Former President Donald Trump tried to use the presidency to make money, a fascism expert said.
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat told Insider that Trump is a “dedicated” and talented “grifter.”
“He’s grifting off of his followers,” she said. “He’s bilking his own followers.”
Donald Trump pursued a unique goal as former president of the United States; an objective that required extreme discipline and dedication from the unlikely leader, according to an expert on authoritarianism.
“Trump’s aims as president were totally different from any other president, Republican or Democrat,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and expert on fascism, told Insider. “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.”
With the January 6 public hearings prompting renewed scrutiny over Trump’s final days in office, Ben-Ghiat spoke to Insider’s Charles R. Davis about the insurrection, its ongoing aftermath, and the divisive former president at the center of it all.
In the congressional committee’s second televised hearing earlier this week, lawmakers focused on Trump’s massive fundraising efforts following the 2020 presidential election, in which his campaign sent millions of emails to supporters claiming “the left wing mob” was threatening the integrity of the election and encouraging potential donors to “step up” and “fight back.”
According to investigators, Trump’s lies about voter fraud ultimately resulted in $250 million in donations from Trump supporters following President Joe Biden’s November victory. Most of the money raised ended up in a PAC that made significant contributions to pro-Trump organizations and businesses, the panel said.
“So there was this grift going on,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He was extremely disciplined in grifting and in trying to use the presidency to make money.”
But the millions of dollars that Trump was able to pull in from small-level donors shouldn’t be all that surprising, according to Ben-Ghiat.
“The sad thing is that autocrats can be very loved by their followers, and people genuinely love Trump. He has a real personality cult,” she said. “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.”
Trump’s presidential penchant for money-making started long before the 2020 election, according to Ben-Ghiat. In his first three years as president, Trump spent nearly a third of his days at a Trump-branded property, The Washington Post found in December 2019.
The former president’s money-making schemes even date back to before he won the presidency. When he was campaigning the first time, Trump was under investigation for defrauding people through Trump University. The grifting, Ben-Ghiat said, is 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 the public welfare,” she said. “They’re not there for public wellbeing. They’re there to get rich for themselves and their clan.”
Ben-Ghiat said the former president behaved like an autocrat while in office for several reasons. In addition to his money-minded focus, Trump was also a “superbly disciplined and capable” propagandist, she said.
“He was tweeting over 120 times a day,” she said. “If…we look at what autocrats care about, Trump was extremely disciplined at doing those things.”
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