A successful criminal prosecution of former President Donald Trump for illegal actions is the one sure way to deflate the power of his “personality cult,” declared a historian who’s an expert on authoritarian leaders.
Election defeats alone don’t stop wanna-be autocrats — but the law can, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat told Politico in a lengthy interview published Saturday. “It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate their personality cults,” Ben-Ghiat said. “That’s what it takes.”
Trump checks all the boxes for history’s authoritarians, noted Ben-Ghiat, who last year published the book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” For one thing, they never leave the stage gracefully.
“I just predicted that he [Trump] wouldn’t leave in a quiet manner” after he lost the election, said Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. “He’s an authoritarian, and they can’t leave office. They don’t have good endings and they don’t leave properly.”
Trump’s “Big Lie” lie that the election he definitely lost was rigged protected his brainwashed followers from “having to reckon with the fact that he lost,” said Ben-Ghiat. The tale “maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump — but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats,” she noted. “They always have to be the biggest victim.”
Now Trump has changed the entire nature of the Republican Party into an “authoritarian far-right party” that’s as hard on its own members as on foes, said Ben-Ghiat. “Not only do you go after external enemies, but you go after internal enemies. You’re not allowed to have any dissent,” she explained.
When somebody like Trump “comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation,” said Ben-Ghiat. “The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness.”
It’s also par for the course for an autocrat like Trump out to destroy democracy to demonize democracy and its freedoms, she said.
One of the “big talking points and strategy of right-wing authoritarianism is to label democratic systems as tyrannical,” Ben-Ghiat explained. “Mussolini was the first to say that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem.”
Still, Ben-Ghiat is not a complete pessimist.
“We can never forget that in the middle of a pandemic, 80 plus million people turned out to get rid of him,” she told Politico. “That’s very rare in history where you interrupt an autocratic personality who’s in the middle of his project.”
Check out the entire interview here.