And says this is the "most dangerous time."
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As Donald Trump rages on with vengeful firings by tweet, fizzling court battles and useless recounts two weeks after a presidential election he clearly lost to Joe Biden, we see our democracy under attack in brutal ways.
Trump and his enablers in the GOP are sowing doubt about our election system. And they’re denying President-elect Joe Biden the ability to obtain funds and access for his transition during the most deadly pandemic in over 100 years. It’s a time when we have to be alert to what Trump might do as he becomes more desperate, clinging to power while lashing out.
So I turned to an expert on authoritarians to get more insight.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat has studied authoritarians the world over, looking back over the past 100 years — from Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and yes, the U.S.’s own Donald Trump.
In her new book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, she discusses the different motivations and outcomes of various authoritarians, but, more interestingly, the similarities between them, from overt displays of virility to the vicious use of propaganda.
“I’ve never thought that Trump is governing according to a normal democratic frame of reference,” Ben-Ghiat said in an interview on my SiriusXM show last week about her book, and in particular about Trump’s loss in the election. “He’s used this authoritarian playbook. His personality and his temperament check all the boxes of all the leaders that I’ve studied.”
In Trump’s case, she explained, “He’s been in office to build his personality cult and to stay in office as long as possible.”
Trump, like other authoritarians, sees a loss of power as “psychological annihilation," something for which he’s not prepared.
“They surround themselves not with professionals, with experts who can give them the best policy, give them critical feed back,” Ben-Ghiat explained. “They surround themselves with flatterers and sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. And this is counterproductive in the long run, and this is why most of them end up badly.”
For Trump that meant losing the election. But, like other authoritarians, the loss is unacceptable.
“They don’t go quietly,” Ben-Ghiat said. “They’re not capable of foreseeing a future without them having this kind hold over people. So this is the most dangerous time, when they feel that their power is threatened.”