strategic mistakes. He's never been in office for democratic means or goals. He's been in office to make money for the Trump Organization, to build a personality cult to keep people loyal to him and to prolong his power. Staying in office to avoid prosecution, etc., becomes an end in itself. So if we see it that way, this is why the media needed to call this out immediately and not do the both-sides thing.

In a parallel way, the Democrats thinking that they may look partisan is futile at this point. They have to really think about what role they want to have in history. Being silent, to kind of be above it all, there's a lesson from history. When Mussolini was pushing, he hadn't declared dictatorship yet, but it was very clear he was actually fixing an election. The opposition in the Italian parliament did a noble thing. They left. It was called the "Aventine secession," because they went and met on the Aventine Hill in Rome. They didn't want to engage with these thugs. They were trying to be above it all. You know what Mussolini did? He said, "Good, they're not here." They were unable to enter back into parliament when they wanted to return, and he declared a dictatorship. So it doesn't work to be above it all when you have somebody like Trump.

I think you make a great point that our media, and even the Democrats, are not well equipped to deal with a person like this. It took almost two years for many in the media to use the word "liar" to describe Donald Trump. I was writing it in articles and I would get editors crossing it out. Then after a while, they're like, "OK." I feel like the same thing now is happening now in mainstream media where they can't say there's a coup happening in the United States because there aren't tanks.

The book goes through a hundred years of history and there are these recurring patterns. One of them is that people have been in denial. They don't want to take the leader seriously. Even now you have people saying, "Trump's not so bad, he just golfs all the time." They're already saying, "Well, what we need to worry about is someone who's going to be much more competent in the future."

But we are now in an emergency. I've been making videos every day about the transition, and I'm making it very clear that we are in a crisis state. The minute that Biden won and Trump and the GOP didn't recognize the results, this opened a window for a kind of state of exception. So the time is now to worry about an authoritarian, not in 2024. But it's very upsetting for some people to recognize what's in front of them, because then they think, "Well, maybe I have to do something about it." This is a pattern that's been repeated over a hundred years.

If Trump were somehow able to stay in power for four more years, setting aside that we have a 22nd Amendment that says he can't serve another term after that, do you think the GOP would support his efforts to remain in power beyond four more years?

I do. It's a great question, because the reason the GOP is going along with this is that there are many people who have invested a lot to put America on this path. And let's be very clear, it's a project of taking America out of the realm of democracy, including all the world alliances, and putting it into what I called in 2016, Axis 2.0. Look at who Trump is dealing with. Erdogan and Putin, these are the people he admires, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. So people like William Barr and Mike Pompeo, we're not talking about hacks on Fox News. We're talking about the apex of power.

They have invested a lot, and each one may have his own agenda. Like for Barr and Pence it's white Christian hegemony, but they don't want to give it up because they're coming very close to being able to consolidate it in ways that are very frightening for liberal democracy. So I would caution anybody to think that just because you see Trump going to play golf or he doesn't have any public events on his schedule, it doesn't mean people are not digging in for this desperate endgame.

My fiancée, who's originally from the Middle East, was reading some of Trump's recent tweets and she goes, "He's not leaving. You understand that?" I go, "He's leaving." And she goes, "He's not leaving. He really is tweeting like he has won." She doesn't look at it through the American lens. Bassem Youssef, who's the Jon Stewart of the Middle East, he's saying, "This doesn't end well." I think a lot of Americans are uncomfortable with that talk, but I think people like that are being blunt because they're looking at this through what they've seen in the Middle East.

Yes, and I think one of my strengths as an analyst has been that I grew up here in America, but my parents are immigrants. My mother's from Scotland, my father was born in Jerusalem and my grandfather was from Yemen. So I also work on global history. I started with Italian fascism, studied empire, and I turned that global lens — and also my whole family culture, where there's no relatives in the States — onto America. I've been able to see things very clearly. And I'm also getting lots of messages from people in the Middle East, family or not, people I don't know, saying the same thing you just said.

There are countries that you go through in your book, where it's not like 1930s authoritarianism or even like Gen. Pinochet in Chile, with people disappearing. It's more almost like an oligarchy. If Trump were able to stay, I don't even think it'd be like Putin. For instance, I could still do my comedy. I could still bad-mouth Trump and they might lash out at me a little bit. It would have the trappings of democracy, but we'd have backslid to where Donald Trump and the oligarchs have an inordinate amount of control over the power of this nation.

We're still searching for a language. I talk about this in the introduction of the book, to describe this new form of autocracy. Some people call it electoral autocracy, where you don't totally get rid of the opposition, you don't need a one-party state. We have that only in North Korea and in China. But if you're not communist, you keep the trappings of democracy, but it's fixed. The game is fixed.

Sadly, during the years I wrote the book, several people on the world leadership scene have consolidated their power. Many people think we would drift toward an Orbán scenario, although I think it would be much more violent. Orbán has domesticated the judiciary and the media without much physical violence. Orbán rules by decree now. Putin amended the Russian constitution — here we go with the law-fare, right? Death of democracy by paperwork. He amended it so he could stay in power till 2036 if he wants. So in each case it's going to look different in every way and it's not going to look like the old fascist dictatorships. That's why I don't use the word "fascist" for Trump, although he uses a ton of fascist tactics, including a personality cult.

In your book, you had a line about it always being personal for the strongman in politics. And I can only think of Trump. Why is it that politics are always personal for these people? Is Trump's embrace of victimhood part of that as well, where he's constantly complaining about how unfairly he is treated?

Yeah, it's all about him, right? And he always has to be the biggest victim. So unfortunately, this too is out of the playbook. Mussolini was the victim, Hitler was too. And what it is, is that they don't represent the nation like democratic leaders, they embody the nation. So they become the embodiment of the nation's sufferings and dreams and hopes. When he first came in in 2016, Trump said that the world system was rigged against America and he was going to save it. He was going to be the voice. Now, he also said that the election system was rigged. He started saying this in 2016 in case he lost, but he didn't lose. This is very old rhetoric, and even if he leaves office, this victim cult will only grow among his followers.

And the thing about it is, it connects to their masculinity. I have a whole chapter on virility because on the one hand they're supposed to be alpha males, right? Trump is retweeting his face on the body of Sylvester Stallone. We can laugh at that stuff, but it's deadly serious. On the other hand, they're victims, whining all the time about being persecuted. And this actually makes people feel tenderly toward them, it's even endearing. So you go to Trump rallies and journalists will get these quotes, like a woman will say, "I'd wade through a sea of COVID to save Trump." Stuff like that. All of them have done this over a hundred years, and this is why women are a big fan base for these men who are definitely not working toward women's rights.

You have a whole chapter on endings, and it's not surprising that most authoritarians leave office involuntarily and for different reasons. Berlusconi finally lost an election in Italy. Others die from natural causes or unnatural causes. If America is able to get rid of Trump on Jan. 20, is it in our best interests to try to create legal impediments to prevent another Trump? You can't pass laws and say, "No one named Donald Trump can run for office." We can't do that. It's unconstitutional. It's not democratic.

Or any other Trump. [Laughter.]

But should Congress, pass laws that might keep someone like Trump off the ballot, or at least limit his powers if he gets in?

Oh, absolutely. So Silvio Berlusconi is a big protagonist in the book, and he is quite similar. Trump is much more dangerous, but Berlusconi was so corrupt that he had laws passed that were tailored to his individual situation — talking about the personal is political. If he was accused of bribery, he had a law passed that made bribery a lesser offense. He was finally voted out in 2006 after five years. But the center-left that came in, the reformist left, they didn't do enough about corruption and about what you're talking about, safeguards against ruining democracy and creating accountability.

People got very angry and this was the birth of right-wing populism in Italy. He was voted back in, in 2008, and then he was worse than ever. So the lesson is, if we can get rid of Trump and we don't use this window that opens up with the Biden administration to be very vehement in our pushback and have much more rigorous vetting of candidates and address all the things Trump has exposed, we're doing ourselves a huge disservice.

When you mentioned corruption with other leaders, were their children corrupt as well? Because we've seen Ivanka Trump, who literally got trademarks registered on the very day her dad was meeting with the leader of China. She got countless trademarks from China, and even in Japan when Mike Pence was over there. The list goes on. I can't speak to Donald Trump Jr., he's not in the administration, so that's a little different. But is that a typical sign of these authoritarian leaders?

Yeah. One of the reasons they are the last to know that they should be leaving, is that they make these — I call them cocoons, their inner sanctums. They have flatterers and family around them, and this is also because family can be trusted to be part of the corruption. And usually, it's a family game. The same was true with Pinochet and so many rulers. I have a paragraph in the book on the special role of sons-in-law, from Mussolini's son-in-law, who he made foreign minister — and then later had executed — up to Orbán and Putin's sons-in-law. Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary was in business with Putin's son-in-law. And up to our own Jared Kushner. So what we're living through, what we've been living through for four years, almost everything is part of a historical pattern.

How does Trump stack up in terms of the other strongmen? I don't mean in terms of the atrocities that they committed, because it's a different time. So not in terms of actual outright violence, but just how they acted and their signature moves, where does Trump fit in?

Unfortunately for us, his personality, the impulsiveness, the need to humiliate others, even those who work for him, his grandiosity, his anxieties, his fears of his insecurities, all of it matches up 100 percent to all the other rulers. The outcomes are different, as you say. We're not in a one-party state fascist era. He didn't come to power through a military coup, but the personality type, which leads to these dynamics of government from the inner sanctums to not wanting to leave to humiliating others, is the same.

In 1931, Mussolini's head of the fascist party learned he was fired by reading it in the newspaper. And Mobutu in the Congo used to have, I call them "sadistic dictator games." He used to have rallies and everybody had to be assembled, with his officials in the first row. Then he would announce, live on television, which ones were fired. Rex Tillerson in 2018 was scrolling through Twitter while on the toilet and that's how he found out he was fired. So again, the dynamics are the same, even if the outcome — like what happens to the people who get fired — changes.

We have less than two months until Jan. 20. is there anything in history that we should be on the watch for, even more than we are? Anything we can do to make sure we end this authoritarian regime?

It's a time right now to be very watchful, to conserve your energies. Of course we have a pandemic and we're all extra tired, people have children at home, schools were just closed again in some places. So this is very difficult. But there may be a moment when mass nonviolent protest needs to be activated. That has been extremely effective at pushing back, because it not only tells the leader of the depth of hostility — and we did this in the summer with the Black Lives Matter protests — it also does so to his enablers. Now, whether that's going to move the needle with the GOP, I don't know. We'll have to see what happens. It's a very unpredictable time, which is the nature of these states of exception.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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