Ruth Ben-Ghiat

The Strongman in the USA

Air Date: November 30, 2020

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat discusses Trump’s defiance of the 2020 election results and authoritarian playbook.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m honored to welcome our guest today, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She is author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” a historian. Professor, thank you so much for joining me today.


BEN-GHIAT: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: We are at this critical period right now where there has been a duly convened legitimate fair election. There is a clear Electoral College winner that is President-Elect Joe Biden. And for the first time, maybe in the history of our Republic, the incumbent president is not conceding and is in fact declaring the results to be fraudulent. And he has not yet said that he will try to stay in office, which we would call in our country a coup. But that is a possibility and I wanted to start there. What is your sense of what’s transpiring right now?


BEN-GHIAT: I’m not at all surprised because even before Trump was inaugurated in 2017 cast, that he was following an authoritarian playbook rather than a democratic one. And I have viewed everything he’s done in the light of a century of authoritarian history. And even in 2016, he started trying to sow doubt about our institutions, about our electoral process, in case he wasn’t successful. And he’s done a huge amount of damage over the last four years, which we still need to reckon with. So the fact that he isn’t playing by the democratic rulebook in conceding immediately, and saying he’s going to observe these procedures is not surprising.


HEFFNER: It’s not surprising, but you and Sarah Kendzior and Jason Stanley, and some of our friends at The Open Mind who have appeared alongside you, are alarmed and are warning the country. And we are apprehensive if not alarmed. What do we do right now when the Republican Party with the exception of, as we’re recording this, a few United States senators is enabling – let’s call it what it is enabling autocracy, refusing to congratulate Vice-President Elect Biden, excuse me, President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris. What do we do as citizens right now?

BEN-GHIAT: I think that we do what we’ve been doing which we were successful in mobilizing in a grassroots manner to get to this point. And we have to be very watchful. We have to understand that these people are not going to leave power easily, that quite beyond Trump I mean, and he’s been able to domesticate the GOP to an astonishing degree. In fact his triumph at doing this is, is out of proportion to other leaders, because many leaders from Mussolini to Berlusconi, to other people, they had their own party, they created their parties, or they had been in a leadership position like Erdogan or Orban for a long time. Trump had no history like this, and yet he came in and he’s been able to wrap them around his finger and domesticate them. And so, we, I think the, the more that we don’t give into the temptation to just say, okay it’s over, we’re going to turn the page, let’s look forward, and try and understand what it is that who we have in front of us. And this alliance between the GOP and Trump, the better prepared we’ll be for whatever happens.


HEFFNER: In thinking about the historiography of “Strongmen,” Ruth, the person who most resembles Trump to me, or who Trump most resembles is Pinochet. But I want to give you an opportunity to make the parallel that you think is most appropriate at this historical moment.


BEN-GHIAT: It’s a great question. And honestly, Trump takes a little bit from many eras of history. My book is divided into three areas. It’s the fascist period, the military coups, and so I have Qaddafi, I have Pinochet, and then the new authoritarian age and Trump takes from all of these eras of the playbook. Definitely a lot of the personality cult and propaganda mechanisms that he’s disseminated date back to fascism, and Pinochet, yes, when I was writing the book, this was one of the examples that saddened me the most and alarmed me the most because Chileans kept saying it can’t happen here, all around them other countries were falling into often U.S. backed military juntas and the Chileans thought they were exempt. They thought that they were democrats and instead very rapidly the whole thing fell into military dictatorship and Pinochet was able to survive 17 years because he set up this form of personalist rule. He was always the indisputed leader. He’s also interesting because he’s one of the very rare examples of someone who gets voted out of office. And it’s a very moving story that I tell in the book about how Chileans mobilized over years to register people to vote, to have a sense of hope and aspiration after all the violence and after all the repression. And they did this successfully. So Chile is an excellent example of falling into autocracy and also getting out of it.

HEFFNER: Right. And that’s why I mentioned it because the plebiscite that overthrew Pinochet that ousted Pinochet seemed to me like this election. I mean, this had to be our plebiscite to, for, for someone other than Donald Trump to win the Electoral College and be sworn in, in January. And we seem to have accomplished that through the electoral process, but the political institutions, the constant refrain is will they hold?


BEN-GHIAT: Yes. And one, another thing that’s very interesting about Pinochet is that he had a long time after he was voted out until he actually left office. And he used that time, very vindictive fashion, because I have a bit in the Washington Post today about how the temperament of these leaders does not allow them to give up power. They are used to being adored. They’re used to being able to humiliate people and they don’t want to give that up easily. So Pinochet did everything he could to sabotage the new democracy and try and get immunity for himself or to hide the crimes. He tried, he stacked the Supreme Court. These things will sound very, very familiar, but we can never underestimate the vindictiveness and anger and rage of a strongman ruler when he has to leave power.


HEFFNER: Something that might be most unique to Trump is the creation of an alternative universe and accepting the loss in his universe in which he accepts one reality, which is he got to appoint three Supreme Court justices, but he creates a paradigm on Fox News or NewsMax, or let’s not call it conservative media. Let’s call it autocratic media that will enable him to preserve his presidency in effect. And I suppose that may be the critical question to satisfy his need for power if a media complex in an alternate universe where he is still considered President will be sufficient for his particular psychosis.


BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. And this is where the personality comes in. And, you know, a lot of people like to say that Donald Trump was incompetent, he was lazy. He didn’t do much. And especially now there’s been a rash of these things saying we don’t need to take him seriously. Someone else could along and be a real authoritarian. I think this is counterproductive because if we don’t come to terms with the immense damage that he has caused to our institutions, and also the success of his personality cult. Seventy million plus people voted for him and, and regard him as a kind of God. And indeed the canons of the personality cult have actually not changed over a hundred years. And one of them is that the person is ruling by divine mandate. And of course we have Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews who have who have, you know, embraced this line. So when Trump is no longer in office this personality cult it will not be attached to the White House, but it will stay. And most of all, and we’ll see this in the next period, this transition period, the cult of victimhood, because the democratic leader represents the people, but the autocratic leader or the wannabe embodies the people. So he can become the victim, taking the hits. He can become the victim of plots by the deep state. So this victimhood narrative is fundamental to Trump’s personality cult, and now he’s in distress. And we cannot underestimate the fact that many people feel protective of their leader. So you have quotes I’ve seen in the media people who say I’d take a bullet for Trump or I’d wade through a sea of COVID for Trump. And these people are in distress themselves because their leader is, has been defeated and so on both sides, both the leader psychology and the follower psychology, it’s a very delicate time right now in America.


HEFFNER: And we can’t know with any confidence, what percent of that 70 plus million would perform those acts that you describe, or expect that he would challenge the due presidency, the legitimate presidency and would attempt to not just undermine it, but refuse to leave power. We just really don’t know. And public opinion surveys clearly were not accurate in 2016. They were not really accurate in many respects in 2020, but we don’t know whether the coup is possible because we can’t really assess, no one really can assess how far Trump is willing to go. I don’t think even his family; I don’t think anybody really knows how far he would be willing to go to kill our democracy. And I just wondered if you had any insight into that, because it would really take a team psychologists and historians, maybe that come up with any and any intelligent answer.


BEN-GHIAT: I think that what we can know is that, and this is where it was immensely helpful to go as a non-historian of America; I’m not a historian of America. And to look at our country with the eyes of research into leaders all over the world who have a similar temperament. And one of the things, these principles that holds true is that they are most dangerous when their power is threatened. And certainly only Pinochet was voted out of office so we don’t have much of a playbook for this, but we do know that again, they feel this as a kind of psychological annihilation, they are not capable of thinking of themselves without being adulated, especially when they’ve been used to this. So there is no limit to what can be done in his mind. And of course we see in the media, people are considering an intervention, which one of his family members is going to do it. But part of the problem is the structure of government that these people set up is like a cocoon to prevent them from having any truth enter their alternate reality that they don’t want to grapple with. So that system of cocooning and buffering and cushioning and flattery doesn’t serve them well in the end stage of their rule. And the fact that even now his aides are not speaking frankly to him tells you how successful he has been as a leader of this brutalist type.


HEFFNER: And it seems as though the second most powerful person, at least statutorily in the Republican Party, Mitch McConnell is not going to play with any decency. He’s going to further dishonor his office by basically allowing Trump until the bitter end to de-legitimize President Elect Biden. And, and it’s, it’s, again, we don’t know if McConnell knows how much of the Kool-Aid is going to go down and the country and our system of government will survive, but maybe he does not care whether or not it survives. And if Biden is de-legitimized until inauguration day, that’s fine by him. Is that what you expect to occur?


BEN-GHIAT: I think that, you know, one of the things that happens in history, wherever these men get power, is they are so destructive and they lead their allies and they always ally with these conservative elites. They are extremists, they’re often criminals or have, you know, a very tangled legal history. And they depend on conservative elites, like the GOP in this case, to let them in the system, right. And once they form these bonds, these conservative leads, these packs with them stick to the bitter end, no matter what they do in our case, through impeachment, through the news that Putin had put a bounty on American soldiers heads, nothing will dissuade them. So we can’t expect the GOP to change its stripes now, right? And so one of the hard truths that we need to grapple with that Trump’s presidency has taught us is that, you know, the GOP accepted Trump because it had already moved quite far to the right. That’s partly why there’s been this split, this earthquake. We will have the Never Trumpers. And this is also what these men do. They re-jigger the system. They’re like a volcano. And there’s all kinds of, you know, lava spewing and things don’t look the same after as they did before. So the GOP has become really a far right party. And there’s some very interesting comparative politics studies that looked at their rhetoric and looked at their platforms. And they really line up on many issues as akin to like Modi’s party or Erdogan’s party. So we, the sooner we realize that we’re dealing with a far right party, that’s not interested in bi-partisan governance, the better we’ll be equipped to understand what they’re doing now, and that they’re not playing by a democratic playbook. They’re not either.


HEFFNER: Right. So we’re about to understand if this authoritarianism at the end of the day was more a wanna-be authoritarianism, or was actually in the flesh, continues to be authoritarianism and autocratic rule. We’re in the process of finding that out. I asked you about citizen’s responsibility, but the media also have a determination to make about how they, and if they amplify Donald Trump’s what I call Birtherism 2.0, this fraud. And I would say that nearly half of the coverage so far has been about Trump’s malicious, fictitious accusations. They’re not even accusations. Fraudulent, just his fraudulence and half of it has been coverage of a Biden’s transition. I mean, that’s, to me, that’s appalling, and there should be an absolute blackout on Trump, but there are others who think that it’s important to give a spotlight to this authoritarianism so that people are aware that it’s happening. I wonder what your attitude is.


BEN-GHIAT: There’s a fine line between putting a spotlight on it and amplifying it acritically. And just as I mentioned a moment ago that these men, when they appear in any country, they cause a political earthquake, they also upset the media ecology that has been in place. And the whole notion of journalistic objectivity, which is sacred, doesn’t work as well when one person is not operating in a democratic framework, because for autocrats like Erdogan or Putin, think of Putin who’s killed so many journalists. There is no journal, there’s no room for neutrality. You either with him or you’re against him. And Trump has always, he hasn’t been able to do what those other people he admires have done, but he would have the same aspirations. And in fact, one of the things that’s emerged from, very frightening from these tell all books one by Bolton and is that both the Mattis was in an in a, in a meeting and also Bolton heard Trump say, and these are two separate people that journalists should be executed that they’re scumbags and they should actually be executed. And so we’re dealing with someone who is a violent extremist, and we can’t underestimate what he would do, but it also means that part of this transition would, it begs the media to look carefully at the model they’ve been using of coverage. And my colleague, Jay Rosen has been writing about this for years and many others, and Margaret Sullivan, but this is part of the reckoning we’re going to have. When one person is not playing with the democratic playbook, how do you cover them when you’re still in a nominal democracy?


HEFFNER: That is the critical question. And I think that a blackout on the fraud allegations might be appropriate because no evidence has been forthcoming. So muting that might be the most constructive. I asked you before about the 70 million, by the time all the votes are counted, it might be 80 million who voted for Trump. And I think there’s a percentage of those folks who will never accept the authoritarianism, unless folks are mimed and murdered in the streets, but there are some who would accept it if there were, if there was real genocide in our country and not the threat of executing a journalist, but actually a public execution of a journalist, right? And so there are those historically center right suburban voters who decided I’ve heard enough of this rhetoric, I’m voting for Joe Biden. But clearly there were a lot who heard it and said, I’m a Republican through and through for taxes for economic concerns and, and this kind of accusation of authoritarianism, well, it’s not real because no one is, is dying. He’s not literally murdering or poisoning people. How do you respond to that?


BEN-GHIAT: This is, this is why when given my background studying fascism, people always ask me if I call Trump a fascist. And I say, no, because if our if our expectations are that Trump’s America was going to look like fascist Italy, it’s always going to fall short and short, meaning not as violent. We don’t have one party states anymore outside of North Korea and China, and some other places, it doesn’t work that way. And today genocide is less common. What a lot of autocrats like Erdogan, they do mass detention. And we too are doing mass detention with, with migrants. And this didn’t start with Trump. So that’s another thing that we need to look very carefully to. It’s another example of how there are weaknesses in the system or illiberal points in the system, and then somebody like Trump comes in and weaponizes them. And so a great, a vast work of rethinking is needed both in terms of corruption, anti-corruption legislation, perhaps the Electoral College, the detention practices, immigration practices, all of this is up for grabs when somebody like Trump has come in and used every loophole possible to bend them in an illiberal manner. So this is why the idea that we can just forget about it now is not right. And also we have to see that authoritarians, each one has an outcome that’s specific to their time and place.


HEFFNER: Right. And the violation of rhetorical norms is not the only violation we’ve witnessed. And in fact, in this transition period, we don’t know how extreme it will get and whether or not another criteria that could be assessed for the fascism is not necessarily dead bodies, but just the complete detachment from the electoral reality. I mean, the complete vetoing of the American system, the Electoral College, which is, which is what would transpire. If that were to happen, and he were to remain in office and require the Secret Service to remove the trespasser as Vice President Biden, President Elect Biden’s campaign said would you, what do you call that last, those last minutes of, of the Trump presidency fascism?


BEN-GHIAT: It’s authoritarianism. Because when we think of, again a lot of these techniques and situations come out of fascism, from personality cults to, you know, Mussolini was you know, we always give Hitler all the attention for good reasons, but Mussolini is actually more appropriate because he was a prime minister for three years in a democracy. And during that time he chipped away and had squadron violence, and then he declared dictatorship to save his power because he was being investigated for a crime. And that’s why he declared dictatorship when he did. So when you look at how these people operate today, they still use things from the fascist era, but Erdogan’s not exactly a fascist, that’s not the right. And even Putin, who’s gone from communist to right wing. They’re not really fascist. So that’s why I use the word authoritarian, which is a broader framework that encompasses these different people from Mobuto to, to Gaddafi, all of them, because in the end they use a very similar playbook, even though the outcome can differ in terms of the violence used.


HEFFNER: And do you think that there’s enough tolerance of the authoritarianism that the Electoral College through bribes or just Trump’s hijacking, could vote not according to the states, but according to what Donald Trump wants with the electors and that it would require American protest to ensure that the Electoral College is respected, of course, even though Republicans claim to pride themselves on the Electoral College are you anticipating that it will get to that point?


BEN-GHIAT: I hadn’t anticipated that so far. A lot will depend on what Fox News does. And this may seem like a crazy thing to say, that, you know, the future of our democracy could come down to what Fox News does, but look at the relief when Fox News, they got all this credit for just deciding to call the election for Biden and early on giving him Arizona. So the bar has moved so much that just for respecting…


HEFFNER: But in the 60 seconds we have left, Ruth is, is it really Fox News anymore or is it all these alternative universes? The, does it matter what the Reddit board says or what OAN says, or you know, what do you still think it’s really centrally about Fox?


BEN-GHIAT: You know Fox has been a kind of co-producer of the Trump Presidency. That’s why I mentioned it because Trump is different than all other strongmen in history, in modern history, because he, even Berlusconi, you know, used to read books and as I said, and Trump gets his ideas that translate into policy often from Fox News. So I do see Fox News as a kind of co-author through Sean Hannity and these other hosts of the Trump Presidency,


HEFFNER: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Thank you so much for your insight today.


BEN-GHIAT: Thank you.


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