Trump, GOP Embrace Authoritarianism, an Ongoing Threat to U.S. Democracy

Interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history at New York University, conducted by Scott Harris

Update: Eighteen Republican state attorneys general and President Trump have joined Texas’ lawsuit to throw out the election results of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, arguing that coronavirus-related changes to election rules in each state violate the federal Constitution and make election fraud more likely a threat to other states. However, most states, (including Texas) made such changes this campaign season. One hundred twenty-six House Republicans have also signed onto a brief challenging the 4 states’ election results. The states targeted by the Texas lawsuit have responded in blistering briefs at the Supreme Court on Thursday, with Pennsylvania officials calling the effort a “seditious abuse of the judicial process.” The Supreme Court on Friday rejected the filing. But Trump tweeted Saturday morning: “WE HAVE JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT.”

More than one month after President Trump lost the Nov. 3 presidential election to former Vice President Joe Biden, he refuses to concede defeat, and persists in attempts to overturn the will of the voters. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani — along with Trump-allied attorneys — have lost 42 lawsuits that attempted, with no evidence, to disqualify hundreds of thousands of ballots cast mostly by black voters in battleground states. Trump has unsuccessfully attempted to pressure governors and state legislators to overturn election results to give himself an illicit Electoral College victory.

Trump’s attempt to unconstitutionally reverse the outcome of a democratic election has permeated the Republican party as a whole. A Washington Post survey found that only 27 of 249 Republican congressional officeholders have accepted Joe Biden’s victory and according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, more than half of Republican voters claim Donald Trump won the presidential election, but believe it was taken from him due to Democratic party voter fraud. Death threats against elections officials who fail to overturn election results for Trump have become common.

Although Dec. 8 was the “safe harbor” deadline for states to certify their Electoral College winner, compelling Congress to accept those results, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Trump loyalist, is suing four battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block those states from voting in the Electoral College. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history at New York University, and author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Here, she explains why she believes Trump and the Republican party’s embrace of authoritarianism poses an ongoing threat to U.S. democracy.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: We have a crisis. We’re in a kind of state of exception. That’s how I see it. The minute that the election was called, even by Fox News for Biden and not just Trump, the GOP didn’t accept it. Even world leaders not known for being liberals like Erdogan in Turkey, called Biden ages ago to congratulate him, but our own GOP won’t acknowledge that Trump has lost. This is a very exceptional state of affairs. So I would caution anyone not to take it seriously because he’s lying. The lesson of these people who I study is that they are very tenacious about their efforts to stay in power.

SCOTT HARRIS: How would you describe what we’ve seen unfold in the week since the Nov. 3rd election, where Trump and his Republican allies and lawyers, including Rudolph Giuliani, have attempted to overturn election results by invalidating hundreds of thousands of ballots cast, mostly by black voters in some big cities in the key battleground states. Would you characterize this as a coup?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: You know, at the broadest level, what he’s doing does qualify as what would be called a self coup. And a third of my book is about coups, like the age of military coups of (Libya’s) Gaddafy and Pinochet in Chile. So I spent a lot of time learning about coups. And so this is when somebody who is already in power tries to stay there. And certainly, he’s trying every which way, some of the things he’s doing build on, you know, voter suppression, which is a historic GOP practice. And, you know, then he’s been trying to relitigate the election, which is typical of what he does. He’s always done this. This is his way of business far before he became president. He would hire accountants and lawyers to try and relitigate and find loopholes and turn back tax results and things he didn’t like.

So that’s not working too well for him. He’s got a very bad record, over 38, I think at this point, you know, judges have refused his game. But also very scary is that he did explore a military option. This was shut down by Gen. Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who, you know, out of the blue — and obviously he did this because he was worried. He made a declaration saying in the last week saying, you know, the armed forces will obey the Constitution and not an individual. So that kind of using the regular armed forces was shut down. But the fact that Milley had to do this because obviously there were attempts being made is very frightening. So this is a man who’s trying everything: he’s trying legal means. He’s trying military means, and now he’s getting more desperate and intervening in Pennsylvania trying to get them to replace, you know, their electors and he’s not giving up anytime soon.

SCOTT HARRIS: The Republican party throughout Donald Trump’s tenure in office has pretty much fully embraced Donald Trump’s agenda, have remained silent about his corruption and opposition to constitutional norms. And in this latest episode where Donald Trump has challenged the election results and tried to overturn the people’s will by and large, the Republicans have gone along. There was a recent Washington Post survey that said only 27 Republican elected officials in Washington out of 249 have acknowledged that Joe Biden won the Nov. 3 election. That’s quite shocking here a month down the road.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. And we can never forget or minimize, or as much as we might like to — ’cause it’s actually so upsetting that we are in this very bizarre situation. One of the reasons I wrote this book, “Strong Men” was — I’m not an American historian. I’ve always done European, studied fascism and global history of empire — and so when I look at the relationship of Trump and the Republican party, it matches exactly the kind of leader-follower relationship and total loyalty requirements of these other situations in Hungary or in Russia and all the places that have a liberal government.

But what’s really extraordinary is that sometimes in history, the rulers were the ones who founded their parties. So of course they’re going to have total control. Mussolini, and Silvio Berlusconi is an excellent example because he never destroyed democracy, but he really bent it to serve his personal situation, including corruption charges. But he founded Forza Italia. But Trump, he came from outside and in the space of shockingly with the space of time — considering how old and grand the Republican party is — he’s just wrapped it around his finger.

And, you know, to the point where, when he was acquitted from impeachment by the Senate, Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator, went around and asked his Republican colleagues why they acquitted Trump. And they also, they were afraid. They told him off the record that they felt they were worried about intimidation or being ruined by Trump. So when we get to this kind of situation, this isn’t a democratic with a small D situation. This is an authoritarian situation.

For more information, visit Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s website at

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