For a little more than a year now, ever since the Jan. 6 insurrection in fact, I’ve been worried about the rise of xenophobic, far-right authoritarianism and white Christian nationalism in America. I’ve blogged about HERE, HERE and HERE, for example. Now comes a historian at New York University who puts it in context.
The context, not to put too fine a point on it, is fascism.
The historian is Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who teaches history and Italian studies at NYU and has written several books on Mussolini’s Italy. In an April 15 article on the New Republic website, she comes right out and uses the (other) F-word, saying ex-President Trump “hew[s] to strongman traditions that started with the fascists.”
Starting in 2016, she adds, Trump’s “openly authoritarian positions electrified the Republican base and GOP lawmakers.” And she says he hasn’t gotten better with time, openly building the kind of cult of personality that strongmen like Mussolini, Spain’s Franco and Argentina’s Peron could envy.
Or, Ben-Ghiat argues, strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Like most academics (including, no doubt, this one), she rides her thesis a little too hard. But I think she has a compelling take on Trump’s brand of authoritarian, or quasi-authoritarian, personality politics.
Elsewhere, in a Substack newsletter she calls Lucid, Ben-Ghiat says far-right politics and religion can be a “Match Made in Heaven.” She adds:
While some may puzzle over why faith leaders back the most profane and cynical individuals –think of Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump in our own day– the worlds of religious institutions and authoritarians can understand each other well.
But no one has ever accused Trump of being particularly religious. It’s all about him, and he’s all about personality politics. Some verbatim snippets from Ben-Ghiat’s article in this month’s New Republic article follow:
Since the start of Italian fascist rule a century ago, personalist leaders have come to power by striking authoritarian bargains whereby elites, motivated by the preservation of their economic privileges, back the leader’s removal of rights from citizens. Certainly, the GOP was ready for an openly autocratic leader. A 2012 assessment by the political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann captured the growth of an anti-democratic ethos that would intensify with the absorption of Tea Party energies:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in U.S. politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Trump had thought about running for president for years. In 2011, he had tested the waters as an openly racist candidate, spreading a conspiracy theory that claimed that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to govern. The stars aligned for the 2016 election cycle. The uptick in refugees and migrants, the danger of a female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and the affront of eight years of Obama’s rule created the right degree of resentment against the strongman’s usual enemies—women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants—and a sense that traditional political offerings were insufficient to meet the threat.
Up stepped Trump to shock the political landscape, hewing to strongman traditions that started with the fascists. He created a movement and big-tent constituency built on normalizing extremism and communicated with his followers in ways that seemed to them authentic and fresh.
During the 2016 election, Trump’s openly authoritarian positions electrified the Republican base and GOP lawmakers. Now, political opponents not only had no legitimacy, but should be imprisoned—or worse. “Lock her up!” became the favorite chant at Trump rallies. Al Baldasaro, a GOP member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and others called for Hillary Clinton to be executed by firing squad. Trump suggested that “Second Amendment People” could act against her.
Nor does the history of the U.S. presidency suffice to explain the authoritarian-style discipline Trump imposed on the GOP. Over time, parties that serve personalist leaders become hollowed out and devoid of ideals other than holding power. Loyalty to the leader, rather than competence, becomes the most desirable political quality for party leadership. The decision of the GOP to forgo announcing a party platform for the 2020 election season beyond its support of Trump is symptomatic.
So is the erasure of any independent spark in party luminaries. There’s no trace today of the Kevin McCarthy (then House majority leader) who worried in a June 2016 conversation with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that Trump was on Putin’s payroll. In his place is a party apparatchik (now House minority leader) and keeper of the personality cult flame who voted in Congress 97.3 percent of the time in accordance with Trump’s wishes.
With each new challenge to his authority, Trump tightened the vise further. By 2020, after he weathered impeachment by the House (and acquittal by the Senate), the right to air dissenting views within the GOP had also diminished. By his second impeachment trial in February 2021, in the wake of January 6, questioning the leader cult had become downright dangerous. “Our expectation is that someone may try to kill us,” said GOP Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan, who voted to impeach Trump, explaining why he was buying body armor.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Religion and Authoritarianism: A Match Made in Heaven,” Lucid [Substack], Nov. 2, 2021 https://lucid.substack.com/p/religion-and-authoritarianism-a-match?s=r.
__________. “Trump, Putin, and the Politics of Domination,” New Republic, April 15, 2022 https://newrepublic.com/article/165956/trump-putin-authoritarian-politics-domination.
[April 22, 2022]