The GOP Knows Exactly What It's Doing
An interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and author, about the dangers of "kissing Trump's ring."
People love to call Trump the first “Reality TV President.” But, as historian and author Ruth Ben-Ghiat has been telling us for years, much of the Trump playbook is actually a remake of a show we’ve seen before.
I interviewed Ben-Ghiat last July about the dangers posed by Trump’s attacks on our democracy and the civil unrest he might cause by failing to concede his election defeat. Since then, her book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present has been published to widespread acclaim. And more recently, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has made a much-publicized pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring and reassure the party faithful that the “Party of Personal Responsibility” is taking absolutely no responsibility for its role in inciting the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol.
With Trump’s—and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s—takeover of the “QOP” now seemingly complete, I reached out to Ben-Ghiat with a few new questions about the peril America still faces…
Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Q: In the movie UNFIT, you say that “one of the most crucial moments of authoritarian capture is when traditional elites invite the authoritarian-in-the-making into power.” You talk about how, in the 1920s, Italy’s traditional conservatives made a deal with Mussolini, bringing him in as Prime Minister, thinking he would do their dirty work for them, that they could still control him. That didn’t work. Before long, he was a dictator. Did something similar happen in the 2016 election?
Yes, in 2016 the GOP played that classic role. Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, and others gave Trump legitimacy and access. In Strongmen, I recount how just a few weeks after Trump boasted that he could shoot someone and lose no followers, Sessions appeared at a Trump rally, and Trump crowed that he was “becoming mainstream.” A textbook case!
Q: Even now, the GOP is still trying to appease Trump, as evidenced by Kevin McCarthy’s recent “kiss-the-ring” trip to Mar-a-Lago. Knowing all that we know now, how dangerous is it that the party elite’s are still beholden to Trump, even after his defeat?
It is highly dangerous that the party persists in its attachment to this criminal figure, even when it could easily turn the page. It shows that they now stand for all that Trump embodies: lawlessness in private and public life, and an attitude to politics that holds that any means are justified to stay in power. January 6th showed that clearly.
Q: Over the last five years, the Republican Party has seemed blind to the lessons of history. But in one of your most recent videos, you suggest that’s not the case—that, in fact, Republicans know exactly what they are doing. The GOP has become “a far-right party,” one “that believes political opponents and journalists should be locked up, that non-whites shouldn’t be able to vote and that staying in power by any means is justified.” What can be done? Is there any way for honest Republicans to reclaim their party?
In an August 2016 Atlantic piece that pointed out similarities between Trump and the early Mussolini (who was a prime minister of a democracy for 3 years before declaring dictatorship) I cautioned that the Italian Liberals, who had governed Italy for decades, were ruined by allying with Mussolini. The GOP will become ever more fractured, as their far-right identity drives away more moderate people. Perhaps a new party will come out of this.
Q: In that same video, you say that “January 6th was the logical outcome of all that the GOP and Trump are today. It was made possible by our tolerance of extremism in plain sight, as well as being an inside job planned by elites to keep Trump in office.” You suggest this could be a trial run. What’s the biggest risk if Trump is not convicted at his second impeachment trial and gets away with it?
Trump will likely not be convicted, and he has left a roadmap for the kind of authoritarian governance we see in other countries, where elections are held but are manipulated (the GOP has long been doing this) and lawlessness is rewarded.
Q: A recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson proclaimed that “Trumpism is American Fascism.” And Trumpism has taken over the GOP. We see Trump supporting Marjorie Taylor Greene even as McConnell denounces her. We see Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley facing no punishment for their part in inciting the insurrection. We see Matt Gaetz going to Wyoming to attack Liz Cheney for choosing America over Trump. Even if Trump and his kids were to leave the political scene, what threat do the new breed of manic Trumpist Republicans pose to the country?
Trumpist Republicans are a huge threat—to truth, through their attachment to conspiracy theories and dependence on disinformation, and to democracy itself, given that they espouse violence rather than debate. The GOP had already moved past mutual tolerance and bipartisanship—that’s why Trump’s idea that political opponents should be “locked up,” struck a chord. That’s not democracy, it’s authoritarianism.
Q: When a party embraces the far right in the way the GOP has done, what does history teach us about the amount of crime, corruption and immorality the party will permit within its own ranks, even as it accuses and condemns “non-believers” outside the party for their imagined sins? What are the tell-tale signs of Trumpist corruption spreading within the GOP?
Berlusconi’s Italy is a precedent. He brought the far-right into government, and in the last years of his last government (2008-2011) actually fused his party, Forza Italia, with that far-right party, National Alliance, to form a new coalition. His corruption was also normalized: polls taken before and after his 2 governments of the 2000s show that the public had far more tolerance for corruption in government, and the legal and reputational consequences of disregarding ethics were far lighter.
Q: Finally, what can the average citizen do to help stop fascism from coming to America?
It is difficult right now, due to the pandemic, but we will need to repair our fractured communities at the grass-roots level. So many people have relatives or friends who are currently “unreachable” due to disinformation, love of Trump, etc. Some of these people may be more persuadable in 9 months or so, when they see that “socialist apocalypse” has not descended on America. Many civil society groups are active, including faith-based organizations, and they are on the right path.
For further reading, check out: https://ruthbenghiat.com/books/.
Follow @ruthbenghiat on Twitter.
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