Fascism expert says Trump’s cult of personality is growing
President Joe Biden warned about the looming threat of autocracy during his speech marking the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol attack on Thursday and denounced his predecessor Donald Trump for inciting the rioters. In a statement responding to Biden’s speech, Trump continued to falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged. To discuss further, we are joined by historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on the psychology of authoritarianism, who says Trump has grown his “personality cult” since his election loss and converted the GOP into “a far-right authoritarian party which has enshrined violence as part of the practice of power.” She also discusses Trump’s recent endorsement of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been recognized by European Union leadership as a threat to democracy, and calls Florida Governor Ron DeSantis a “mini-Trump” who is planning for “an authoritarian system at the state level.”
TranscriptThis is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden marked the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol insurrection by denouncing Donald Trump for inciting his supporters to attack the Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election. In a speech from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Biden accused Trump of spreading a “web of lies” and claimed the former president — who he did not name — is placing a “dagger at the throat of American democracy.” This is part of Biden’s address.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Here is the God’s truth about January 6, 2021. Close your eyes. Go back to that day. What do you see? Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol a Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart. Even during the Civil War, that never, ever happened. But it happened here in 2021.
What else do you see? A mob breaking windows, kicking in doors, breaching the Capitol; American flags on poles being used as weapons, as spears; fire extinguishers being thrown at the heads of police officers. A crowd that professes their love for law enforcement assaulted those police officers, dragged them, sprayed them, stomped on them. Over 140 police officers were injured.
We’ve all heard the police officers who were there that day testify to what happened. One officer called it, quote, a “medieval” battle, and that he was more afraid that day than he was fighting the War in Iraq. They’ve repeatedly asked since that day: How dare anyone — anyone — diminish, belittle or deny the hell they were put through?
We saw it with our own eyes. Rioters menaced these halls, threatening the life of the speaker of the House, literally erecting gallows to hang the vice president of the United States of America.
But what did we not see? We didn’t see a former president, who had just rallied the mob to attack, sitting in the private dining room off the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives at risk, the nation’s Capitol under siege.
This wasn’t a group of tourists; this was an armed insurrection. They weren’t looking to uphold the will of the people; they were looking to deny the will of the people. They were looking to uphold — they weren’t looking to uphold a free and fair election; they were looking to overturn one. They weren’t looking to save the cause of America; they were looking to subvert the Constitution.
This isn’t about being bogged down in the past; this is about making sure the past isn’t buried. That’s the only way forward. That’s what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth; they face up to it. Sounds like hyperbole, but that’s the truth: They face up to it. We are a great nation.
My fellow Americans, in life, there’s truth and, tragically, there are lies, lies conceived and spread for profit and power. We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie.
And here is the truth: The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.
He can’t accept he lost, even though that’s what 93 United States senators, his own attorney general, his own vice president, governors and state officials in every battleground state have all said: He lost. That’s what 81 million of you did as you voted for a new way forward. He has done what no president in American history, the history of this country, has ever, ever done: He refused to accept the results of an election and the will of the American people.
While some courageous men and women in the Republican Party are standing against it, trying to uphold the principles of that party, too many others are transforming that party into something else. They seem no longer to want to be the party — the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes. But whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them to find shared solutions where possible, because if we have a shared belief in democracy, then anything is possible — anything.
And so, at this moment, we must decide: What kind of nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm? Are we going to be a nation where we allow partisan election officials to overturn the legally expressed will of the people? Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies? We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. …
Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy. They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage, not in service of America, but rather in service of one man. Those who incited the mob, the real plotters, who were desperate to deny the certification of this election and defy the will of the voters.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden, speaking Thursday at the Capitol to mark the first anniversary of the deadly January 6 insurrection.
Delaware Congressmember Lisa Blunt Rochester spoke later as part of a day of commemoration on Capitol Hill.
REP. LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER: On the day that I was sworn in to Congress, as many of my colleagues know, I was the first African American and the first woman from the state of Delaware elected to Congress. And I carried this scarf with me. It marked an X that my great-great-great-grandfather used to sign this returns of qualified voter registration of 1867 in Georgia. I also carried it on the day of the insurrection, because it is my proof of what we have overcome, and it is my inspiration for what is yet to be done as we work towards a more perfect union.
I continue to have hope, even when I feel hopeless, because my ancestors would have it no other way, and because Scripture tells us that weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning. And while I remember a great deal that day, what I remember most is walking back onto the House floor into the chamber that morning to complete our work, the morning when democracy prevailed. Remember, reflect, recommit.
AMY GOODMAN: Delaware Congressmember Lisa Blunt Rochester, speaking Thursday.
We’re joined now by New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She’s an expert on the psychology of authoritarianism and the author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy.
Can you put what happened yesterday in the context of your study of fascism, the anniversary of what happened a year ago, Professor?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes. So, Trump was never going to be — he was never a president who resembled either a Republican or Democrat head of state. He ruled as an autocrat. His priorities were autocratic ones: making money off the presidency, spreading hatred and creating a personality cult.
And so, when he lost the election, it was easy to predict, as I did in Strongmen, that he wouldn’t leave quietly, because democratic — with a small D — presidents, they respect the transfer of power, and they think about their legacy, but for somebody like Trump, who needs immunity from prosecution and needs the adulation, it’s like a kind of existential threat to have to leave. And so he tried everything. He tried martial law. He tried electoral manipulation. And then he went with his bespoke, custom army of thugs.
And what’s really so disturbing, that the GOP, which he remade into an authoritarian party, his personality cult one year later is stronger than ever. And very quickly, in the last year, the GOP has come into its own as a far-right authoritarian party, which has enshrined violence as part of the practice of power. That is part of its menu of how you do politics now.
AMY GOODMAN: During his speech, President Biden addressed what he called the president’s three big lies: Number one, Election Day itself was an insurrection; number two, the election results cannot be trusted; and number three big lie, the mob were the true patriots. Put that in the context of the strongmen you have studied.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: So, a third of my book is on military coups, and which I thought wouldn’t be so relevant for the American reader, and, of course, I was wrong. And every single coup or authoritarian takeover is always justified as a patriotic act against tyranny, against corruption.
And so, Trump had set this up very well, because these big lies only had traction with his followers because he told 30,000 lies before that. And many of those lies, for years, were trying to take away the legitimacy of the electoral system in people’s minds. He started this in 2016, but he won, so he didn’t have to use this. So, we have to think about how what we saw, and what has been going on after January 6 for the last year, is the product of this very successful propaganda strategy.
And so, turning — what you also do is you turn it — I call authoritarianism as the upside-down world. So, Biden’s victory becomes the insurrection, and then January 6 becomes the righting of the wrong. And Trump knows how to tell a story. He’s a reality TV president. And he was very compelling, this idea that he was the hero, the savior of the nation, who had something taken away from him. And that way, January 6 becomes a kind of morally righteous action.
AMY GOODMAN: Just days before the January 6th anniversary, Trump endorsed Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. He released a statement saying, “He has done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary, stopping illegal immigration, creating jobs,” etc. Talk about the significance of President Trump in the world and what 2024 could mean if he were to run again.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: So, I’ve always seen Trump — of course, we focus on how he came to power to destroy American democracy. That was his goal. But his other agenda was detaching America from the democratic world order and inserting it into what I’ve been calling since 2017 “Axis 2.0,” this kind of far-right autocratic order. A lot of it’s funded by Putin. And Orbán has made Budapest a kind of hub of these far-right networks, which remind me of what I initially studied, was these fascist networks of this fascist internationalism in the 1930s.
Now, Trump really identifies with Orbán, because Orbán is somebody who was a centrist, and then he was voted out, and he spent some years getting back to power. And then he arranged things. He has this electoral autocracy, where you hold elections and then you fix them, so that he doesn’t have to leave, you know, in his mind.
And the GOP has embraced Hungary, and they really see Hungary’s present as America’s future. And so, Tucker Carlson, you know, had whole week of broadcasting there. And even Mike Pence, who’s not the most worldly person, trotted over to Budapest and talked about how he hoped that abortion rights would be taken away soon. So, Hungary is this model of white Christian supremacy, anti-trans, homophobic. It checks all the boxes of what the GOP is actually today.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we talk about him as a model and him modeling himself on autocrats around the world. But what about him as a model at home for people like Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor? You lay out, in a very chilling piece, this image of DeSantis surrounded by the people he wants to basically deputize as what his opponent in running for governor has talked about as his “secret police.”
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, Ron DeSantis is an example — so, when you have somebody like Trump who imposes this kind of authoritarian party discipline, the system populates with mini-Trumps. They used to be called mini-Duces and mini-Hitlers, and now we have these mini-Trumps. And so, what we’ve seen is, in places like Texas and Florida, states are becoming laboratories of autocracy.
And DeSantis is particularly disturbing, because, you know, he wants to have his own civilian National Guard. And many states have those, but I discovered, doing research, that he’s also establishing an office for, quote, “election integrity,” which is code speak for election fraud, where it’s going to have its own prosecutors and investigators. So, anybody who — if there’s like an election result in the state that DeSantis doesn’t like, he can have his goons go after them and accuse them of violating election law. And they’ve made what used to be misdemeanors into felonies, so these people could be put in jail. So this is an example of the kind of authoritarian system at the state level that DeSantis has planned.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, I want to thank you for being with us, expert on the psychology of authoritarianism and fascism. She is the author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, and she publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy.
Coming up, the CDC is predicting 84,000 people will die in the United States of COVID over the next four weeks. We’ll speak with emergency room doctor Craig Spencer. Stay with us.
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