Our Bandy X. Lee Talks with Noted Fascism Expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat
I have often dubbed “fascism” mental pathology in politics, and as a fascism scholar and author of the new book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Prof. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is as psychologically-minded as historians come. The way mental health professionals have brought the context of our experience with patients to understanding the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump, she has brought the context of historical figures. I interviewed her at our recent town hall.
Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University; a frequent commentator on CNN; an expert on fascism, authoritarian leaders, propaganda, and threats to democracy around the world. She is also a World Mental Health Coalition Board member who has helped guide members in applying our mental health knowledge to the political domain as well as within the currents of history, to achieve our mission of bettering societal mental health.
Lee: Your work and ideas have always impressed me for their psychological sensitivity, and here again you get straight to what many historians or political scientists miss, which are the commonalities, patterns, and personality consistencies across different leaders. How have you come to such psychological awareness in your work?
Ben-Ghiat: I grew up in Pacific Palisades, Calif., which is an idyllic seaside town. It might seem a strange place to start thinking about fascism and pathologies, but it was a place where many anti-Nazis, Thomas Mann and others, came to settle. So I was always aware of this pain of exile, and perhaps being a child of immigrants and the closest family member an eleven-hour plane ride away, perhaps I was interested in what kinds of regimes force people to flee their country. So I started investigating individuals, Otto Klemperer or Schoenberg, who had had to resettle. Then my first book out of my dissertation was on Italian fascist culture, but it was really a study in intellectual and cultural collaboration, how did the regime pressure people, intimidate people to work with them.
There have been studies showing that many Americans … would like to have the big, strong, statuesque male figure to tell them what to do.
You were among the first to predict that Donald Trump would rule as an authoritarian once he gained power. What were some early red flags for you, and what do his traits say about how dangerous he will likely be in these last 60 days of his presidency? In other words, how does he resemble or differ from authoritarian cult leaders?
In terms of the first question, I was already writing for CNN on war, and so I had that platform—and my second book was just published in 2015, a study of fascist film propaganda. From a slightly different angle, I was thinking about how people are led to believe a fictional reality and the destruction that it causes. So I turned this global lens onto my own country, and when I did that, coupled with my training in fascism, the figure of Donald Trump was very clear to me.
His demonizing the press was a big sign. Because Trump and Berlusconi and Putin have secrets and they are criminals, they have to start demonizing the press very early so that when secrets come out, his followers would already think of the press as partisan hacks. And then the final component was the violence. In the 21st century, we have fewer people with squadrons like the fascists a hundred years ago, and more people like Duterte in the Philippines who says he warned Filipinos not to vote for him, because if he won he said it would be bloody. So here is Donald Trump who comes in and in January 2016 says, “I could shoot someone and not lose any followers.” This is very unusual in a context of democracy.
Donald Trump, as he loses power, is about to head toward serious financial and legal problems once he leaves the presidency. What has attracted his followers, despite his pathology, criminality, and incompetence? Astonishingly, he received more votes in 2020 than in 2016. How do we explain the many Americans who continue to follow him and parrot him?
There have been studies showing that many Americans are more authoritarian in their leanings, and they would like to have the big, strong, statuesque male figure to tell them what to do, but that is not the whole story. I have many case studies. It was very illuminating to look back over a hundred years of this and see the patterns. When he acted in this rule-breaking way, because he started inciting violence or because he posed as the truth-teller who was not believed and ostracized by the mainstream media, and only he could tell the truth. So this kind of personality who has a victim cult, who is kept down by the forces that be, who is attractive because he breaks the rules, this over and over has appealed to people. Sadly, this is how they come on the scene, and they end up kind of energizing and legitimizing existing anti-democratic and extremist tendencies. They coalesce and channel all these malcontents and extremists and people who felt the system was broken.
As you have well pointed out, dangerous leaders must maintain themselves in office at all cost. He is currently plunging the nation into tragedy and chaos because of his refusal to concede or to share intelligence and vaccination plans with the incoming administration. What might be our recourse, if any?
I had to turn my book in in the summer and had to write it for either outcome of the election, but his psychology lines up 100% with the other rulers—everyone. The outcome is very different, of course. He is not in a military junta, he is not in a fascist, one-party state. Authoritarianism works differently today, but all of the style of governance they set up makes it more difficult for them to conceptualize leaving. For example, they all create what I call inner sanctums, where you have flatterers and sycophants and family members. They shield the leader from hearing things they just do not want to hear, and then you also have this chaos because he is always trying to find more and more flatterers. Right now, there have been a lot of hiring and firing and moving people right now because he is upping the loyalty quotient, because stealing the election is the biggest game of all. This is also part of the destruction—like Gaddafi would never surrender, so he was willing to drag his country into a civil war. Pinochet in Chile had over a year before he had to leave office, and he spent that year doing as many destructive things as possible to sabotage the new democracy, from stacking the Supreme Court to passing edicts that protected his people and made it harder to find out to prosecute their crimes. So one way or the other, they are always highly destructive to the last and vindictive.
When criminals get into power … the culture is going to reflect that, and people feel legitimated to threaten and intimidate.
I remember your sharing with me how you were strictly an academic before, and you felt a special civic duty to write and speak publicly since this administration. What in particular called you, and what has the experience been like?
It is just something I felt I had to do. I was in a very privileged position. I am tenured and a full professor. Because plenty of people do not like what you write, and they try and get you fired, they write to your provost, they write to your chair. I think everyone has to do something, but this was what I could do, and I had all this training and a platform with CNN. I would hear from people who had themselves fled dictatorships to come and settle in America, and they said, “I am so glad you are writing, because no one else is getting this.” So this feedback from the public really spurred me on and told me that it was helping people. You get a lot of hate mail, you get threats, and I had to move my office to a more secure location in 2017. For a little while I had a guard, but it is just part of living through a culture where the model, the tone is being set by a brutal criminal. When criminals get into power and have been associated with organized crime, the culture is going to reflect that, and people feel legitimated to threaten and intimidate. But I have also been exposed to a whole community of people working to protect our democracy, and that has been absolutely wonderful.