Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a history professor and expert on fascism at New York University.
In 2020, she warned that authoritarian leaders, including Donald Trump, do not give up power easily.
Speaking to Insider, she said the events of January 6 still pose a threat to American democracy.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat spends a lot of time thinking about authoritarianism. An historian at New York University, she is an expert on the rise of fascism in Italy and, most recently, author of the the book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” tracing the erosion of democracy from Russia to the United States of America.
She is keenly focused on what happens when those in power lose their grip on it.
“The authoritarian playbook has no chapter on failure,” Ben-Ghiat wrote in a November 2020 piece for The Washington Post. “Nothing prepares the ruler to see his propaganda ignored and his charismatic hold weaken until his own people turn against him.”
When, two months later, former President Donald Trump urged his supporters to head over to the US Capitol in a last-ditch effort to overturn the 2020 election, Ben-Ghiat was not altogether surprised. Indeed, she had told people to expect it, arguing: “the rage that will grow in Trump as reality sinks in may make for a rocky transition to Biden’s presidency. Americans would do well to be prepared.”
What stopped a failed insurrection from being a successful coup, she recently told CNN, was — at least in part — one of the lies Trump said on January 6: “I’ll be there with you,” he told supporters as they prepared to march on Congress.
He never showed.
In an interview with Insider, Ben-Ghiat expanded on why she thinks January 6 was an “attempted coup,” why it did not succeed, and what the future holds.
Now that the public hearings have started into the events of January 6th, what is your reaction to what you’ve seen thus far? And have you been surprised by anything?
First, I want to say that the fact that we are having these hearings is very hopeful and very moving to me as somebody who studies what happens when democracies get wrecked because in many places around the world these hearings would be impossible. You wouldn’t be able to have them and the investigators would be locked up or worse. We should never take it for granted that we are having these hearings, especially since — among the things that these hearings remind us of and new footage makes clear — how close we came to losing our democracy and just how many people among Trump’s inner circle and sitting GOP congressmen and congresspeople, in general, were involved at various levels with this process that was trying to overturn the election.
I think the scope and the gravity of January 6th are coming out, beyond the terrible events that day, which we’re hearing about — you know, when the police officer says she was slipping in people’s blood. I think that these are details that are very important to cut through a lot of the Republican attempts to distract. And I think that it’s not new as a frame, but the fact that this was a multi-pronged effort that stretched back months to overturn democracy — and January 6th was the climactic point, that is coming out very clearly.
In a recent essay, you said that we should not be so quick to dismiss this as an “amateur operation.” But I guess I want you to respond to those who would argue that it sort of was. Donald Trump, in the end, was surrounded by the likes of, you know, Sidney Powell and the CEO of a mail-order pillow company. Is it not possible to see his actions in the lead-up to January 6th, and on that day, as reckless, but also at the same time view him as someone who lacked the discipline to ever succeed?
I don’t see it like that. It’s true that a lot of the people around him — it’s easy to laugh at them in a way. And now what we heard, that [Rudy] Giuliani was drunk, can also reinforce that idea that these were not serious people and we have nothing to worry about. But autocrats and people like Trump — who has a very similar personality to all the autocrats I’ve studied — they end up having a lot of incompetent people around them because they are threatened by people who are competent and what they really need around them are lackeys. And that’s why Giuliani was listened to, although Trump didn’t really listen to anyone. That’s one of the big takeaways. William Barr and others: everybody told him that he had lost.
But the thing is with somebody like Trump, they don’t care about the facts. What they care about is staying in power. And so Trump is acting exactly like all the autocrats I study who think they’re going down and then they dream up these machinations. One thing that is haunting me, a lot, is if you put the pieces together, which is what these hearings are allowing us to do, is when the temporary Senate president, Chuck Grassley, on January 5th, tweeted that he would be doing the Electoral College count, not Pence, because Pence won’t be with us that day.
That’s one of these things that got attention and then it kind of went out of the news cycle. Chuck Grassley is third in command. If we think in terms of this being a coup attempt, these are very important details. He was third in command and one of the people above him was Nancy Pelosi. And we just saw, once again, we were reminded that the violent mob that breached the capital was looking for Nancy Pelosi. So if we think of January 6th in the frame of a coup attempt, and coup attempts are violent, this could have had a very different outcome that really resembled something out of a political thriller or a coup attempt that we read about in other countries.
Although it’s easy to laugh at Mike Lindell and even Ginni Thomas, who was working very hard, and of course laughing at Giuliani being intoxicated, it is not funny at all because we narrowly escaped some kind of autocratic takeover.
One of the pushbacks during the Trump years to the argument that he was an authoritarian, or even a “fascist,” was the idea that he lacked the discipline and the follow through to actually be an effective authoritarian leader.
I’m wondering if that is based on a misunderstanding of authoritarian and autocratic leaders — this idea that they do demonstrate supreme competence, that they do, quote, “make the trains run on time,” as was said of Mussolini even though, as I understand it, the trains did not run on time in Italy. That an autocrat can’t be kind of an incompetent buffoon, is that mistaken?
There’s two parts to this. One is that autocrats invest huge amounts of propaganda and time in creating an image of themselves as infallible, as “I alone can fix this,” like making the trains run on time. And this is also why Putin strips his shirt off and shows he’s competent and capable and he’s the strong man.
In reality, if you look, as I did for my book “Strongmen,” if you look at how their cabinets and their governments actually function, it’s total chaos. And we had a tiny taste of that, even though we remained a democracy under Trump, where his hiring and firing of people — it was like a constant movement of people in and out because that’s how they all are. Even the military dictator, Pinochet, in Chile who looks very stable with his uniform on, and they’re, too, arguing that it was he that brought order to the country — he reshuffled his government almost 50 times. So there’s a lot of chaos in these governments. That’s one thing. And they don’t really make the trains run on time. And they falsify statistics and they, you know, forbid strikes, so we don’t really know what goes on with the trains when we’re in a dictatorship.
But the other thing is that Trump was extremely disciplined in the things he cared about. And one important finding that’s coming out — I’m very glad about this, this is from the second hearing — the money. Follow the money. Rep. Lofgren said the big lie was a “big ripoff.” Trump’s aims as president were totally different than any other president, Republican or Democrat. His aims were autocratic in that he wanted to turn public office into a vessel of making money for himself; to have private profit off of public office.
The Washington Post had a good study. The first three years of his presidency, basically until COVID shut this down, he spent one-third of his time in office visiting Trump-branded properties. And so what we’ve found now is this PAC that he founded, that was for his election thing, there was no such a fund and he was funneling the money of his followers to Trump hotels, to PACs run by his loyalists like Mark Meadows. And so there was this grift going on. So he was extremely disciplined in grifting and in trying to use the presidency to make money.
The other thing he was extremely, superbly disciplined and capable at was propaganda. He was tweeting over 120 times a day. He’s a superb propagandist and he spent a huge amount of time at that. So I think that the idea that he had no discipline is based on considering him like other American heads of state. And that’s not the right framework. If we switch the framework and we look at what autocrats care about, Trump was extremely disciplined at doing those things.
Is it possible then to view January 6th as less of an attempted coup and more of a grift that maybe got out of control? Like, this is a leader who can never admit fault, and losing an election is not on-brand for him. And so he just has to continue this delusion. Maybe he believes it, or maybe he does not. And things just got a little bit out of hand?
Well, that’s what Republicans might like you to believe, but that doesn’t account for the violence. One of the things at the center of these hearings, rightly so, is Trump’s position on inciting violence. I have been studying this for years. And as soon as he came on the scene, starting in 2015 when he had rallies, he started to incite violence. He started to tell people at rallies that, ‘in the good old days, we used to be able to rough people up.’ And so there’s a five-year pattern of him telling people that it’s okay to be violent. And then the other way he did this was to cultivate extremists, from the Proud Boys to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. He made a big outreach to these people, knowing that violence is part of the way that they view life.
What happened with January 6th — my reading is that he was kind of throwing everything at the wall. He was getting Michael Flynn to try and have martial law or a military intervention. And that implies violence. He was trying electoral manipulation through the Georgia secretary of state and all over the country. And none of that worked. So he did the nuclear thing calling everybody in and inciting them to go and assault the Capitol. And that’s because he truly believes that violence is a way you can change history. To say that it was just a grift — it was certainly a grift, but that’s only part of it. The thing about autocrats today is that they’re all corrupt, but they’re also violent. They use all of these tools at the same time. So we can’t isolate one and say that January 6th was just about this or just about that. It was everything. It was a process of months and it culminated in violence.
Okay, well let’s accept that January 6th was an attempted coup, based on your research and knowledge of history. What differentiates countries that experience an attempted coup versus a successful coup? And how do countries that experience an attempted coup ensure that it’s not followed by a successful one?
That’s a super interesting question. We are in a very unusual situation because, first of all, we’re a democracy. We’re able to have hearings and the people who — even though the Democrats are now in power, and it was Republicans who did the attempted coup, they’re not killed or in jail, because that’s not how we do things in democracy. Instead, we have hearings. And many times, in other places, it would be dealt with a different way. But what’s very concerning to me is that Republican Party and the Republicans in general — Fox News, their media allies — are completely unrepentant and unremorseful about what happened. In fact, quite the contrary, they’re continuing to spout the big lie and the election denial; it’s now called “election integrity.” They won’t admit that there was violence, they’re still saying it was a tourist visit
When you have a major party, and we only have two parties in this country, two major parties, and one of them is still unrepentant about what happened — if you study coups, you would look at that and say, “Well, okay, they may try again.” Because one of the lessons of the history of coups is that failed coups are a lesson or a learning experience for the next coup. And it’s very common to have a series of coups, and they can look different.
The very word “coup” — it’s hard for Americans to think about it because we think of military coups, and Trump did, you know, explore that option. But General Milley, the joint chiefs of staff chairman, he wouldn’t go along with it and neither would Esper, the defense secretary, so he was fired. But that was explored. It seems like something that would only be in a film or a political thriller, but the lesson of these things is that we should never think it can’t happen here. In many countries that had coups and had authoritarian takeovers, their societies also thought it couldn’t happen there. And then it did.
As you mentioned, you know, the United States is still a democracy. There are these hearings that are, you know, the first ones on prime-time television. But what is the point when it seems like most people have already reached a conclusion about the partisan or nonpartisan nature of these hearings — or that it’s just a distraction from the problems that we are facing just day to day, with inflation and gas prices and various waves of COVID.
Still, if you are concerned about preserving democracy, what else can you really do other than hold these hearings in public and hope that that’s not the case? That people aren’t going to get it filtered through their preferred partisan medium. What else could be done?
Well, there’s the broader question of protecting democracy and then there’s the question of having justice brought to these people who tried to overturn our democracy to keep Trump in power. One is broader and one is narrower. They’re certainly not a distraction because if you don’t have rights — we’ve already seen, for example, that Trump was also different than any other president in that he was never going to be the president of all Americans. He was only going to be the president of his supporters. And he also, like many autocrats, was extremely negligent about the pandemic. And we had a lot of loss of life and thus economic hardship, because of the way mishandled the pandemic.
The sad thing is that autocrats can be very loved by their followers. And people genuinely love Trump. He has a real personality cult. But they despise their followers and they use them. And that’s where him grifting off of his followers [comes in]. Because he is not grifting off of Democrats; he’s grifting off of his followers, he’s bilking his own followers. And he’s always done that in business too. When he ran for office, he was under investigation for defrauding people through Trump University. That’s his model. And so if someone who is authoritarian-minded comes into power, the economy — our daily life is — is not advantaged. It’s disadvantaged because they are not there for public welfare. They’re not there for public wellbeing. They’re there to get rich for themselves and their clan.
What does it, about this country or even the public, that despite the fact that something close to half of elected Republicans voted to overturn the election results — even in the wake of the January 6th riot — that party is set to take one or both houses of Congress this fall? It doesn’t seem like there’s really any political price to be paid for what happened not even two years ago.
Well, it’s true. And that’s very sad, but it’s another demonstration of the effectiveness of propaganda. The big lie — we are going to study that for decades as one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in modern history. And it did many things, the big lie. Most concretely, it allowed Trump to convince people that he was not a loser, that he actually won the election, and thus the whole justification for overturning the election. So that is for his followers, who may truly believe that he won the election. So he duped them. But what’s very sad is it’s been an element of corruption of the Republican Party, because all of the Congress people who are supporting the big lie, they know perfectly well that Trump lost the election. But they’re choosing for political reasons to go along with this fantasy.
This is part of the GOP becoming an authoritarian party. It is like a far-right party with an authoritarian culture. And one of the biggest signs, that’s very sad, is that when you go in this direction you eat your own. There’s no longer any dissent able to be had within the Republican Party. And Exhibit A of that is look what happened to Mike Pence. I am absolutely haunted by the fact that people were trying to kill Pence and that Trump said that he deserved to hang. This kind of party, authoritarian discipline, where you follow the leader or you deserve to die, that’s not democracy. That has nothing to do with democracy. So the challenge in the coming time will be that one of our two parties is really exited from democracy and right now it’s following the rules of authoritarianism. I don’t know where this is gonna take us, but it’s not a very good place for a country to be.
Another historian I spoke to recently, thought that American democracy would not survive another 2024 Trump campaign, assuming he were to run and win again. What is your reaction to that? And do you think the unprecedented step of a former president being indicted and criminally prosecuted could stave off the possibility of an authoritarian opponent of democracy potentially winning in 2024? Or would he just become a martyr and we would have someone like a Ron DeSantis or a Tucker Carlson — insert your favorite personality — running on his legacy and the idea of him as a political prisoner?
That could happen. I think what the history of these situations shows is that prosecution, in the short term, it does create martyrs and the whole idea of the witch hunt. And some people say, “Oh, we can’t do that because there will be civil unrest.” Well, we already had unrest. We had January 6th where 140 Capitol police were injured and some died. We already had that, so that’s not a deterrent. What we do find in history is prosecution, in the longer term, is one of the only things that deflates these guys’ personality cults, because those cults are founded on the idea that they are invincible, they are infallible, “I am always right, I am the only one who can fix it.”
When people are prosecuted for corruption or whatever the charge is, and it sticks, that personality cult — it starts to deflate, it starts to shrivel. It’s happened in several countries around the world, only when they are prosecuted. So that’s an argument for doing that.
Now, if that does happen to Trump — DeSantis has already absorbed all the lessons of Trump. He’s clearly readying himself for a national run, whether it’s in 2024 or later. And he’s a very dangerous individual. I’ve written several essays on him already. He’s dangerous because he is equally repressive, but doesn’t have the baggage of Trump. It’s hard to have the baggage of Trump. Trump has a criminal past, in so many areas, that nobody else is really like Trump I would say. All of those things could happen.
But we also had 80 million people who didn’t vote. And there are Republicans — not the GOP politicians, but there are Republicans who don’t approve of Trump. They think that he’s too much, he’s not good for the party. And Brit Hume of Fox News started to talk about this, which was a bit of a little breakthrough. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we get a different result and that nobody wants Trump back in because it won’t be good for the country and it won’t be good for the GOP. We shall see.
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