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The One Way History Shows Trump’s Personality Cult Will End

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In the summer of 2020, Ruth Ben-Ghiat was putting the final touches on her history of modern autocracy. She had to do it, though, without the benefit of knowing whether one of her most important subjects would remain in power come November.

But she wasn’t exactly in the dark either.

She had seen enough of Donald Trump’s behavior over the preceding five years to know how neatly he lined up with other strongmen she had studied and how his autocratic tendencies would influence his behavior whether he won or lost.

“I just predicted that he wouldn’t leave in a quiet manner,” Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University told me recently. “He’s an authoritarian, and they can’t leave office. They don’t have good endings and they don’t leave properly.”

Nearly two years later — after a riot, an impeachment, and a monomaniacal campaign to punish the Republicans who tried to hold him accountable — Ben-Ghiat has ample proof of her thesis. And she professes even more concern that Trump’s sway over the GOP has permanently transformed the party’s political culture. “He’s changed the party to an authoritarian party culture,” she told me. “So not only do you go after external enemies, but you go after internal enemies. You’re not allowed to have any dissent.”

With the midterms and some key governors races approaching, Ben-Ghiat is looking around the corner again. She sees dangerous signs of autocracy seeping into state houses and governors’ mansions where leaders such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are executing policies and enacting laws that mimic Trump but with a smoother, less bombastic style.

She insists her urgent warnings should not be construed as fatalism. Throughout our interview she leavened her direst predictions with a pragmatic if not sunny optimism. Political violence is more likely than an actual civil war; a Republican takeover in November would be catastrophic but she remains heartened by the ability of American voters to “interrupt an autocratic personality who’s in the middle of his project;” and ballot box victories alone don’t stop autocrats but the law can. “It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate their personality cults,” Ben-Ghiat said. “That’s what it takes.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Kruse: We’re coming up on seven years since Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower and announced he was running for president. I’m wondering where in your estimation we are in this country in the timeline of increasing authoritarianism.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: 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. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

The final thing I’d say is machismo [is] up there as a tool of rule alongside propaganda and corruption. Getting ahead as a man [in this political system] means being more like Trump. And so you saw Mike Pompeo, who started talking about “swagger” and he was a very different kind of State Department head. And now you have people like Ron DeSantis who even absorbed the hand gestures of Trump. And so at the elite level, the political system is shaped by Trump, and every day we see his legacy.

Kruse: What would you say to those in this country who say, “No, the Republicans aren’t the autocrats. It’s the Democrats who are the autocrats. It’s Joe Biden. It’s other Democrats with power who are making us wear masks or take vaccines we don’t want to take. They’re the ones who are behaving more in autocratic ways, not the Republicans.”

Ben-Ghiat: One of the big talking points and strategy of right-wing authoritarianism, is to label democratic systems as tyrannical. Mussolini was the first to say that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. And there’s a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats, who you want to overthrow, dictators. Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from "They’re forcing us to wear masks." And you have people like DeSantis who are doing this very subversive thing of saying, “Florida’s the free state. You can have refuge from the dictatorship of........

© Politico

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