Is Trump a Fascist?

I ask Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and scholar of fascism, how scared we should be

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Prominent historians including Ruth Ben-Ghiat warned us before the 2016 election that Trump was running a campaign remarkably similar to that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini who created the National Fascist Party as an “anti-Party” and led an outsider movement based on the idea of a a broken two-party system.

Trump’s behavior in office has already borne out many of Ben-Ghiat’s predictions.

“Authoritarian rulers have a profound disrespect for democracy,” she says in the 2018 NBC News video I’ve posted above, adding that: “Donald Trump has been following the authoritarian playbook since he was a Presidential candidate.”

In 2020, few serious people disagree that Trump is displaying “fascistic” tendencies. On July 30, he tweeted a suggestion that the November 3rd election should be delayed—even though delaying an election is not a decision Trump himself would be allowed to make.

Before the day was over, Steven Calabresi, a co-founder of the conservative, Trump-judge-picking Federalist Society, had written this in an Op-Ed in the New York Times: ⁦

Until recently, I had taken as political hyperbole the Democrats’ assertion that President Trump is a fascist. But this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment.

With the coronavirus out of control, the economy recording its worst decline ever, and polls turning against him, Trump is growing increasingly desperate.

I reached out to Ruth Ben-Ghiat to ask how bad things were already—and how much worse they still might get:

Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat

You were one of the first to warn about Trump's authoritarianism. In August 2016, you wrote in the Atlantic that Trump was NOT a fascist, but he was similar to Mussolini in many ways. What did you see then? Has your view changed since?

Having studied fascism for years, when I saw Trump performing loyalty oaths at rallies with his followers, retweeting neo-Nazi images, and barraging Americans with misinformation I paid attention. Four years later, my view has not changed: Trump uses many tactics inherited from Fascism, and consciously signals to neo-Nazis and other far-right communities, but he belongs in a broader authoritarian lineage that encompasses Pinochet, Putin, Orbán and others.

What have you been: a) most surprised by; and b) least surprised by in the way Trump has acted as President?

Having predicted most of what Trump has done, based on his adherence to an authoritarian playbook, nothing has surprised me. Corruption, toxic masculinity, propaganda, and violence—it’s all there.

Is Trump worse in 2020 than he was in 2016?

Trump is who he has always been—he is “worse” because he has more power than he had in 2016. He has the perfect roster of collaborators now, after some trial and error, for example with the Secretary of State and Attorney General positions. He needed to find men (they had to be men) who would become their worst selves in service to him: like Pompeo, who declares that Trump is sent by God to rule America, even as Trump’s wilful negligence on coronavirus management dooms hundreds of thousands to death; and Barr, who does Trump’s dirty business with Erdogan and others in return for getting to realize his long-held vision of a law and order state that secures white Christian hegemony.

What is your reaction to the recent events in Portland, where federal troops have grabbed protesters off the streets. Is this just a political stunt or the start of something more ominous—a new American “Gestapo”?

Labeling protesters as terrorists and rioters is a strategy of Barr and Trump designed to discourage protest in view of the election they will try to game any way possible. They would love to have protesters locked up and seen as enemies of the people before November arrives.

How much more dangerous could Trump become between now and the election?

Trump cannot afford to leave office—he might be prosecuted, and he’d certainly lose a sweet deal he has set up, using public office to enrich Trump Organization and his family. I believe Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, who says he won’t leave quietly even if he loses. He is already setting the stage for civil unrest that would allow him and Barr to declare martial law or some other emergency state.

If Trump does somehow win re-election, or stay in office beyond January 2021, what are the biggest risks to the future of America? 

If Trump is re-elected we will slide into a form of autocracy that blends Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey (with mass detention) and the GOP’s own blend of racially-motivated voter suppression. Climate change will be sped up in America since one of Trump’s biggest agendas is to enable the exploitation of natural resources—that’s the authoritarian bargain his cronies in the energy fossil fuel mining and timber industries struck with him. The consequences will be tragic.

For further reading, check out:

And pre-order Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s upcoming book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present which discusses “what modern authoritarian leaders have in common (and how they can be stopped).”

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