New York University history professor, Ruth Ben-Ghiat ,whose most recent book looks at fascism in Italy in the 1920-1930's has an op-ed at CNN that notes some dangerous aspects about Donald Trump (a/k/a, Der Fuhrer on this blog). As she notes in the op-ed, she has spent decades studying authoritarian and fascist regimes and disturbingly sees in Trump a deeply familiar figure based on her studies: the strongman who cultivates a bond with followers based on loyalty to him as a person rather than to a party or set of principles. What is distressing to me is the inability - deliberate refusal might be a better description - of many Americans to recognize the danger signs that Trump has been exhibiting for many years before he launched his presidential campaign. Whether one voted for Trump or against him, her op-ed should be required reading. History can and does repeat itself unless we oppose it. Here are op-ed highlights:
In less than a week, America will embark on a new political experience: rule by an authoritarian President. Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. So, for every American who looks forward to the Trump era, there is likely another who fears he will lead us into ruin.
What can we expect from Donald Trump, based on his words and actions over the 19 months since he declared his candidacy?
Many Americans were initially confused by Trump and his unorthodox behavior, or dismissed him as a joke. I have spent decades studying authoritarian and fascist regimes and saw in Trump a deeply familiar figure: the strongman who cultivates a bond with followers based on loyalty to him as a person rather than to a party or set of principles.
Such individuals inevitably seek to adapt the political office they inhabit to serve their needs. They are clear from the start about this intention, refusing to submit to shared customs and norms -- such as releasing tax returns -- that would mean they were submitting to the will of the political class. Anyone who believes that Trump will morph into anything resembling a traditional politician will be sorely disappointed. Authoritarians never pivot.
He has been open and unconcerned about his most provocative character traits -- his penchant for aggression and for serial untruths -- from the start of his campaign. Two years ago, he boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters -- and voters still rewarded him with the GOP nomination and the presidency. What incentive does he have to change now?
Trump has followed the authoritarian playbook in targeting the media. And once in power he's very likely to step up his attempts at intimidation.
Strongmen show aggression to the press as part of a slow-drip strategy of discrediting all information that is not dispensed by their close allies. Many were surprised at Trump's rude treatment of CNN at his recent press conference. Calling the media outlet "fake news," he refused to allow reporter Jim Acosta to ask a question. This was classic authoritarian posturing.
Trump was delivering a lesson: anyone, no matter how powerful, can be humiliated and deprived of access if they displease him. No wonder Trump's Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised him for putting Acosta "in his place."
We can hope that Trump does not follow Erdogan's criminalization of the media (thousands of Turkish journalists have been arrested). But recall the fencing-off of journalists at Trump's campaign rallies and his incitement of the crowd to treat them in a hostile manner. This does not bode well. The media must push back strongly now or pay a heavy price later.
Strongmen also target the judiciary, since it stands in the way of their "reforms" that often veer into extra-legality. Those with a history of legal troubles can be particularly focused on this sector. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose conflicts of interest and legal involvements were so numerous that they have their own Wikipedia pages, spent enormous energy attacking the Italian judiciary.
So look forward to Trump administration efforts to tar individual judges who seem to block the fulfillment of GOP agendas or interfere with Trump's personal interests.
One more thing: Authoritarians love to think they are making history, and never hesitate to rewrite the past to suit their political agendas. Trump's use of racism as a campaign tool laid the foundations for what will be a concerted effort to delegitimize the history of civil rights struggles in our country.
Trump often levies tweet-attacks on those who criticize him, but his denigration of Representative John Lewis on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend sends a message that he intends to fulfill promises to his white voters to try and reverse the course of racial emancipation.
"Be courageous or be complicit," Representative Cedric Richmond recently stated in his testimony against Senator Jeff Sessions. The Trump administration promises to test that wisdom.
Each of us can stand our ground in our own way, but the lessons that come to us from a century of authoritarian rule around the world -- and the civil rights movement in America -- meet up in one phrase: Do not lose hope. Do not hide away. Be visible and be heard, on the street and in phone calls to your elected officials.
Some of us have taken our freedoms for granted. We now have a reason to value them all the more. We also have a chance to decide what side of history we want to be on.
Yes, many "friends" who voted for Trump do not want to admit that they made a huge mistake. At some point in the near future, however, I suspect they will have to decide if they will stand with fascism or with the U.S. Constitution. Personally, I have no intention to act like a 1933 German who through inaction and/or active support of the reprehensible helped to elevate the Nazi regime.