Dean Obeidallah

Republicans would 'rather end democracy' than turn away from Trump: Harvard professor

It can happen here. The "it" ought to be obvious by now: an authoritarian or even fascist regime in the United States. That was a big reason why Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, along with his colleague Daniel Ziblatt, published the 2018 book "How Democracies Die." They wanted to warn Americans of the dangerous signs they saw in Donald Trump's presidency that followed the authoritarian playbook.

So where are we now in terms of our democracy? I spoke with Levitsky recently for Salon Talks, and here's one line that really stood out: Levitsky told me, "Five years ago I would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested our democracy could die." But today, he added, we see the Republican Party apparently focused on breaking our democracy. In a nutshell, Levitsky believes the threat to our democracy is more acute today than when Trump was in the White House, since the GOP is desperate to retain its fading power in the face of hostile demographic change.

Levitsky describes today's GOP as "clearly an authoritarian party." Worse yet, it's no longer all about Trump. He sees the GOP continuing on its anti-democratic path for years to come, saying that even the contested term "fascist" is becoming more defensible given the GOP's defense or denial of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

You can watch my Salon Talks episode here, or read a transcript of our conversation below to hear Levitsky's suggestions about how Democrats can strengthen our democracy while they still control the White House and Congress, and why that might involve progressive swallowing some of their policy goals.

As always, the following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In 2018, when your book "How Democracies Die" came out, on a scale from zero to 10 — with 10 being the most dire concerns about our democracy and zero being, no, everything's fine — where were we then in terms of your concern about our democracy?

I would say if 10 is most concerned, we were at five or six. We wrote the book because we were concerned. We wrote the book because we saw warning signs. But where I'm going is that I think we were too optimistic because we blamed the Republican Party for dropping the ball and allowing Donald Trump, a demagogue, an authoritarian demagogue, to be nominated. We thought they should have broken with Trump in defense of democracy. They obviously didn't. But we believed at the time — not long ago, three years ago — that the bulk of the Republican Party was minimally committed to small-D democracy.

We believed there was a faction in the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate, that would be able and willing to draw a line that they wouldn't let Trump cross. And we were wrong about that. The speed and the extent to which the Republican Party has been Trumpified is way beyond anything that we expected.

It's enough to have an authoritarian president — that's threatening. One of the two major parties has now basically given up on playing by democratic rules of the game. That's a new level of threat. And so now I would say— it's hard to put a number, but I would say seven or eight.

I'm afraid to see what nine looks like, if this is seven or eight. You mention in your book the idea of using democratic methods to save our democracy, one being the election. The idea was that defeating Trump through the election might help preserve our democratic institutions. I imagine you could never have predicted what Trump would have done after losing the election, or what happened on Jan. 6. So even though we had a democratic election, are democratic institutions actually weaker now, after November 2020?

Let me answer that in two parts. First of all, we did have elections as an escape hatch, and we used them. And it's a damn good thing we did. We would be much, much worse off had Trump managed to retain the presidency and stay in power for four years. The fact that we sent him to Mar-a-Lago is very important, and shouldn't be understated. Now that said, I don't predict things accurately very well. One thing I did predict, I knew would happen.

I knew that Donald Trump would not accept the results of the election. What I did not anticipate is that the vast bulk of the Republican Party would go along with it. And of course, I didn't anticipate anything remotely like Jan. 6. So yes, things have gotten much worse, because not only has the Big Lie taken hold among the vast bulk of the Republican Party, to the point where you can't be a member of the Republican Party in good standing if you don't adhere to the Big Lie.

And they're acting upon that, right? They are now taking steps in various important states — Texas, Arizona, Georgia — to make it easier to overturn an election. So I think there's a good chance that the Republican Party, not just Donald Trump but the Republican Party, tries to overturn the results of the 2024 election. And that is, again, a worse place than we were a few years ago. But we would be even worse off had Trump remained in power.

If Trump ever got back in office, I don't know if he would ever leave. If you look at the GOP now from an academic point of view, how would you describe it? People throw around terms: It's autocratic, it's fascist. But how do you look at it?

I think ideologically it has evolved into something fairly similar to European far-right parties. It's primarily an ethno-nationalist nativist party. It is essentially preserving the identity of a white Christian America, and that is fairly similar to what we describe as far-right parties in Europe. The thing about far-right parties in Europe is they win 12, 15, 17, 18 percent of the vote and they're at the margins of politics. At best, they're a junior partner in a coalition government, but mostly they're in opposition. So they're kind of at the margins throwing rocks at the boat of the system, but they're not in power. There's no country, no established democracy in the world, with the exception of India, in which one major party is an extremist ethno-nationalist party.

That's frightening. So they are sort of like the AFD in Germany, let's say.


AFD didn't do well in the last election in Germany, they are nowhere close to electing a prime minister or chancellor. But we have a party here that's knocking on that same door that controls more of the governorships. When there's no resistance within the GOP to Donald Trump, drawing on history, what alarm bells does that raise about what could happen in the future?

It means that the Republican Party, as has been the case since 2016, will be following and acting in service to an authoritarian leader. I mean, there are many, many leaders past and present in the Republican Party who I may disagree with on policy, but I know at the end of the day, they're going to play by democratic rules. That's not true of Donald Trump. And we know very well, more than we did three years ago, that the vast bulk of the Republican Party will line up behind him. They stuck with him even after he instigated Jan. 6. I mean, that's worse than shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue. It's now crystal clear that they will follow him to whatever authoritarian destination he takes them. And that's more dangerous than just one guy. He has a party behind him.

In America, there's this sense by some that it can't happen here — whatever that could be, an autocracy, a dictatorship, a fascist regime. I think it is happening here. And I think a lot of people are not equipped, in the Democratic Party or in the media, to see what's going on right now. Is Donald Trump how democracies die?

Potentially. I mean, interestingly, we may have an election in 2024 where the election is stolen by the opposition party. That doesn't happen very often. But look, we wrote "How Democracies Die" precisely for the reasons you said. Americans take our democracy for granted, all of us. Me growing up until five years ago, I would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested that democracy might die. For 99 percent of Americans across the political spectrum, we took for granted that no matter how recklessly our politicians might behave, we couldn't actually break our democracy.

We wrote the book because we started to see, yeah, well, we might break our democracy. And even though at the time we may have only seen the risk level as a five or a six, we thought it was worth trying to raise the level of awareness, which I think we've done. Americans are much more worried than they were five, six, seven years ago, but I think you're right. We in the media, most Americans and most in the establishment and even the Democratic Party, even the Biden administration, doesn't quite have the level of urgency that we need to have.

I've never heard an American president talk about the battle between autocracy and democracy the way President Biden does. A lot of times it's talked about in the foreign context, but he brings it home domestically as well. There was a CBS poll in July in which 55 percent of Trump supporters — not Republicans, but Trump supporters — viewed Jan. 6 as an act in defense of freedom. How alarming is that for you? Are we getting to the point where if the GOP base is saying they're OK with violence, then they can be called a fascist movement and it's not hyperbolic?

I've always personally resisted the "fascist" label. I think it gets thrown about for right-wingers we don't like way too much. I think the label is growing more defensible now than a couple of years ago. But I think it's more straightforward and more defensible to say that this is now clearly an openly authoritarian party.

There are different kinds of measures you can use, but a couple of clear indicators that scholars of regimes all agree on is a party that embraces, condones, accepts and promotes political violence and a party that does not accept electoral defeat, that can't accept defeat. On those two criteria, especially between November 2020 and January 2021, we saw the bulk of the Republican Party swing and miss on those two criteria: Always renounce violence, always accept defeat. They are no longer doing either of those things. So I wouldn't have said this to you when we first published the book, but I think the Republican Party can be legitimately labeled an authoritarian party.

After Jan. 6, I was as surprised as you. I actually thought the GOP was going to jettison Donald Trump and go, "He's gone. He lied for two months. He clearly incited this attack. It might be a criminal violation, it might not be, but it was clearly, it was him. He did it." A week later on the floor of the House, Kevin McCarthy was denouncing Donald Trump. Then time went on, and now they celebrate the people who did that. Worse, they're making martyrs of people like Ashli Babbitt, who was killed jumping into a secure area against the directions of an officer who knew there were elected officials behind him in the area. What does that mean to you? What concerns do you have when you hear Donald Trump defend the attackers, calling them persecuted, calling them political prisoners and defending Ashli Babbitt by name?

I mean, this is what authoritarian political movements do. I don't want to go rushing to the comparison to Italian fascism or German Nazis, but this is the kind of stuff that fascist parties did. They glorified, defended, promoted violence. And violence is the path to power, so they became OK with it from top to bottom, from grassroots activists to voters to leaders. They became OK with violent seizures of power. How else do you read Jan. 6 and the reaction, and now the glorification of Jan. 6, other than these guys are going to be OK with a violent seizure of power?

I had the same reaction as you did in the days after Jan. 6. I really was hopeful, listening to Mitch McConnell on the floor of the Senate, listening to McCarthy, that finally this would be the turning point. But I think that the Republicans took a few days, put their finger to the wind and realized that the base was still with Trump. And because of the existence of primaries and because these guys are just too small to stand up for democracy over their own political careers, they went where their base was.

They were unwilling, for whatever reason — with the exception of Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney and a small handful of others, many of whose careers are over — they were unwilling to stand up to the base. Standing up the base means probably ending your political career and they just didn't want to do it. They'd rather end democracy.

It's their pursuit of power at all costs. It's something that you read about in history books. I'm reading "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and "The Gathering Storm" by Winston Churchill at the same time, which is scaring the crap out of me with what we're going through. It's actually cruel to look at Germany and the rise of the Nazis, where Churchill says, "We had numerous opportunities to stop this and we didn't do that." I'd love you to share what has worked in other countries, and maybe could be a model here, where even competing political parties join together to form essentially a pro-democracy coalition — not ideologically aligned, but at least pro-democracy.

First of all, let me say there is no magic solution. When you're in a situation where one of the two political parties representing almost half the country is committed to an anti-democratic project, there is no easy out. And we're going to be in this battle, I think, even in the best of cases, for 10, 15, 20 years. This is not something we're going to put to rest in the next couple of years.

The good news is that we're probably not on the brink of sort of long-term, single-party rule. The U.S. has a lot of things going for it as well. The small-d "democratic" opposition, mostly the Democratic Party, is strong. It's well organized, it's electorally viable, it's well-financed. This is not an opposition that can be steamrolled like in Russia or Hungary or Venezuela. So even in the worst case, even if the Republicans steal the 2024 election, ending democracy momentarily — and that could happen — that's not going to be the end of the story. We're not going to slide into 30 years of authoritarianism. The Democrats are going to fight back. There will be protests in the streets. There will be another election. It may not be an entirely fair election, but the Democrats will continue to contest for power. It's more likely that we reach a period of sliding in and out of crisis than sliding into outright long-term decay.

What do we do? I personally think that the key, and this is a lesson we've taken from other cases, particularly in Europe, is a broad small-D democratic coalition that has to range from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to include democratic conservatives. As many Republicans as want to join, have to be embraced. Now, that's not an easy message for progressives. It means swallowing some policy goals and programmatic goals and getting into political alliance with people you really do not like, and you've really disagreed with in the past.

Liz Cheney is nothing compared to some of the people who might end up being in the democratic coalition. But it's the only way that we ensure that we win, that we build a coalition that includes as many Republicans and as many conservatives as possible: evangelical Christians, business people. It's got to be a broad coalition. If it's a blue-state coalition, it's not enough.

It's almost surreal to be having this conversation in America in 2021. It's like something out of a Philip Roth book. This is real, it's happening right here. Are you optimistic? You mentioned certain things that give you hope. On a practical level, while Democrats control Congress, would it give you more hope if they passed a voting rights act, a "freedom to vote" act or something along those lines?

Oh yeah. I mean, I look back to the Lodge Act of 1890, right before the consolidation of Jim Crow. There was a law to establish much greater federal oversight of elections that passed the House, that had a majority in the Senate and was blocked by a filibuster. But that majority eventually cracked because the Republican Party, which at the time was the more pro-voting rights party, disagreed over trade and had other priorities. They gave up and didn't pass the bill, and immediately the former Confederate states, Southern states, started enacting constitutional forums and electoral forums that disenfranchised African Americans, who were almost half the population in the South. It ushered in 80 years of authoritarianism in the South because we didn't pass that democracy bill in 1890. I don't think things would get quite as bad this time around, but it is consequential if we don't take steps to combat voter suppression and election subversion.

What gives me hope? I mean, a couple of things. I think the raw materials for democratic survival exist in the United States. The kind of extraordinary imbalance of power between one side and the other that you see in Russia or in Venezuela or in Turkey or in Hungary doesn't exist in the United States. It's a pretty evenly matched fight. It could get ugly, it could slide into some pretty nasty crises, but the Democrats are going to continue to have a fighting chance for years to come.

What really gives me hope is I think that we're actually on the brink of establishing an unprecedented multiracial democracy. That's a really hard thing to pull off, and arguably no other society has really pulled it off. We have not, but we're on the brink of it. We got there in a formal sense in 1965, and we've been inching in the direction of making that real for half a century. That's what this war is about. That's what this Republican reaction is about. But if we prevail — and it's not going to be easy, or be quick — if we prevail, I think on the other side could be a remarkable democratic experiment that could be a model for the world. That's what allows me to sleep at night and get up the next day and keep going.

A lot of people talk insist that Donald Trump should be prosecuted for Jan. 6. Does that actually end the threat or at this point does it transcend Donald Trump?

I think it definitely transcends Trump and pervades the GOP overall. Trump could go into exile to Iceland tomorrow, he could pass away tomorrow, and that's not going to end this. This ideology is going to persist, whether it's out of Tucker Carlson or someone else. There are many, many political entrepreneurs who, now that Trump has gone there, now that he's crossed that line, now that he's established that identity, I don't think there's any putting it back in the bottle.

Trump is a unique figure and certainly nobody will replicate him. I think there is a good argument to be made for prosecuting Trump. It's double-edged, but I think a pretty good case can be made. But even if they did, it's not over with that. The Republican Party will continue to be in essence, a Trumpist party, I think, for a while to go.

Recently Democratic members of Congress, Adam Schiff and others, introduced legislation to reform the system so when they looked at what Trump did in the White House. Not about the election so much as about how he exercised power. We had a lot of reforms after Watergate. Do you think the Democrats should make that a priority, as well as voting rights? Understanding that the next president might not be a Democrat — it might be Trump, or it might be another person like Trump — should they enact reforms now?

Absolutely. Obviously, enacting reforms is really difficult now because it's difficult to peel away even a single Republican vote. It's much easier said than done, but what Adam Schiff is saying makes a lot of sense to me. In our system, as we wrote in "How Democracies Die," for years the rules were actually under-specified and we relied a lot on the restraint of politicians.

We trusted that politicians wouldn't go there. They wouldn't blatantly make millions of dollars out of being president. They wouldn't pardon their friends or people who conspired with them. And now it's clear, given the level of polarization given the example that some have set, that we're going to have to formalize what used to be informal norms. We can't rely on self-restraint anymore. We can't rely on forbearance. We need to create hard guardrails, rather than soft.

Obama aide Ben Rhodes explains why he wasn't surprised by the dark path the GOP had taken

An MSNBC anchor, who will remain nameless, recently called the new book by Ben Rhodes, who served as Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, "dark" in its description of where our nation's democracy finds itself today. Rhodes's book, "After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made," is actually not dark. It's just a brutally honest look at where our nation is heading. Everything Rhodes writes, and everything he shared in our Salon Talks conversation, should be seen both a warning and a clarion call to action for those who believe in our republic.

In defense of that MSNBC anchor, many people still don't fully grasp the nature of the threat democracy faces today. Not just from Donald Trump, but more broadly from today's Republican Party, which, as Rhodes and other experts have documented, have been embracing the autocratic playbook long before Trump slithered down that famous golden escalator to launch his 2016 campaign. It's just that Trump made it impossible to ignore, especially given the Jan 6 act of "domestic terrorism," as the FBI has defined it, and which himself Trump incited.

As experts on democracy noted in the fall of 2020, the GOP now less resembled an American political party than it does the authoritarian ruling party in Hungary headed by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, in his book, Rhodes lays out how Orbán's right-wing party and today's Republicans utilize similar methods to attract support, from culture wars to the rejection of political correctness to an overt embrace of a right-wing interpretation of Christianity. As Rhodes explains, "None of this happened because of Donald Trump."

Rhodes also detailed how other authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China, mandate teaching students not the accurate history of their nation but a mythology that helps them remain in power. This should sound familiar, since Republicans have recently been enacting laws to ban "critical race theory," but what they're truly doing is copying the Chinese Communist Party tactic of only allowing the teaching of "history" that helps them politically.

Rhodes said something that has stayed with me since our talk: For the first time in his life he had "to consider what it meant to be an American while living in a country that no longer made sense to me." I share that sentiment. Neither of us is being "dark." We are simply being direct about where our nation finds itself.

Watch my Salon Talks episode with Ben Rhodes here, or read a transcript of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ben Rhodes writes about why democracy is threatened around the world in After the Fall"After the Fall." It's intense. You went to several continents to write this, and it was written over four years, up until the pandemic. Share a little bit about that.

Yeah. Well, it's not enjoyable. The subject matter is why things are moving in the wrong direction in the world. But I hope what's enjoyable is it's told through the stories of other people. It's not just analysis. And the root of it for me essentially was, I was kind of knocked on my back after the 2016 election. I wanted to make sense of what's happening in America, what's happening around the world. And I started to travel and meet people. I ended up going to Hong Kong and immersing myself with the Hong Kong protest movement there, talking to Alexei Navalny and opponents of Putin in Russia, talking to democracy activists in places like Hungary. And through their stories, trying to understand: Why is the world all moving in this direction, and how is America connected to it?

The jumping off point for me was when I was meeting with a young anti-corruption activist from Hungary. Hungary has gone from being a democracy to a single-party autocracy in a decade. And I said, "Hey, how did this happen? How did Viktor Orbán, your prime minister, do this in 10 years?" And he said, "Well, it's simple. He got elected on a right-wing populist backlash to the financial crisis. He redrew the parliamentary districts to entrench his party in power. He changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote. He packed the court with far-right judges. He enriched some cronies who then bought up the media and turned it into a right wing propaganda machine. And he wrapped it up in a national us vs. them message. Us, the real Hungarians, against them — Muslims, immigrants, liberal leaders, George Soros."

And I'm listening and I'm thinking, "Well, he's describing America." So what I realized is, by traveling to all these places and kind of inhabiting all these stories, I can understand not just why democracy is threatened globally, but why it's threatened in the United States, what we may have done to contribute to that, and what people are doing to fight back?

You have a great line, "In 2017, I was forced for the first time to consider what it meant to be an American while living in a country that no longer made sense to me." From your point of view, why didn't America make sense to you at that moment?

It's interesting because I mean, for me, that line also speaks to the fact that I've known people who live in countries where they're repulsed by their own government. They don't see themselves in the power that represents them. But even though I didn't agree with the Bush administration, it wasn't the same kind of visceral reaction that you have to someone like Trump, where you're like, "This person stands for the opposite of everything I believe in, and he's in the highest office." A part of what I had to realize in writing this book is that I came of age around the end of the Cold War. That's where my first political consciousness happened. And the narrative was that everything was moving in one direction. The history was settled that freedom and democracy and open markets were going to kind of continue to spread.

What we've experienced since then is the recognition that, "Well, no. History never ends." And the same conflicts over nationalism versus democracy, authoritarianism versus the capacity of people to have individual rights, those things are constantly playing themselves out through history. We're fighting those battles today, just like people have had to do in the past. While America doesn't offer the promise that that's all settled, it at least gives us the opportunity to have the fight. But it speaks to why we can't be complacent, given the threats to our democracy around us.

Your former boss and your good friend Barack Obama was on CNN talking about how democracy is not self-executing, and informing us you can't take things for granted. Oddly enough, that conjured up Ronald Reagan's famous line, "Freedom is just one generation away." The idea we'll be telling our children one day what freedom was like.

And if Ronald Reagan were alive today, might say the same things, if he was not part of TrumpWorld. Freedom House says Hungary is no longer a democracy. At one point it was. Where do you think we're sliding, objectively as a nation and in terms of our government now? Not so much under Biden, but when you look at the Republican states and their continuing effort to make it harder to vote, to suppress peaceful protests, to ban what kids can learn in school unless it fits their mythology, which I can't believe. If you read about it in another country, you'd go, "That's not a democracy. That's some kind of authoritarian and fascist state." What is going on?

One of the things I did was to trace how the Chinese government has gotten even more authoritarian over the last several decades. And one of the principal ways was beginning to control the curriculum in the schools. We have to recognize these kind of common tactics of authoritarianism in different places. You mentioned Obama. He's kind of a character in this book. He comes in and out of these conversations we've been having. And I relayed the eerie timing. He gave a speech to the Democratic convention, as people may remember, where he said, "Don't let them take your power away. Democracy is on the line here." I describe watching that speech and then I'm looking at my phone and getting the news that Alexei Navalny, the opponent to Putin in Russia, has been poisoned. And in a way, that kind of drove home the stakes, that the extreme darkness where this strain can lead was evident in what happened to Navalny.

I think the takeaway from this book is, you've got people like Orbán, who kind of represent how nationalism has gotten a foothold again all over the world. People like Putin, who represent the lengths that autocrats are going to in the world today, the kind of steadily escalating behavior that we see on a regular basis from authoritarians. And then you look at China, and they have an alternative way of organizing society. That's kind of where the future is going, where you blend together capitalism and technology with this really totalitarian and intrusive government. America was the one force that was supposed to figure this out, to set an example of multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

And when you talk to people in all these other places and ask, "What do you need from America?" It's less our foreign policy and more like, what are we modeling at home? What are we doing? When you see people methodically passing laws, trying to prevent people from voting, when you see people methodically trying to set the premise that elected officials could actually overturn a democratic election.

If America can't get it right, then I don't think anybody else can. Not because we're perfect, not because we're so much better than everybody, but because we're supposed to be the place that, again, figured out how to do this. And we're the country made up of people from everywhere. So I think the stakes are incredibly high and they're going to stay high. Joe Biden's election obviously didn't end this. The stakes are going to stay high for a few years here.

Florida just banned critical race theory, even though they don't use that term. We've seen more than 20 Republican states introduce legislation to ban a topic because they don't like it. You touched briefly on China and authoritarianism and education. How was that intertwined? Why should people be concerned this is not just culture-war stuff, where you can roll your eyes at it?

If America can't get it right, then I don't think anybody else can. Not because we're perfect, not because we're so much better than everybody, but because we're supposed to be the place that, again, figured out how to do this. And we're the country made up of people from everywhere. So I think the stakes are incredibly high and they're going to stay high. Joe Biden's election obviously didn't end this. The stakes are going to stay high for a few years here.

Florida just banned critical race theory, even though they don't use that term. We've seen more than 20 Republican states introduce legislation to ban a topic because they don't like it. You touched briefly on China and authoritarianism and education. How was that intertwined? Why should people be concerned this is not just culture-war stuff, where you can roll your eyes at it?

And where I end this book is saying that American identity is supposed to be, not that we were born perfect, but that in America we do the work. It's about trying to live up to the story that we tell about ourselves. So in every way, shape or form, banning critical race theory and trying to look away from the darkest parts of our past, that makes it more likely to happen again in the future. And it actually negates what I think is the better American story, which is that those things happened and people tried to make it better.

I find it alarming that we're seeing the people who claim they want academic freedom, who say they despise "cancel culture," have no problem literally defunding school. The Idaho law is to defund schools if they teach you about systemic racism. I find this deeply distressing.

I mean, this is why I ended up having the subtitle of this book "Being American in the World We've Made." What the "Being American" refers to is that we have to figure out what our national identity is. That's not settled. I think the reason why you see such intensity in our politics right now is that people can sense that's kind of what's being debated right now. And by the way, this too is something that's happening everywhere. It's a common political trend. But the reality is, when you hear, "Make America Great Again" — when only certain people were in certain rooms and had certain amounts of power — and then they're looking at a future where this is going to be a majority nonwhite nation, unless they arrest immigration entirely.

Which is part of what Donald Trump was trying to do, in the relatively near future. Is it a coincidence that the Republican Party is trying to entrench itself through minority rule, essentially leveraging the courts and the Senate and voting laws and other things, right when that demographic shift is taking place? I'm not sure that's a coincidence. One of the points I make in the book is that, in a way, we've always lived this competition. And Trump and Obama kind of represent them perfectly in opposition to one another. Is America's story of progress and greater inclusivity and extension more rights to more people? Or is it "We want to wind back the clock," and this is an exclusively white Christian nation that is only for some?

We've been living these two lives throughout our history. I mean, the Declaration of Independence says that "All men are created equal," bit it was written by a guy who owned slaves. At every step of progress, there's been a reaction. So I think that is happening right now, and that speaks to one reason why the political debate is so intense right now.

Initially, President Biden kept talking about, "America's always been a push and pull between these two forces." He's right. We're seeing it now. Maybe it's not that new, what's going on, it just seems more intense because I'm living through it as an adult who follows politics closely.

Yeah, I think the stakes are higher right now. Again, part of why I wrote this book is because one reason why the stakes are higher is that this is happening all around the world right now, and things are moving in the wrong direction. I mean, while I'm writing this book, the Hong Kong protest movement that I was kind of profiling, gets swallowed up essentially by the Chinese Communist Party. Alexei Navalny gets poisoned and put in prison. America has Jan. 6. This is happening and it's not a coincidence. It's happening because there is this kind of drift towards nationalism and authoritarianism, for a lot of reasons that I described in the book.

I focus on the 30-year period after the Cold War. I feel like the Cold War was one particular period where America wasn't perfect, but we were for freedom and the Soviets were for the other thing, for communism and dictatorship. Then you have this 30-year period of American dominance. Trump clearly was a bit of a pivot point. Now we have to decide who we're going to be next. I think that's a very hotly contested question right now.

You write about the way the GOP became the one we see today, and you say, "None of this happened because of Donald Trump." Share a little bit more about that idea.

Well, it's kind of the mirror image of that story I told about Hungary. I know people can go back and look at Newt Gingrich and look at the things that Bush did. But this particular virulent strain of the Republican Party, I'd have the starting point be the Tea Party. And if you make it the mirror image of what happened in Hungary, the collapse of the financial system in 2008 generated a lot of anger and a sense of grievance, like, "Hey, this whole system is just kind of rigged." People, I think, were open to different kinds of appeals than they might've listened to in the past. You get all this anger and then you compound thap with the fact that there's a Black President, and there's clearly a racialized component.

The Tea Party demonstrations, they're chanting, "Take our country back," and we're being told that it's about deficit spending. I'm not sure you "take your country back" because you're concerned about the deficit. But it breeds this kind of new and much more belligerent Republican Party, the people who got elected there. And at the same time, you have Citizens United, which takes away any guardrails on dark money in politics. So this kind of bottom-up anger is being fueled by a lot of top-down money from people like the Koch brothers, who are just dumping money into politics, at the same time that you have Republicans getting much more aggressive in passing voter suppression laws. I talk about this in the book, there were like 25 passed at the state level while Barack Obama was president. The Supreme Court that the Republicans had designed guts the voting rights legislation, which allows those sorts of suppression laws to go forward and have a greater impact.

At every turn, the Republicans are busting norms and not even confirming a Supreme Court justice if they're nominated by a Democrat. And by the time Trump rides down the escalator at Trump tower, he was the logical nominee. Of course he was the nominee. He was the frontrunner from the time he came down. Because the other thing that happened in this period was that with the collapse of traditional media, you have not just Fox News but the explosion of Facebook and people getting fed, just on talk radio and online, more and more conspiracy theory-based garbage about what's happening in the world, about Barack Obama, about Democrats.

So by the time Trump comes down the escalator, he's like the product of that. It's like suddenly the Fox News viewer is the head of the party. And ever since then, at every turn, people are surprised when the Republicans take the dark path. "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe that they still believe the Big Lie. They won't even have a commission." Well, of course. Who do you think these people are? They've been telling you who they are for the last decade.

What do we do? Near the end of your book, you write, "We live in a time when the world is emerging into a single history, and we can feel the currents of that history moving in the wrong direction." So how do we move this in the right direction?

I have lessons that I took away from all these people I talked to around the world. What are people doing that is working in different places? One thing for instance, in Hungary, is for the first time there's an election next year. They do have elections. Orbán dominates the media. It makes it hard for people but the opposition has their first real chance of beating him. And one of the reasons why is they've completely united. They've said, "Look, we have differences, but everything is on the line here. We're just going to put a big tent over all of our differences and we have to win this election." And I profile a young person who started a political party, but it's a very strange kind of polyglot coalition. But that's one lesson for us too, because part of what autocrats need to do is keep the opposition divided, apathetic or cynical.

I think we have to stay, despite all our differences, from the center to the left in our country. On the core things, particularly when it comes time to vote, people need to be absolutely united because there are more of us than them. If we vote and don't give up and don't get apathetic and stay with this, we will win. So one of those things is unity. Another is, if you look at even failed movements, like the Hong Kong protest movement, movements fail and fail and fail until they succeed. And they usually succeed in a big way when they do. They create a kind of culture around democratic participation and a culture around standing up for your rights. This can't be left just to politicians. Joe Biden alone can't fix this.

I think we need that kind of whole-of-society commitment to democracy as well. If you look at Navalny, the reason he was such a sore spot for Putin, the reason he's in prison, is that he'd found this huge vulnerability in exposing Putin's corruption. I think corruption is a common thread between all these autocratic movements, including the Republican Party. Because a lot of those voters that supported Trump are angry at a corrupt system. This is why Trump always talks about the "deep state."

Trump always talks about the system being rigged, but he is the ultimate beneficiary of the system. He's a white guy, a fake billionaire who can do whatever he wants, who's fabulously corrupt. We need to continue to drive home the message to some of those Obama-Trump voters about the absolute corruption of a political party that speaks one language and then just shovels tax cuts to corporations and breaks the rules themselves all the time. I think that's the most potent argument we have to make. The last thing I'd say, though, is that the bigger structural problem is that the reason people are having an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the reason people believe in QAnon, is because of the radicalization that's happening online. We have to get our arms around that in this country, social media and disinformation. I'd like to see the Biden team take that on more. Because so long as our entire media is structured to mainline rage and conspiracy theories to people, we're going to be in this spot.

Former GOP chair Michael Steele talks saving post-Trump party: 'Terraform' it or destroy it?

Michael Steele is a man without a political party. True, Steele served as chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and still considers himself a Republican. But as he discussed recently on "Salon Talks," unless things change, Steele and other more moderate Republicans grasp that they don't belong in this iteration of the GOP, which is increasingly embracing white nationalism and appears untroubled by the use of violence to achieve its political goals.

I asked Steele a simple question he's heard many times before: What is the future of the Republican Party? The MSNBC political analyst bluntly analogized the current GOP to a cancer patient. If the patient wants to get better and seeks treatment, that's one thing. But as Steele put it, today's GOP appears to be rejecting "treatment," and instead allowing the "cancer" of bigotry to metastasize throughout the party.

The only course correction Steele sees happening will come after GOP suffers horrific political defeats. Then perhaps it will be reborn and led by Republicans like him, who still believe in the core conservative principles that attracted him as a young man to the party of Lincoln. He seemed deeply troubled, in our conversation, by his apparent powerlessness to prevent the party he still loves from slipping into white nationalism, conspiracy theory and flat-out grift, citing the ascent of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as an obvious example.

This should be of concern to all Americans. We only have two major political parties, and it impacts all of us, regardless of our political views, if one of these two parties fully morphs into a white nationalist movement that uses the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6 as a tactic to acquire and retain power. Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with the former RNC chair below or read the following transcript, lightly edited as usual for clarity and length.

Years ago, when you were RNC chair, if I asked you what the GOP stood for, you could tell me. I say this sincerely: From your point of view, what does today's Republican Party stand for?

Right now it stands for whatever Trump wants it to stand for. The party leadership has given itself over to a very small faction of the base, that sort of drives the overall narrative. When you look at it from a policy side, you see how we've walked away from long-term alliances, our friends and allies abroad. We've turned our enemies into our buddies and our buddies into our enemies. When you look at domestically what we've done on the economic front, a party that once stood for some level of fiscal balance and conservatism has now gone hog-wild.

That's kind of been the narrative for some time. This is nothing necessarily new with Donald Trump, in terms of government spending. We saw it under the Bush years, and of course the backdrop for that was terrorism and 9/11. In this instance, it's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. I like a good tax cut, but I prefer that tax cut be placed in the hands of people who actually need it, and can make the most of it, which of course is the middle class. We've walked away from the middle class. We beat our chest with great bravado about being out there for workers, but that's not necessarily our narrative.

The party right now is all over the map. It has no central moorings, no foundational idea. In fact, it has no platform that we can put out in front of the country and says, "This is what we philosophically orient toward. These are the things that matter and what we want to pursue." I think it makes it very difficult to engage the country around governing principles when you have not governed, and you have no principles that you can really put in front of them that don't sound like Donald Trump.

I can sense the rudderlessness of the party, as it goes from Dr. Seuss to immigration and back to cancel culture. In the past month we've seen things that perhaps, with different Republican leadership, would have led to a pushback. We saw Rep. Paul Gosar from Arizona as a keynote speaker at a white nationalist conference. We saw Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin tell us point blank that he was not worried about the Trump supporters who were carrying Confederate flags and other images of Nazis and white supremacy, and then Rep. Chip Roy from Texas waxed poetically about lynchings. He may or may not have said something inappropriately, that he didn't mean it that way, but we saw little pushback from the leadership of the GOP. There was a time when Paul Ryan would at least push back a little on Donald Trump. Now I don't hear it.

Even through the three examples that you gave, I wouldn't even mitigate against those. Those were consistent with what we've seen — the party's recent embrace of white nationalism, sort of this fake populism that's born out of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Ken Mehlman when he was chairman, myself when I was chairman, declared that was an anathema to the party's basic philosophy and ideas. What we've been pushing has been pushed aside for an embrace of this. So having those members of Congress and senators go out and say these things, it's just an affirmation of that.

To your point about the broader response of the party leaders, no, they're not going to push back against that, because they don't want to get primaried. They don't want a nasty soundbite from Donald Trump, or a member of the Trump family or Lindsey Graham or somebody who's going to side against them. They don't want to see what happened to Liz Cheney and others who stood on principle and supported taking down the insurrectionist acts of certain members of our community and leaders in our party. They find themselves in this very uncomfortable space where you have a Marjorie Taylor Greene and you've got a Gosar. You've got others out there saying and doing things, and the leadership is feckless. They're inept. They have been emasculated in many ways because they are not willing to risk that leadership, nor are they willing to risk their elective position, to go against those who are undermining the very fabric of who we are as a country, because there's more value in grifting off of that, raising money.

You look at the moment Ron Johnson says this stuff, he goes out and plays the victim, and he sends out a fundraising letter. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the same thing. The party has become one big grift in many respects. That's unfortunate, because that's not who we are. But we've been in that space for 21 years now. This goes back to the 2000 election. You can almost pinpoint those transformative moments in the '80s and '90s, as well. So, there's a history here that is in many respects an ongoing march by the party, and it's going to end in a not so happy place. When it does, it will resolve itself, and out of that will be born a new effort, a new party or something different. We will terraform the party in such a way that we free ourselves of this ugliness and right ourselves, or we give into it completely.

I wonder what the legacy of Trump is going to be. Is it the idea that if you're a Republican you can say whatever pigheaded thing you want, because there's really no penalty in your party? In fact, it might make some in your base, the more extreme ones, send you money. You might get more Twitter followers. You might get booked on Fox News or Newsmax. It seems that's potentially the legacy that Trump left us. Do you agree with that, or was that there before Trump?

It was there before Trump, in many respects. Trump just knew how to animate it, to bring it to life, to make use of it. But, actually, I'll take it one step further. I think in order for us to get to a different level of discussion, I'm prepared to set Trump aside. I'm tired of talking about him. I'm tired of talking about the future of the party. You can talk about the future of a cancer patient. If that cancer patient, wants to have a future free of cancer, then all right. But if they give up and give in to the thing that is killing them, there's not much more you can do. There is no further conversation you can have.

In many respects, all of us, particularly those inside the party, have to wait and see how this plays itself out. It will define itself. It will tell you what it is or what it wants to be. Then, as Maya Angelou says, accept it. Don't try to fight against it. Don't try to change it, if it doesn't want to be changed. I am past the point in the discussion of trying to figure out the future. I don't have that crystal ball. The only thing I can do is wait and see what the leadership does, what the base does, such as it is, what actions Trump takes, how people respond to it, and to see exactly what this party is going to be. In the meantime, what I and many others will continue to do, is put in front of it those Lincoln ideals that drew me in as a 17-year-old kid, many years ago, to this principle, understanding that the words in our Constitution apply to everyone. As a party, what we conserve is that fight, that power, those rights. All the other stuff is just ancillary, whether you're pro-this or anti-that, whether you're up or down on this policy.

If you're not about the foundational idea — what we're seeing happening in the voting space, by states like Georgia and Arizona. where Republicans in those states are trying to disenfranchise people. That's antithetical to the very founding ideas and principles laid out in the Constitution, even though they were written by men who did not include me in that conversation at the time. Well guess what? I'm in it now, and dammit, you're not going to take me out of it, Republicans in Georgia and Arizona — that's the fight. I'm waiting to see how that plays out, because that will tell you whether or not this party is of a mind to move off this or they just embrace it and go deeper into it, in which case then we know what we've got in front of us.

There was a new Monmouth Poll last week that asked Americans if they think white nationalism is a problem in the United States. Sixty-four percent of all Americans said yes. That actual number was actually dragged down by Republicans, because only 38 percent of Republicans thought it was a problem. When you just put independents and Democrats, you're way over 70 percent of Americans who think it's a problem. Sixty-two percent of Republicans don't think white nationalism is a problem. Either they don't believe it exists — like Tucker Carlson, who calls it a hoax — or they're down with it, or whatever, they don't really care. Everything's fine with their life.

That's because a lot of them are white. A lot of them have embraced this, and look, the thread that's kind of driving this narrative is this decision that was made at some point in this evolution to just stick it to Democrats. If the Democrats are for something, they're going to be against it, because they want to stick it. They want to screw Democrats. They want to defeat Democrats. This, for me, kind of goes back to how our politics devolved into a red versus blue, us versus them, "They're our enemy," with Democrats going from being our opponents to being our enemies.

When you have that kind of transformation in the political dialogue, you've now gone to a level of ugliness. That kind of poll makes sense, in that regard, because a lot of that is this idea that, well, you're just pushing back on white folks, because you don't want to recognize how we've been disadvantaged. This whole mindset is just turned upside down and that's what makes this discussion that much harder, because we want to inject our political biases into the conversation. When you do that, you're going to see this kind of result. It's just reflective of how broken the politics have become.

I don't know how you get around that, other than to go through it. You just got to go through it, and the country has to state declaratively — and this could mean the end of the party, in one sense, that we don't want you governing anything until you get on the page with 70 to 80 percent of the American people, who see white nationalism as a problem. You send us Marjorie Taylor Greene as your nominee, guess what? You're not getting elected. I think that's the space we're kind of moving into now, which sets up 2022, as a particularly interesting battleground, I would say almost on par with 2020. Which was important for a whole lot of reasons That we know.

While 2020 was about the election of one man, 2022 is about the election of an idea, an ideology, because there are a lot of candidates carrying this particular water into those fights. How does the nation respond on a congressional level, on a statewide level, on a state legislative level, to candidates who espouse that white nationalism is OK, white people are victims, Black lives don't matter? In fact, Blacks shouldn't even be allowed to vote in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc., because we don't like the way they vote. To help make that point, we're going to pull back on the privilege, on the right to vote in these areas. So that's going to be an interesting narrative for the Republicans to defend, and an interesting one for the country to decide that they reject it or not.

I'm not as optimistic that white nationalism isn't a winning strategy, given the demographic change happening in this country. There might be more white people who don't admit it in polls.

I agree.

That's what concerns me, that the GOP is not going to fade away and die. It's going to grow. Polls have even showed some Republicans and numbers I've never believed to be true. There was an AEI poll, from the American Enterprise Institute, which is right wing, that showed 56 percent of Republicans said it's OK to use force to stop the decline of the traditional American way of life. Where are we going?

What is the "traditional American way of life"? See, that's what we need to peel back because the traditional way of American life is very different for me and you than it is for some white guy from Alabama, who is hearkening back to a time that, quite honestly, was not good for any Americans. This idea of, "We want to return to the way America used to be," well, when I hear that, what that says to me is what you want to return to segregation. You want to return to lynching. We've heard a member of Congress say, "Hey, that's OK, because that's how we enforce the rule of law." What are you saying when you hear that and when you say that? That's what we need to drill down on, because when you just ask that question generically, people have this red, white and blue, star-spangled kind of view of America. Well, America has never been that. It's an idea on a postcard, but it has never been the lived experience of Asians, African-Americans, Jews, lesbians and gays, etc., in this country.

If Donald Trump were criminally charged, prosecuted and went to jail before 2022, how do you think that impacts the midterm election? Because it could happen. In New York, he's being investigated. In Georgia, he's being investigated. We've heard they are looking into him on the federal level. Do you think it helps the GOP if Trump is in prison. Does he become this martyr?

I think anything that happens to Donald Trump, by the system, by the "deep state," sets him up to be a martyr and he'll make himself to be a martyr. Look, the man is out there trying to create his own social media platform. Let us not fool ourselves. There will be a bazillion people who will sign onto that platform. Let's not act surprised when it happens. Let's not start wringing our hands again because, like you've just said, there are a whole lot of people who line up with Donald Trump and are down with what he says and what he's done. How do we know that? Well, 7 million more of them voted for him in 2020 [than in 2016].

You can't sit back and pretend that somehow this is an aberration. It is not. It is part of the natural course of things, and so to your point about anything, legally or otherwise, that befalls Donald Trump: He will wear it like the best victim could ever wear it. He will milk it and make the most of it, and he will drive dollars and drive supporters and ultimately drive votes behind it.

Mitch McConnell is threatening scorched earth against Democrats if they end the filibuster. What do you think?

You better listen to McConnell.

You think he's being sincere?

Of course he is. I mean, he was sincere after they got control of the Senate and Merrick Garland's nomination came up. He warned Harry Reid that's what he was going to do. He made it very clear. "I'm all about the judiciary, and I'm going to do everything I can to reshape it for conservatives and undermine it for Democrats." Now he's just broadened the warning. He's saying, not only is it not just the judiciary, it's going to be everything else.

That's not to say, however, that Democrats don't have a strategy they can employ, and that they should cower in the corner and fear the man who presumably should have no power, but does. They can still go in and play the game in a way that — look, pick and choose your battles. You don't have to eliminate the filibuster, period. You can just eliminate it on certain votes.

Stacey Abrams has talked about an exception for voting rights or civil rights.

Yeah, exactly. So, there's a way to do it, and then use that to pivot off to build the narrative for why you need to have more than 50 votes in the Senate in 2022. Give us a Senate that will support the policies that 70 percent of the American people want. We're not the party saying no. We're not the party saying, "You can't recover from COVID." We're not the party saying, "You can't have shovel-ready jobs in your community." We're the party that's trying to work with workers in unions, so America can rebuild itself. We're not the party standing in the way of those things. So give us the Senate that will allow this president to do the things that clearly you like him doing, Republicans, independents and Democrats out there across the country. Make the case.

When you talk to Republicans who are not Trumpists, where do you see yourselves in the future? Do you have a decent chance of fighting and changing this party and pulling it back?

It's a good question. It's one that a lot of us are grappling with. There are a lot of conversations being had in that regard. You fight the battle in front of you. Can't fight the one that's behind, that's done. We either won or lost. In some cases, we won, and in others we lost and we lost big. Right now the battle in front of us is over what this party will be. Is it the party of Lincoln, or is it the party of Trump? For me, it's a very straightforward question to ask. I'd like it to be the party of Lincoln. But if others prevail, and say, "No, we want Trump and Trumpism," then guess what? Brother picks up his bag and moves on. Look, you can only stay so long in a place you're not wanted.

At the end of the day, they've made it very clear. There is no going back to Lincoln-style philosophies and policies that are oriented around the freedom of individuals, and the rights of citizens. Instead it's sort of this hodgepodge of whatever Donald Trump feels on the day he wakes up. So, OK, that's the choice you've made as a party. It will fracture. It will break. It will re-shatter and reform, or shatter and reform into something else, and the rest of us will move on. Some have already moved on. I may have told you, well over a year ago, that I look at it as someone coming into my house and breaking my furniture, writing on my walls, and threatening my family. So, do I leave or do I stay? I stay as long as I can, and to the extent that they get the upper hand, OK, I collect my family and I go.

In a nation where we only have two major parties, all of us have to be concerned about where the GOP is going because it impacts our entire nation. If it becomes truly a white nationalist party embracing violence going forward, that affects all of us.

Yeah, it does. And I think an important thing about that, Dean, is the fact that more and more Americans are now open to the idea of expanding and broadening the opportunities for the creation of more than two parties. I think more and more Americans need to embrace that. I have advocated that since I was a county chairman. Why? Because I love the idea of competition. It gives you a chance to hone your thinking and reasoning skills around the philosophy that you articulate for, and it gives you a chance to declaratively say, "This is what we stand for. This is what we believe." When you can no longer do that with the embrace of the American people, then it's time for the American people to look at other alternatives, and those alternatives are there. Now it's just a matter of how they take shape and form.

There are Republicans who are actively pursuing those alternatives. I've been in those conversations and will remain in those conversations. There are Republicans who are also actively trying to do what I call terraforming the current party. That is tearing up this old dirt, that has grown incapable of bearing good fruit, and laying down some new seeds. If we are unsuccessful in that, then we will have someplace else to go. There is a lot of traction and traffic going on right now in this space, and I think that's a good thing for the country in the long run.

NYT columnist argues there's an obvious pathway to empowering Black Americans

Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist and author of the provocative new book, "The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto," is tired of begging others for justice and is urging Black Americans to empower themselves by moving en masse to Southern states.

Blow candidly told me during our "Salon Talks" conversation this week why his radical reverse migration idea is a mechanism for Black people to seize power on a legislative level. Currently, Black people "have to convince the people who hold the power — predominantly white people — to see you, acknowledge your equality, and grant you justice," Blow said. "I keep saying to Black people, "Aren't you tired? Aren't you tired of that? Aren't you tired of begging them and them still saying, 'No'?"

Blow's overall goal is to elect officials in Southern states who are focused on solving problems that bedevil Black communities, like gerrymandering, but I wanted to go deeper and understand the root of his argument, which he agrees is a matter of life and death. "There's white supremacy and also anti-Blackness. You're fighting both of those things," Blow said. And waiting on the browning of America relies on the premise that everyone who is not white shares a common sense of objectives, which, Blow argues, they simply do not.

Will masses of African Americans follow Blow's call to move to the South, as he has done, uprooting himself from New York City and relocating to Georgia? Possibly. Is Blow correct on the resilience of white supremacy in America? Absolutely. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Blow or read a transcript of our conversation below to hear more about why he believes that in order for Black people to get what they advocate for and protest for, they must first obtain power on their own terms. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, as usual.

In your book, you have a great quote by the late activist Stokely Carmichael. He said, "If a white man wants to lynch me, that's his problem. If he's got the power to lynch me, that's my problem." Clearly, we are talking about a sense of power. Power is not just electing members to Congress or electing people to the governorship, in the case of the Black community. Power is often about life and death.


Why did you use that quote, and what does that mean to you?

Well, particularly in Stokely's case, in that quote he's expressing power as a means of protection. Power can also be a means of agency and equality, right? What I'm suggesting to Black America is that you don't have enough of that. You have very little, if any, of it on a state level, most of your power is municipal. You're able to elect representatives to Congress, but even that representation is suppressed because of gerrymandering. And that gerrymandering is done by states, by the way. If you really want a solution to solving many of the problems that bedevil Black people, that Black people go into the streets and march about that, they go online and complain about, much of that is controlled at the state level.

There's a mechanism by which you can change that and basically seize that power, which is reverse migration into states where you increase your power in those states, as you increase the percentage of Black people live there, and you could get back to the position that Black people held at the end of the Civil War when they were the majority of the population in three Southern states and near a majority in three others. They had large percentages of the population in all Southern states.

Is your revolutionary idea about encouraging a reverse of the Great Migration and going back to the South


I understand that it's about Black power. Why now?

Well, there's a fatigue that sets in when you see Black person after Black person after Black person killed, and you see that the mechanisms that would deliver justice cannot because basically the states, and to some degree the federal government, has made it illegal for this to happen. The reason they don't get arrested and the reason they don't get charged and convicted is because in most cases what they are doing is legal — and that legal framework can be changed.

You don't have to be powerless. You don't have to march every time there's a killing. And the marching itself, as powerful as it can be as a social connector, as powerful as it can be as a congregational, spiritual awakening for people, a thing that changes the narrative, it is still, as far as power is concerned, a pleading. It may be an active, in-the-streets position for you, but it is a knee-bent position before power because you are asking power, "Recognize that something wrong has happened here and do something about it." If you had the power, you wouldn't have to go to the street. You can simply demand of your representatives, "This can't be, this guy has to go." It would be over. But you don't have that power.

What is preventing that power from happening in the framework we have now?

If Eric Garner is killed in New York and you're only 11, 12, 15, 19 percent of the population, you don't have the power to change it. You are still in a pleading position. You have to convince the majority of people in New York state to do something about that. You know, if you are in California and someone is killed, you are 5 or 6 percent of the population of California. You don't have the power yourself to say, "This must stop." You have to convince the people who hold the power — predominantly white people, predominantly white, rich men — to see you, acknowledge your equality, and grant you justice. I keep saying to Black people, "Aren't you tired? Aren't you tired of that? Aren't you tired of begging them and them still saying, 'No'? 'Please see me and recognize my equality and my humanity,' and them still saying no?"

What have Black people said in response to you urging them to move to the South? You make a compelling case about how this isn't just about political power. It's about life and death. It literally is about saving our lives. What's the reaction you get?

I don't get a lot of pushback on the principle. People worry about feasibility. Can I make a living? If I'm used to a liberal environment, will I be able to express myself in the same way? I talk to them through those issues. It's not going to be right for everyone. Not everyone moved during the Great Migration to the North and West, out of the South. In fact, most Black people did not move. So people won't move, but there'll be people for whom it makes sense. And I was speaking to those people.

Are you offering prizes at all? [Laughs] I mean, because I'm Muslim and we're a teeny community, right? But if one of the big Muslim leaders in America said, "We're all going to move to Dearborn, there's already a lot of us there," I'd be like, "It's cold. I live in New York. I like New York. I'm down with Muslim power, 100 percent. I'm not kidding. But do I really want to move?" I don't want to drill down to practicality. I'm more interested in the actual reaction of people in your community.

I mean, the answer to your question is complicated by the fact that I am on a virtual book tour. The entire book tour has been in this room, so the responses I get are online. Because that's how we connect with people during a pandemic.

People ask about poverty in the South. And I explained to them about how concentrated poverty is where you actually are. And in fact, New York City has a higher percentage of Black poverty than all of the state of Mississippi, which is one of the poorest states in America. I think people don't even see their suffering because they live in the shadow of prosperity.

At its essence, is this truly about white supremacy in our nation? And the fact that it is unbeatable unless you just mass your own forces, to be blunt, to have your own power base?

I think there's two things on both ends of that spear. There's white supremacy and also anti-Blackness. You're fighting both of those things because if it was just white supremacy, you probably could wait for allies to help you out who were non-white, but in every society across the world where there are people in those societies where people express differently physically, and there are darker people and lighter people, invariably the darker people are assigned the lower caste. Invariably. The anti-Blackness part of it must be equal to the anti-white supremacy part of it.

I say to Black people, "You can't wait for white people to evolve into your liberation." And also you cannot be completely dependent on the browning of America to deliver your liberation because people make the false assumption that everyone who is not white shares a common sense of values and policy objectives. They simply do not. These are not perfectly overlapping circles. When you think about it half a second, it makes sense that they wouldn't be. But it also means that for you to be able to advocate for your particular set of policies, you need to have the power to do that on your own.

I think what you're saying, Charles, is that minorities don't naturally ally simply because they're not white. There's a concern around Black and brown people being used in the same sentence to talk about vastly different problems. Do you get a sense that there is there a zero-sum game mentality between some minority groups that if you move up, you hurt us, as opposed to we're all in this together?

I'm not sure if that is the way I think about it, but rather that white supremacy has been such a global phenomenon, as well as here in America, that whiteness has become aspirational, right? People aspire to that lighter skin. That's why people walk with umbrellas and women wear face masks to the beach with bikinis because they aspire to keep it. White supremacy taught the world through their oppression that there would be a value to whiteness. The insidious thing about white supremacy in America is that whiteness continued to expand itself to protect its majority in this country.

There was a time when not all the people we consider white today were considered white, but whiteness expanded to include them because it helped them maintain majority. It is not inconceivable that whiteness will continue to expand itself to include some of the people who we now consider to be Asian or Hispanic because it needs to maintain its numerical advantage. There are people within communities who aspire to that. That is part of the reason I believe that you saw nearly a third of all Asians and a third of all Hispanics in 2016 vote for Donald Trump, even after he had had this racist campaign against Barack Obama, even after he had said "ban all Muslims," even after he had called Mexicans rapists. Within immigrant communities, according to the New York Times analysis, that was where his percentage of nonwhites really skyrocketed. My concern is that you could replace a white supremacy with a light supremacy.

You talk about in your book about how race is not real, but racism is and the idea that race is a social construct. I'm the living, breathing example. Pre-9/11, I was white and was raised to be white. My dad wanted to name me Salah ad-Din. My mom was like, "No, we're going to name you Dean." Then 9/11 happened and society made me a minority. Now I'm very proud to be a minority, frankly. But to your point about people who are minorities and aspire to be white — it is vitally important to remember that. James Baldwin talked about people who are not white when they came here and they earned their whiteness.

And I want to say this too, Dean, I talk about that from a place of familiarity within the Black community. It's not like Black people are casting stones at other racial and ethnic minority groups. We have experienced our own passing for whiteness within our own Black community. There has been, to a lesser degree now, but to still to some degree, a light-skinned privilege within the Black community. We speak out of that, or I speak out of that, from an experience of having seen how people who get a close enough proximity to whiteness will, if given a chance and if they are so inclined, try to merge into it.

I didn't want to lose my whiteness and after 9/11 and I fought to keep it. I didn't know what the other side was, but I had an idea it was not going to be as good. I understood America was designed for white people and so did my parents. That's why they raised me to be a white guy, to be blunt. You write that whenever Black people make progress, white people feel threatened and respond forcefully, which is the history of our country. When white supremacy is threatened it will always use violence. Why? It is as simplistic as jealousy, or is there something deeper at play?

It's not jealousy, it is always power. It is always power. It has always been power. I think you have to think of power broadly. It is loss of political power. It is loss of the economic guarantee that America granted to white people, that we will always make sure you succeed at the expense of other people, right? It is loss of cultural power that you get to write the narrative of America where you are the heroes and everyone else is the villain, or you are the elite and everyone else is the subordinate. All of these areas of power are threatened when you do not have the supremacy to demand that you exist at the top of the heap.

When you look at what happened on Jan. 6 with the insurrection at the Capitol, in your view was a white power manifesto come to life?

I do believe that it is that same fear. Fear of political, economic and cultural displacement.

This might sound naïve, and it's not intended to be. I'm a minority, but I'm not Black. The more I read about Black history, the more I see movies, the more I read books, I think of James Baldwin's quote about how if you're a conscious Black person, how can you not be constantly in a state of rage? Thinking about the history of this country and what it's done to Black people and the struggle that you articulate today for Black power. Are things changing for the better?

I don't even want to get into the progress argument because you can't take 400 years to inch out of a thing that should never have been done and hope for me to pat you on the back. I'm not going to do that. But what I will say is there was this brief glorious moment called Reconstruction in which Black people did have that power, right? And they wielded it. But they weren't as armed as their white countrymen. They didn't have the same wealth as their white countrymen. And they were subject to attack. The case that was just filed by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi last week using the anti-Ku Klux Klan Act, well, that act is a Reconstruction-era act. During Reconstruction, the federal government helped to protect Black people so they could exercise the power that they had. They allowed the federal government to mobilize troops into the South to protect those people who had the right to vote and were the majorities in some of those states.

You had a glimpse of what power could be. The only reason you don't have it in those numbers right now is because of the Great Migration. Up until the Great Migration 90 percent of Black people in America lived in the South. I'm saying there is nothing preventing you from having the power that they had from 1865 for about 12 years.

If your thesis plays out, what's to say white people won't use violence to prevent your success? Look at Wilmington in the 1890s. The council there was biracial, but essentially it was Black people in power and a white supremacist coup-d'état actually happened. You'll look at the Tulsa riots, a sense of jealousy and fear of power. What if you are successful? Do you fear there will be a backlash of white supremacists?

Fear has no real place in liberation. Either you want to be free or you don't. If you want a cakewalk, I can't promise you that. I am suggesting a revolutionary act and there are no such things as revolutionary acts without resistance or risk. I will say this though, when white terror helped to scare and chase Black people out of the South, they won that battle. I believe that morally and historically, they cannot be allowed to win that war. As a moral issue, right has to win that war.

What would Black power look like from your point of view?

It would look a lot like Georgia. And Georgia is not even a Black majority state at this point, but Georgia increased its Black population. It doubled his Black population from 1990 to 2020. Thanks in large part to diverse reverse migration. It went from 1.7 million people to now 3.4 million people. If you could just get back to restoring the majorities you had post-Civil War, which would only take about half the Black people in the North and West returning South, by the way. It wouldn't take everyone.

If they still had those states, they would control up to 14 Senate seats. They could control more Electoral College votes than New York and California combined. If they voted over that same period the way they vote now, they wouldn't have had a Republican president in the last 50 years. And the last time I checked, I don't think there's a single person on the Supreme Court who was appointed more than 50 years ago. The entire court would be different. You would have enough power to demand of politicians and political parties that they pay attention to your issues and move on advancing them because you would be able to deliver states.

Fascism expert: Donald Trump’s coup is not over — and his enablers aren’t done

Dismiss Donald Trump and the GOP's attacks on the 2020 election at your peril, warns Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and author of the new book, "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present." In our recent interview for Salon Talks, Ben-Ghiat — a professor of history and Italian studies at NYU — observes that Trump probably hasn't actually studied other leaders in history who transformed functioning democracies into authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, his actions line up almost perfectly with many who have done just that, from Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy to Vladimir Putin in contemporary Russia.

"For the strongman, politics is always personal," Ben-Ghiat explains which may sound ironic given that "strongmen" are all about displaying virility. As she explained in our conversation, they tend to take every slight personally, and that's certainly the case with President Trump, who constantly complains that he's a victim who has been treated unfairly, which for some reason has endeared him even further to his supporters.

Even with Trump on his way out in January, Ben-Ghiat makes clear the threat of authoritarianism in America is not over. She explains that the Republican Party is increasingly embracing undemocratic methods to acquire and retain power, from voter ID laws to blocking Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. Some GOP elected officials — thankfully, not all — even enabled Trump's efforts to overturn or delegitimize the 2020 election results.

Ben-Ghiat's book it serves as a wake-up call for any who believe what we are seeing is nothing more than an extra dose of our "normal" hyper-partisan politics. If we as a nation don't attempt to rein in the use of undemocratic or anti-democratic tactics, the U.S. may end up featured in future history books as a former democracy that slid into authoritarianism. Watch my Salon Talks with Ruth Ben-Ghiat below or read the following transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your new book on authoritarianism, "Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present" is a scary must-read. Not because of the past, but because of the present. Let me first get your reaction as an expert to what we have seen recently in the headlines, with Donald Trump literally trying to overturn the results of this election.

I turned in the book in the summer of 2020, and I was just reading over the ending chapter. I found a sentence that said that Trump might try to stay in office to avoid prosecution and to keep his grifting going. I said it in a more elegant manner, but what we're seeing is not at all surprising, because today authoritarians come to power through elections and then they manipulate elections to stay there.

Some journalists are hesitant to use the word "coup" because to them, that conjures up tanks in the street. But would it be fair to say what Trump is trying to do is an electoral coup or political coup, where he clearly lost the election, but he's spreading misinformation to overturn it and keep himself in power?

Yeah, I'm very glad that a third of the book is about the age of military coups. And then what happens where we get to the age where they're coming in through elections. This qualifies as what's called an "auto-coup" or a self-coup, where somebody who's already in power tries to manipulate elections and uses propaganda and threats to stay there.

For a classic coup, you need law enforcement and the military. And that's why, I was quite heartened that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, went out of his way and made a pointed declaration, saying that the armed forces are going to obey the Constitution and not an individual. We all know who that individual is. I don't think he's going to succeed by traditional military-coup means, because that's not what you do anymore. It's more like law-warfare, where you use lawyers and bureaucracy. Paperwork can kill democracy today, basically.

Clearly Joe Biden and many leading Democrats have made the strategic decision not to join this battle, to stay above it. Maybe on Twitter, you see some members of Congress, but they certainly have not flooded the zone calling this out. It concerns me that it almost feels like an unintentional appeasement of Donald Trump, letting him say what he's going to say because democracy is going to win out at the end of the day. Does history tell us that's a good or bad strategy?

I'm really glad you made that point, because I think one of the hard truths we have to face is that the GOP is an authoritarian party. The other day they issued a very aggressive declaration, saying they're going to fight to liberate the country from tyranny, which is this old right-wing line that democracy is tyranny and authoritarian government is freedom. So they went out in a new aggressive way, saying they're going to back [Trump] all the way to the end.

We're in a situation where Erdogan in Turkey and Modi in India, who are not liberal rulers, have called Biden to congratulate him on the election, but the GOP will not concede. In this situation, it's very important that the Democrats come out very strongly, because the history of authoritarian shows that Trump is a bully and if you don't push back against him, he will take more advantage and consider you to be a lesser opponent. I think they're going to have to change their messaging, because things are getting very, very frightening, very, very serious. Being above it all is not going to work.

I get the sense from Democrats in power that if they join this battle, then it makes it partisan and maybe antagonizes the Republicans who are not on board. A little over 50 percent of Republicans think Trump is the rightful winner, and about 30 percent think Joe Biden is. The Democrats actually almost seem happy with that 30 percent. I fear that each day this goes by and you don't see Democrats on Fox News or on Newsmax making the counter-argument, it gets more and more traction.

This is the same framework that has hampered the media from adequately responding to Trump. Here's the issue. Very early on, before Trump was inaugurated, I published a CNN op-ed saying that Trump was following the authoritarian playbook. Now, it makes sense that Americans would only have a democratic frame of reference, because we've never had a dictatorship. We've never had a foreign occupation.

But seeing Trump in anything less than an authoritarian frame allows you to make a lot of strategic mistakes. He's never been in office for democratic means or goals. He's been in office to make money for the Trump Organization, to build a personality cult to keep people loyal to him and to prolong his power. Staying in office to avoid prosecution, etc., becomes an end in itself. So if we see it that way, this is why the media needed to call this out immediately and not do the both-sides thing.

In a parallel way, the Democrats thinking that they may look partisan is futile at this point. They have to really think about what role they want to have in history. Being silent, to kind of be above it all, there's a lesson from history. When Mussolini was pushing, he hadn't declared dictatorship yet, but it was very clear he was actually fixing an election. The opposition in the Italian parliament did a noble thing. They left. It was called the "Aventine secession," because they went and met on the Aventine Hill in Rome. They didn't want to engage with these thugs. They were trying to be above it all. You know what Mussolini did? He said, "Good, they're not here." They were unable to enter back into parliament when they wanted to return, and he declared a dictatorship. So it doesn't work to be above it all when you have somebody like Trump.

I think you make a great point that our media, and even the Democrats, are not well equipped to deal with a person like this. It took almost two years for many in the media to use the word "liar" to describe Donald Trump. I was writing it in articles and I would get editors crossing it out. Then after a while, they're like, "OK." I feel like the same thing now is happening now in mainstream media where they can't say there's a coup happening in the United States because there aren't tanks.

The book goes through a hundred years of history and there are these recurring patterns. One of them is that people have been in denial. They don't want to take the leader seriously. Even now you have people saying, "Trump's not so bad, he just golfs all the time." They're already saying, "Well, what we need to worry about is someone who's going to be much more competent in the future."

But we are now in an emergency. I've been making videos every day about the transition, and I'm making it very clear that we are in a crisis state. The minute that Biden won and Trump and the GOP didn't recognize the results, this opened a window for a kind of state of exception. So the time is now to worry about an authoritarian, not in 2024. But it's very upsetting for some people to recognize what's in front of them, because then they think, "Well, maybe I have to do something about it." This is a pattern that's been repeated over a hundred years.

If Trump were somehow able to stay in power for four more years, setting aside that we have a 22nd Amendment that says he can't serve another term after that, do you think the GOP would support his efforts to remain in power beyond four more years?

I do. It's a great question, because the reason the GOP is going along with this is that there are many people who have invested a lot to put America on this path. And let's be very clear, it's a project of taking America out of the realm of democracy, including all the world alliances, and putting it into what I called in 2016, Axis 2.0. Look at who Trump is dealing with. Erdogan and Putin, these are the people he admires, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. So people like William Barr and Mike Pompeo, we're not talking about hacks on Fox News. We're talking about the apex of power.

They have invested a lot, and each one may have his own agenda. Like for Barr and Pence it's white Christian hegemony, but they don't want to give it up because they're coming very close to being able to consolidate it in ways that are very frightening for liberal democracy. So I would caution anybody to think that just because you see Trump going to play golf or he doesn't have any public events on his schedule, it doesn't mean people are not digging in for this desperate endgame.

My fiancée, who's originally from the Middle East, was reading some of Trump's recent tweets and she goes, "He's not leaving. You understand that?" I go, "He's leaving." And she goes, "He's not leaving. He really is tweeting like he has won." She doesn't look at it through the American lens. Bassem Youssef, who's the Jon Stewart of the Middle East, he's saying, "This doesn't end well." I think a lot of Americans are uncomfortable with that talk, but I think people like that are being blunt because they're looking at this through what they've seen in the Middle East.

Yes, and I think one of my strengths as an analyst has been that I grew up here in America, but my parents are immigrants. My mother's from Scotland, my father was born in Jerusalem and my grandfather was from Yemen. So I also work on global history. I started with Italian fascism, studied empire, and I turned that global lens — and also my whole family culture, where there's no relatives in the States — onto America. I've been able to see things very clearly. And I'm also getting lots of messages from people in the Middle East, family or not, people I don't know, saying the same thing you just said.

There are countries that you go through in your book, where it's not like 1930s authoritarianism or even like Gen. Pinochet in Chile, with people disappearing. It's more almost like an oligarchy. If Trump were able to stay, I don't even think it'd be like Putin. For instance, I could still do my comedy. I could still bad-mouth Trump and they might lash out at me a little bit. It would have the trappings of democracy, but we'd have backslid to where Donald Trump and the oligarchs have an inordinate amount of control over the power of this nation.

We're still searching for a language. I talk about this in the introduction of the book, to describe this new form of autocracy. Some people call it electoral autocracy, where you don't totally get rid of the opposition, you don't need a one-party state. We have that only in North Korea and in China. But if you're not communist, you keep the trappings of democracy, but it's fixed. The game is fixed.

Sadly, during the years I wrote the book, several people on the world leadership scene have consolidated their power. Many people think we would drift toward an Orbán scenario, although I think it would be much more violent. Orbán has domesticated the judiciary and the media without much physical violence. Orbán rules by decree now. Putin amended the Russian constitution — here we go with the law-fare, right? Death of democracy by paperwork. He amended it so he could stay in power till 2036 if he wants. So in each case it's going to look different in every way and it's not going to look like the old fascist dictatorships. That's why I don't use the word "fascist" for Trump, although he uses a ton of fascist tactics, including a personality cult.

In your book, you had a line about it always being personal for the strongman in politics. And I can only think of Trump. Why is it that politics are always personal for these people? Is Trump's embrace of victimhood part of that as well, where he's constantly complaining about how unfairly he is treated?

Yeah, it's all about him, right? And he always has to be the biggest victim. So unfortunately, this too is out of the playbook. Mussolini was the victim, Hitler was too. And what it is, is that they don't represent the nation like democratic leaders, they embody the nation. So they become the embodiment of the nation's sufferings and dreams and hopes. When he first came in in 2016, Trump said that the world system was rigged against America and he was going to save it. He was going to be the voice. Now, he also said that the election system was rigged. He started saying this in 2016 in case he lost, but he didn't lose. This is very old rhetoric, and even if he leaves office, this victim cult will only grow among his followers.

And the thing about it is, it connects to their masculinity. I have a whole chapter on virility because on the one hand they're supposed to be alpha males, right? Trump is retweeting his face on the body of Sylvester Stallone. We can laugh at that stuff, but it's deadly serious. On the other hand, they're victims, whining all the time about being persecuted. And this actually makes people feel tenderly toward them, it's even endearing. So you go to Trump rallies and journalists will get these quotes, like a woman will say, "I'd wade through a sea of COVID to save Trump." Stuff like that. All of them have done this over a hundred years, and this is why women are a big fan base for these men who are definitely not working toward women's rights.

You have a whole chapter on endings, and it's not surprising that most authoritarians leave office involuntarily and for different reasons. Berlusconi finally lost an election in Italy. Others die from natural causes or unnatural causes. If America is able to get rid of Trump on Jan. 20, is it in our best interests to try to create legal impediments to prevent another Trump? You can't pass laws and say, "No one named Donald Trump can run for office." We can't do that. It's unconstitutional. It's not democratic.

Or any other Trump. [Laughter.]

But should Congress, pass laws that might keep someone like Trump off the ballot, or at least limit his powers if he gets in?

Oh, absolutely. So Silvio Berlusconi is a big protagonist in the book, and he is quite similar. Trump is much more dangerous, but Berlusconi was so corrupt that he had laws passed that were tailored to his individual situation — talking about the personal is political. If he was accused of bribery, he had a law passed that made bribery a lesser offense. He was finally voted out in 2006 after five years. But the center-left that came in, the reformist left, they didn't do enough about corruption and about what you're talking about, safeguards against ruining democracy and creating accountability.

People got very angry and this was the birth of right-wing populism in Italy. He was voted back in, in 2008, and then he was worse than ever. So the lesson is, if we can get rid of Trump and we don't use this window that opens up with the Biden administration to be very vehement in our pushback and have much more rigorous vetting of candidates and address all the things Trump has exposed, we're doing ourselves a huge disservice.

When you mentioned corruption with other leaders, were their children corrupt as well? Because we've seen Ivanka Trump, who literally got trademarks registered on the very day her dad was meeting with the leader of China. She got countless trademarks from China, and even in Japan when Mike Pence was over there. The list goes on. I can't speak to Donald Trump Jr., he's not in the administration, so that's a little different. But is that a typical sign of these authoritarian leaders?

Yeah. One of the reasons they are the last to know that they should be leaving, is that they make these — I call them cocoons, their inner sanctums. They have flatterers and family around them, and this is also because family can be trusted to be part of the corruption. And usually, it's a family game. The same was true with Pinochet and so many rulers. I have a paragraph in the book on the special role of sons-in-law, from Mussolini's son-in-law, who he made foreign minister — and then later had executed — up to Orbán and Putin's sons-in-law. Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary was in business with Putin's son-in-law. And up to our own Jared Kushner. So what we're living through, what we've been living through for four years, almost everything is part of a historical pattern.

How does Trump stack up in terms of the other strongmen? I don't mean in terms of the atrocities that they committed, because it's a different time. So not in terms of actual outright violence, but just how they acted and their signature moves, where does Trump fit in?

Unfortunately for us, his personality, the impulsiveness, the need to humiliate others, even those who work for him, his grandiosity, his anxieties, his fears of his insecurities, all of it matches up 100 percent to all the other rulers. The outcomes are different, as you say. We're not in a one-party state fascist era. He didn't come to power through a military coup, but the personality type, which leads to these dynamics of government from the inner sanctums to not wanting to leave to humiliating others, is the same.

In 1931, Mussolini's head of the fascist party learned he was fired by reading it in the newspaper. And Mobutu in the Congo used to have, I call them "sadistic dictator games." He used to have rallies and everybody had to be assembled, with his officials in the first row. Then he would announce, live on television, which ones were fired. Rex Tillerson in 2018 was scrolling through Twitter while on the toilet and that's how he found out he was fired. So again, the dynamics are the same, even if the outcome — like what happens to the people who get fired — changes.

We have less than two months until Jan. 20. is there anything in history that we should be on the watch for, even more than we are? Anything we can do to make sure we end this authoritarian regime?

It's a time right now to be very watchful, to conserve your energies. Of course we have a pandemic and we're all extra tired, people have children at home, schools were just closed again in some places. So this is very difficult. But there may be a moment when mass nonviolent protest needs to be activated. That has been extremely effective at pushing back, because it not only tells the leader of the depth of hostility — and we did this in the summer with the Black Lives Matter protests — it also does so to his enablers. Now, whether that's going to move the needle with the GOP, I don't know. We'll have to see what happens. It's a very unpredictable time, which is the nature of these states of exception.

Ex-White House communications director is on a mission to stop Trump: 'Something's wrong with him mentally'

"I'm out there trying to educate as many people as possible at the systemic danger that Mr. Trump represents to our democracy." Those were part of the opening words of my conversation earlier this week with former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on "Salon Talks." And it went downhill from there for Trump.

I can't recall another presidential election where as many former officials from a White House administration and members of the president's own political party came out so vocally to defeat that very president. But then again, nothing has been normal in the time of Trump.

In our conversation, Scaramucci, a successful Wall Street investor, shared why he turned on Trump, citing events such as Trump's family separation policy and, finally, when Trump led the "Send her back" bigoted smear of the four Democratic female members of Congress known as "The Squad," saying they should go back to their own countries. As Scaramucci noted, this vile line of attack by Trump was personal for him; his own Italian grandparents heard the same hateful nativist comments when they first came to America.

The son of blue-collar parents who made it to Harvard Law School and onto the White House staff admitted he had been intoxicated in 2016 by Trump's celebrity status. Now Scaramucci wants to make amends for those past sins by leading the charge, along with other Republicans, to defeat Trump.

Some may never forgive Scaramucci and other Trump voters who helped elect him in the first place, but experts on authoritarianism will tell you that the key to saving a democracy is not just having an opposition party, but members of the wannabe fascist's own party standing up to him. Watch my conversation with Scaramucci or read a transcript of our chat below to hear more about his regrets around working for Trump, his continued relationships with General Kelly and Michael Cohen and why he's supporting Joe Biden.

Many know you as a successful Wall Street executive, entrepreneur, lawyer, author, founder of SkyBridge, and of course, for serving 11 days as Donald Trump's communications director in the White House in 2017.

That 11 days feels like it was like 500 years ago, Dean. Thank you for inviting me on.

In 2019, you made a famous break from Trump. You wrote an op-ed in of August 2019 for the Washington Post in which you wrote, "While it's difficult and embarrassing to admit my errors in judgment, I believe I still have the ability to make amends." You're talking there about breaking ranks from Donald Trump. Remind people if you could please, why, and how you got to that point?

Well, I don't want to make this story too long, but here's what I would say. I was a lifelong Republican, but a moderate Republican. I was in the Jeb Bush, Nelson Rockefeller quadrant of the Republican party, sort of agnostic on issues like gay marriage and women's right to choose. Certainly think that they should be able to live their lives the way they see fit, but was more free-market based, but recognize that you need an energetic government. I'm not a hardcore conservative, but I was more center-right, if you will. Mr. Trump slayed all of those people.

I was with Jeb Bush [then Trump] recruited me into the campaign, and this is a shortcoming of mine which I'm open to admit: I got intoxicated by the idea of working on a winning campaign. Mr. Trump was a celebrity. I started normalizing him like many people did and said, "OK, well, he can't be that abnormal. He's running for president. He's going to sit in Abraham Lincoln's seat, he's the successor of Dwight Eisenhower." You start to normalize somebody that is actually very abnormal, and that is a mistake I made, but I did make it alongside of 63 million other people. And then what happens is he wins, which I didn't think was going to happen. And we should talk about that because the election's coming up in a few weeks. But he wins, and then he asked me to go work for him. And then I make the fatal mistake there. And that's due to the intoxication related to working in the office of the presidency and the notion I'd be working in the White House.

I grew up in this blue-collar family and I've lived a pretty good element of the American dream. And so I started this narrative in my head, and I think I've said this to you, that is very ego-based. You got to be very careful when you're making egocentric decisions based on your ego and pride. Your emotions go up and your intelligence goes down, and you got to be very, very careful. And my wife, who probably hates Trump almost as much as Melania hates him, was dead set against it. We started fighting, almost got ourselves divorced. It was a really rough period of time. But I went to go work for him. Then when I got fired abruptly, I always tell people that was my fault. I said something to a reporter I shouldn't have said that caused me to get fired.

Now I'm outside of the White House, lifelong Republican, let me do my best to try to be supportive of the President and his agenda. And then it just became impossible, so I had to separate myself related to the child separation issue. I had to break from him on denigrating our intelligence agencies, and he's praising Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He's then saying that the press is the enemy to people. I wrote an op-ed saying that it wasn't. That's actually the last time I talked to Mr. Trump — that was Easter Sunday, April 2019, he called to yell at me and tell me I didn't know what I was talking about and that the press is the enemy of the people, sort of demagogic nonsense.

But then by July, he wants to throw the Congresswomen [four members of Congress known as The Squad], he says he wants them to go back to the countries that they originally came from. And so that is a racist nativist trope. They said it to my Italian-American grandparents. I said, "I am done. There's no way I can support this guy." I disavowed my support, I wrote that article. I wrote many articles subsequent to that. And I'm out there trying to educate as many people as possible at the systemic danger that Mr. Trump represents to our democracy.

So it's a sad thing for me. It's not like I'm all happy about it. I mean, it's sad to listen to the President of the United States ask for the Governor of Michigan, who 10 days ago her life was threatened, they were trying to kidnap her, a white militia group, and possibly execute her. They had to have that broken up by the FBI. And then 10 short days later, the leader of the free world is in her state saying "lock her up." I mean, it's sort of bizarre.

And then, Anthony Fauci, who's been in the American government for 36 years, has dedicated his life to science and healing, he has to now go on his power walks at age 79 with armed federal agents because of death threats related to him because he's just really just trying to tell people the facts about the pandemic and his observation of 6,000 years of scientific discovery on Planet Earth, and what we need to do to protect ourselves. But now he's being threatened as well.

And so there's an evil in our world, you and I both know that. It's important for good men and women to reject evil. We know from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that evil people can get ahead mostly based on the silence of good people and the inaction of good people. I feel compelled to speak out about it and I'm going to continue to do that. And by the way, if Mr. Trump is defeated, which I predict he will be in two weeks, you still have a problem in the country because there is a systemic issue related to a very large group of people that are angry and they feel left out of the system. Mr. Trump has preyed on their anger, trying to divide the country. We have to work with those people to see if we can calm things down and bring them back. So it's a sad situation, Dean.

You're still friends with John Kelly, who was chief of staff for President Trump and is a retired U.S. Marine Corps general. CNN reported last week that Kelly told his close friends the following about Trump."The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me. The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it's more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life." You're friends with John Kelly, can you share anything more about this comment?

I think he's made a decision — alongside of HR McMaster, who I interviewed on Friday for SALT Talks, and for General Mattis — I think they've all made the decision that they are going to stay consistent with what George Washington wanted for the military, and Eisenhower, and Marshall, was the separation of military men from the political system because they want to adhere to the civilian nature of the democracy. And they don't want to use their uniforms and their brass, if you will, to make any undue influence.

Having said that, they've all spoken out. They've all said that the President is unfit to serve. They've disagreed with the President's use of force in Lafayette Square. They have said that the President is a threat to the constitution. They have said that he is trying to divide the nation, he's not trying to unite the nation. Because of their roles in the military, as former military general officers, they don't feel that they should be out on a platform or a podium. But having said that, I'm friends with all three of them, including Admiral [William H.] McRaven who has spoken out a little bit more voraciously than them. They've all said to me, "Hey, this is your civilian duty to get out there and speak truth to power related to this." So Olivia Troy, Miles Taylor, myself. I guess what should upset the American people is that there's a very large group of people inside the administration that know how dangerous President Trump is. There's also senators that know how dangerous he is. John Cornyn is now saying, "Well, I broke from him privately." So what's going to happen is this ship is sinking, all the rats are going to climb over to one side and say, well, yeah, we didn't really like him that much.

It speaks to the cowardice and the political expediency and the selfishness of people, because when Mr. Trump was flying high they wanted to be around him. And it was speaking to their power of personal preservation and so forth. I broke from President Trump, it turned out, at the height of his poll numbers. If you look back July of 2019 into August of 2019, he was at the height of his poll numbers, he was at the height of his popularity and approval rating. And many people said to me, "Well, that's a kamikaze mission, and you're going to be rejected soundly by your fellow Republicans." But it's not a kamikaze mission today. It's a mission loaded with aircraft carriers and squadrons.

General Kelly knows this man is unfit. He knows this man is dishonest. General Kelly knows that he called his son who died for our country a sucker and a loser. General Kelly would tell you if he would come on your show that that's the tip of the iceberg of the way Mr. Trump talks about our servicemen and women. He's just, unfortunately, an unfit guy. He's an unwell guy. Something's wrong with him mentally. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to see that there's something wrong with him. The guy is very sick. He's an unwell person.

I'm going to work over the next 16 days to get rid of him. But then over the next several years, we have another project, we have to heal the country. We have to figure out why the country got to where it is right now. And God forbid, look, there's a chance he could win. If he wins, we're going to be heading into an American winter, Dean. And it's going to be a sad four years for America. This guy's going to try to really disrupt and destroy the institutions of our democracy.

Healing is so appealing to me down the road, but winning right now is everything because it has to be. Right now we've got 11 million Americans who have still lost their jobs. You're a finance guy. Last week, we get our weekly unemployment claims. We had almost 900,000, the highest since mid-August. We're going the wrong way on unemployment claims. Trump is not talking about any job creation program whatsoever. From your point of view, forget politics for a second. You look at our economy right now, is it getting sicker, and do we need some federal leadership to make things better for people?

We need two things, actually. We need a coordinated public health and safety policy where the federal government in coordination with the 50 states really follows a process. If you look at what's going on in China right now, they were successful in doing that. Their economy is growing and there are people sitting in Wuhan where the virus originated from without masks on, they're in restaurants. The virus has almost been completely eradicated from the area that it originated from. The virus can be contained, the virus can ultimately be destroyed, and we can move on from the pandemic like we did the Spanish flu and other pandemics throughout history.

You're not going to contain it by lying about the science. You have a science denier in the White House that's saying, "Don't vote for Joe Biden. He may listen to the scientists." Now, what the president is trying to say to his supporters is, "Well, if he listens to his scientists, he's going to shut down the economy and we're going to tip further into a recession." I don't believe that's the case. I think we can explain to people what they need to do to protect themselves. We can get the economy moving. We can offer up, hopefully, more stimulus. We certainly need it.

If you go back to my writings in early March, I was saying we have to go very, very big on this stimulus. We are at war and you have to look at it that way. And so therefore deficit spending needs to increase when you're at war. We can afford it. We have some flexibility in the economy. We're about to enter an amazing growth phase, technologically, for America and the rest of the world. This will unleash another great wave of prosperity.

Now, we have to figure out a way to even it out. That's been one of the dilemmas. We have too big of a wealth divide now. So you need public policy people that are less focused on left and right issues and more focused on what's right and wrong for America. And if we do that, we're going to enter into a golden age for America. Having said that, we got to get the virus behind us. You can't have somebody like Mr. Trump telling you, "Let's just let herd immunity go." We'll have four and a half, 5 million people dead. Why would we do that as a society? What is the case for "economic growth"? You won't have it, by the way, because what will happen is you will scare the living daylights out of every person in the country.

If you offered a coordinated, responsible plan that was national, you could fix this thing. And so, yeah, I'm worried about the economy, but I'm not overly worried about it. I think we've got tremendous resources in the country. We were at peak economic performance in the fourth quarter of 2019. We can get back there. It's not the end of the world. We have to rebuild these cities. All of these things are possible, but they're not going to be possible under a President Trump, they're not. And I'm not saying that Joe Biden is the panacea for our civilization, but at least he's a step towards re-fortifying the institutions of our democracy and the semblance of our government that has made all of us have this great peace and prosperity and this great opportunity in this country.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump said that if he loses he might leave the country. When you hear him say, "Maybe I'll have to leave the country," what does that indicate to you about Trump's thought process now?

Well, he said, "You may never hear from me again if I lose, and maybe I have to leave the country." I think those are both statements by him that should not be taken lightly. I mean, he's got serious problems. His business is under threat, he's got tremendous amounts of debt. There are people that think, though, that he's been paid by some foreign leaders and autocrats to move our foreign policy around, and that that stuff is hidden which will offer him some financial protection. I don't know if that's true or not any more than I... I shouldn't even be saying that because who the hell knows what's going on.

But I will say this. He is a guy that is unstable, and he's a guy that is unfit for the presidency of the United States. To just imagine that he's saying to people, "Well, I may not accept a peaceful transfer of power." After 244 years of the American experiment. And then he's saying he may have to leave the country. And it's never a joke with him. Michael Cohen has said that; I have said that. People that know him know he doesn't know how to joke. He doesn't laugh. He has almost like an Asperger's way about him where he can't pick up the emotional cues and know when to laugh and when not to laugh. He's very rarely joking, if ever.

Your friend Michael Cohen was on MSNBC recently talking about this whole idea of Hunter Biden and the laptop that Rudy has and Cohen said that Rudy is "drunk all the time," making him more easily swayed by Russian disinformation. Is Rudy being used by Russian disinformation forces?

Obviously, you may have read the New York Times article about the New York Post article about Hunter Biden, how the journalists didn't even want to be involved with it because they didn't have enough evidence and they felt the stuff was specious and illusory. Additionally, I choose to think about the mayor the way he was at 9/11 and the way he was from 1993 to 2001. The mayor today is not frankly the same guy that I recognize from 30 years ago and it breaks my heart. It also obviously has an impact on his children. And if you think about what his daughter is saying, "We've got to get rid of Mr. Trump." I mean, it's scary. What Michael is saying about Rudy is true, unfortunately.

At a recent rally, Donald Trump had the crowd cheering, "Lock him up" about Joe Biden. Crowds also cheered "Lock her up" about Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. He's gone back to [talking about] imprisoning his political opponents. Not just defeating them, but actually putting them in jail. In this case, there's not even evidence Joe Biden's done any wrongdoing whatsoever. How alarming is that to you? Is that just Trump being desperate?

There's a great book out, the title is "Active Measures" [by Thomas Rid] about what the Russians do in terms of disinformation. One of the things is lock up your political opponents. That's a clear message from them. Now, another one is this disinformation, and then it's always pedophilia, by the way. You always want to go with pedophilia. You're going to go with pedophilia because pedophilia is by and large repulsive to 99.5 percent of the population, or hopefully more than that. And so if you accuse somebody of pedophilia and you get people to believe that, it'll engender a lot of hate and create some negative activism. And so they've even tried that now.

I think the good news is that both Facebook and Twitter, which were easily manipulated by Russian intelligence, the GRU, and these troll farms last time, a lot of that stuff has been contained. But I just want you to imagine that the American president, instead of denouncing this sort of activity and denouncing foreign interference, is welcoming the foreign interference. And my liberal friends have a point when they say to me, "Well, you supported that last time." And I have to own that, unfortunately, because I did support it last time, unfortunately. I have to own that.

I admire your honestly there. The stakes are too high. When this is over, if Trump is defeated, do you think that you, Rick Wilson and other Republicans like yourselves might return to the Republican Party and try to reshape it? Or has the party become that of QAnon and Trumpism and wild conspiracy theories and white supremacy?

Yes, I think it'll cause the end of the Republican Party as we know it. And the party already is this aging white demographic. It's going to be a party that buys catheters and CPAP machines and MyPillows in between a Fox News commercial. I mean, it is a weird thing going on right now and the party needs a reset and the party needs a tent expansion and it needs to look like the wonderful, colorful mosaic of America. And it's not going to look like that in its current configuration. Could he pull it off again? Could he have this one last gasp of win, of an aging white America that wants this aging white demagogue to run America? That's possible.

I hope that's not the case, but all I can do right now is fight against it. I can get out there and speak about it. I can offer my opinions on social media. On Friday, I was 10 hours on the radio. I did radio in Michigan, Florida. I did radio in Pennsylvania, radio in Wisconsin. And some of it was tough on me. It was talk radio, conservative talk radio, where these guys have got their callers coming in and lighting me up, and I'm a traitor and I'm a two-faced guy and can't be trusted. I said, "No. I'm not a traitor. I'm just abiding and I'm loyal to the country and I'm loyal to democracy and loyal to the constitution. I'm not loyal to a person."

I would also caution people. You have to have symmetry in loyalty. I tell that to my children. You don't have unconditional asymmetrical loyalty. That's what got Michael Cohen in trouble. Once Trump realized that Mr. Cohen was out to please him any way, anyhow, he kept moving the goalposts on Michael. And so Michael said, "Okay, well, I'm not loyal if I don't pay this porn star. Or I'm not loyal if I don't pay this Playboy model. I'm not loyal if I don't do this. I'm not loyal if I don't do that." Which is why I think Michael named his book "Disloyal" because he's trying to point out that the person that's actually the most disloyal is Mr. Trump. He doesn't care about anybody but himself.

I agree.

When he's doing a news search, Dean, he's not searching USA. And he's definitely not searching you. He could care less about you. But he's searching Trump, that's it. And so hopefully we can defeat him. And by the way, I will point out when I'm on conservative radio, they want me off in a hurry. I did Steve Hilton's show last time I was on Fox News, Trump was going crazy lighting me up on Twitter because he doesn't want people like me breaking through the vessel of his reality distortion. So what are they going to say to me? How are they going to argue? "Oh, no, Trump is a conservative." "No, he's not. You got a $3 trillion deficit." "Oh, Trump is patriotic." "Tell me how so? He's destroyed the country. He's pitting the country against each other. The first name of the country is United. He's trying to dis-unify the country. So tell me what he's doing that is so patriotic?" By the way, when is bullying been a pro-American value? When has that been a pro-American value?

Let's assume for a second that Trump loses. Michael Cohen testified that he feared if Trump loses in 2020 "there will never be a peaceful transition of power." We don't have to speculate because Trump said maybe there won't be. You know the guy, you know what he's about. He loses, he loses soundly. Do you think he resigns? Do you think he leaves quietly, he does the right thing and shakes Joe Biden's hand on January 20th and escorts him out like Obama did and transfers power? How do you think it truly ends, knowing Trump?

I'm a little bit of a contrarian on this. It has to be a big enough margin. I think if it's a tight margin, I think Michael's going to be right, we're going to be in for a fight. But if it's a big enough margin, if it looks consistent to what the polls look like and what Nate Silver is suggesting, I'm a contrarian because I think Trump is a baby. I think he's a keyboard warrior coward. He's not a confrontational guy. He couldn't handle a confrontation if his life depended on it.

Anderson Cooper said to me, "Wow, you guys are like in a bar fight" last August. I'm like, "We're not at a bar fight." I mean, first of all, this guy's never been in a bar fight. And by the way, with somebody like Trump, I would have dragged him into the street. I would have never left him in the bar. I mean, in the bar, you got the risk of a bouncer intervening in what you need to do to the guy. So no, this guy has never been able to handle conflict like that. He's an over blustering, overcompensating, arguably one of the most insecure people I've ever met in my life. I think the humiliation will cause him to retreat. And I think he'll slink away. And I think he'll want to surprise people by offering some level of conciliation end of power.

Now, if I'm him, I'm trying to negotiate with Biden right now my pardon. I'm trying to figure out a way: "Hey, you're going to be the president. I need a pardon and it'll be better for the American people if I'm pardoned. And I need you to pardon my family as well." And I know people will hate me for saying this, but if you really study political history, you don't want that yoke on the American people. I just want to make this point. Edward Kennedy, he wrote it in his book in 2009, before he passed. He said that he was very upset with Gerry Ford when he pardoned Nixon. And then he reflected upon it. He was pardoned in September 1974. He was writing the book 35 years later. And he said that ultimately Gerry Ford was right. That it actually helped heal the country and allowed the country to move forward and it was a statesman's thing to do and he regrets his criticism of Gerry Ford. And so, I'm just telling my liberal friends to have that historical perspective, let's move on from Mr. Trump and move on from his criminality. We're bigger than him as a country and we need to figure out a way to unify now.

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