Fascism expert: Strongman Trump radicalized his supporters -- turning this back will be very hard
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Calls are also growing for Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to be expelled or to resign for supporting Trump's effort to overturn the election and fanning the flames ahead of last week's insurrection, and authorities are warning about more right-wing violence ahead of Inauguration Day on January 20. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian whose work focuses on fascism, authoritarian leaders and propaganda, says the storming of the Capitol was "a logical result" of Trump's legitimization and encouragement of right-wing extremism since 2016. "The threat to democracy is not outside our institutions only. It's coming from inside," Ben-Ghiat says.

This interview first appeared on January 11, 2021



This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is threatening to quickly impeach President Trump if Vice President Mike Pence does not support invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. During an interview on 60 Minutes, Pelosi said Trump should be prosecuted for his role inciting last week's violent insurrection at the Capitol that left five people dead, including a Capitol Hill police officer.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: Well, sadly, the person who's running the executive branch is a deranged, unhinged, dangerous president of the United States, and only a number of days until we can be protected from him. But he has done something so serious that there should be prosecution against him.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, House Speaker Pelosi spoke to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, about ways to prevent Trump from launching nuclear weapons in the closing days of his presidency.

This comes as Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have become the first Republican senators to call for Trump to resign. Murkowski has also suggested she may leave the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, calls are growing for Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to be expelled or to resign for supporting Trump's effort to overturn the election and fanning the flames ahead of last week's insurrection.

Authorities are warning about more right-wing violence ahead of Inauguration Day on January 20.

Over the weekend, federal investigators arrested a number of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, including two men who were photographed wearing tactical gear, holding plastic zip tie handcuffs — a sign that the domestic terrorists may have been intending to take lawmakers hostage.

Federal agents have also arrested a Georgia man named Cleveland Meredith for sending a text message threatening to kill Nancy Pelosi on live TV. At the time of his arrest, Meredith had a Glock handgun, a pistol, an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

On Sunday, CNN aired shocking video of Trump supporters grabbing a D.C. Metro police officer, pulling him down the Capitol steps, where he was beaten with American flagpoles. Investigations have also been launched into the role of active-duty soldiers and police officers in Wednesday's riots.

Even the president of the United States could face criminal charges for inciting the insurrection. Last week, the top prosecutor in Washington, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin, refused to rule out charging the president.

President Trump made no public remarks over the weekend after being permanently banned on Twitter. On Friday, he announced he would not attend Biden's inauguration.

To talk more about the insurrection at the Capitol and the Trump presidency, we're joined by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She's a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, author of the new book, Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. Her new piece for CNN is headlined "Trump's end game? Power at all costs."

Professor Ben-Ghiat, if you can start off by responding to what happened last week, this violent insurrection? Still, the Department of Homeland Security, the president himself, the FBI, the attorney general, none have made comment, even though five people died, another police officer took his own life, and we know the violence that now is becoming increasingly vivid as video after video is released.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: So, the events of January 6 are the product of two long-term objectives that Trump has sought, successfully. One is, like all strongmen who arrive on the scene, they legitimize existing extremism and anti-democratic tendencies. They give validation to the worst criminal elements in society. And in fact, many strongmen, including Trump, either come to power with a criminal record or under investigation, so they are criminal elements themselves. So there's that. The other thing they do is — and Trump did this with the GOP — is they glamorize and legitimize lawlessness. So lawmakers become lawbreakers. And this has happened.

And what is particularly disturbing — and I think we'll have more of this — there's an AP investigation that has come out on, you know, who are these participants of the January 6 events. And though it's tempting to see them as — which is scary enough — as extremists and militia groups, white power, there were Republican donors. There were Republican officials. There were military. There were law enforcement. So this means the threat to democracy is not outside our institutions only. It's coming from inside.

And this is a logical result of a policy that Trump has followed very resolutely since he started signaling during his campaign to extremist groups, but also made that statement you played at the top of the show about shooting someone. What he was saying, in January 2016, is that he would be — he was above the law, and he was capable of violence, and he would get away with it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let's talk about his family's rally, that was held right before the marauders, the domestic terrorists, the insurrectionists — whatever you want to call them — right before they marched to the Capitol. By the way, Trump, saying he would be with them, of course, got in a car and safely watched this from the White House.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But let's turn to the video obtained by CNBC of Trump and his family watching a live stream of the pro-Trump so-called Stop the Steal rally at the Capitol last week. This is Don Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.

DONALD TRUMP JR.: I think we're T-minus a couple of seconds here, guys. So, check it out. Tune in. I'm going to live-stream it. It's going to be — Mark Meadows, an actual fighter, one of the few, a real fighter. Thank you, Mark. Kimberly?
KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE: Yeah. Have the courage to do the right thing! Fight!

AMY GOODMAN: And this is President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, addressing the crowd at Wednesday's so-called Save America rally in Washington, D.C.

RUDY GIULIANI: Over the next 10 days, we get to see the machines that are crooked, the ballots that are fraudulent. And if we're wrong, we will be made fools of. But if we're right, a lot of them will go to jail. So, let's have trial by combat!

AMY GOODMAN: "Trial by combat." This is Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal attorney, who apparently will be hired by President Trump, along with Alan Dershowitz, to defend him if there is an impeachment trial. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, if you can talk about what this insurrection looks like in world history, you know, the revving on by not the people outside, but the people on the inside, the leader of a country who refuses to accept a democratic election?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah, this is classic. You know, it's really interesting because, in my book, it's the first book to put Trump in context of a hundred years of authoritarian history. And he's really using tactics from all three eras. He's got the fascist era, and of course I can't help but be reminded of the March on Rome, when Mussolini was, you know, trying to take over — trying to get into power, but used these Blackshirts. And he took a train, a first-class train, but all the Blackshirts were there in the streets intimidating the king into inviting him into becoming prime minister. And Mussolini is also important because he was a democratic prime minister for three years, eroding democracy from within. And then, when he thought he was going to lose power, he declared a dictatorship. But he had already had these Blackshirts who were threatening violence.

So, and then we have the age of military coups. And we know that Trump was investigating using the regular armed forces, before General Milley put a stop to that. And so he went with these extremists. But the other thing — which, as we see, are not only extremists, but people inside our institutions.

The other thing that he's left for the GOP is a roadmap on how to just nullify elections and treat your political opponent as a political enemy. And so, the GOP was already drifting toward being an authoritarian party when Trump came along. And he has legitimized lawlessness. And in a sense, the whole events leading up to, including the quotes you mentioned — you know, "trial by combat" — they distill this kind of macho lawlessness that's the essence of authoritarian rule and always has been. And it's our turn, as a country, to reckon with this.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a message posted on Twitter Sunday by the Terminator actor, the former Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which he compares last week's pro-Trump mob at the Capitol to Kristallnacht, when German Nazis launched a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: I grew up in Austria. I'm very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys. Wednesday was the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States. The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can give us the background for this? And then we're going to play more of Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently for the first time in public talking about the complicity of his father and neighbors in Austria at this time. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, give us the history of Kristallnacht and Austria and the Anschluss.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: So, Kristallnacht was so tragically important because there had already been legal persecution of Jews and plenty of imprisonments of Jews who were leftists and beatings in the street. There was plenty of violence in Germany. And then Hitler annexed Austria and had a plebiscite — Austria had a plebiscite. But Kristallnacht was the first large-scale, coordinated attack on Jewish sites, whether they were stores, they were synagogues. And it was — you know, the Nazis allowed the violence to happen, but actually instigated it.

So, this is — this technique of lighting the match and already not addressing violence and egging on violence, and then letting it roll, is a classic authoritarian maneuver. And, of course, part of the effect was to lead some Jews to get out and emigrate, which is partly what the Nazis wanted. They wanted to get rid of the Jews that way, as well as with violence.

And the reason that Arnold Schwarzenegger —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ben-Ghiat, I want to go back —

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — to Arnold Schwarzenegger now.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes, that's what I'm doing. So, Schwarzenegger is —

AMY GOODMAN: No, let me go — we're going to go back to play a little more of what he had to say.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: I was born in 1947, two years after the Second World War. Growing up, I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history. Not all of them were rabid anti-Semites or Nazis. Many just went along, step by step, down the road. They were the people next door. Now, I've never shared this so publicly, because it is a painful memory. But my father would come home drunk once or twice a week, and he would scream and hit us and scare my mother. I didn't hold him totally responsible, because our neighbor was doing the same thing to his family, and so was the next neighbor over. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes. They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies and in emotional pain from what they saw or did. It all started with lies, and lies, and lies, and intolerance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that's the former Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, if you can talk about what he's referring to, everyday Austrians? And then take it back to the United States, as increasingly people around this country are asking questions about the senators and congressmembers who have aided and abetted what Donald Trump was trying to do — delegitimize democratic elections — people like Cori Bush calling for the expulsion — the new congressmember from Missouri — of congressmembers who supported this. But start back in Austria with the Nazis.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. So, you know, what Arnold Schwarzenegger is referring to is that Hitler was supposed to be — and Hitler was the native child, having been born in Austria. He was supposed to be savior of Germany. And instead, he led it to defeat. I have quotes in my book about women in bomb shelters when Hitler abandoned his people and the Allies were bombing and the Soviets were invading, and she said, "Hitler promised us greatness, and he was really out to destroy us." So, there was this, you know, massive, massive tragedy and guilt that was experienced and caused violence, domestic violence. And this is this kind of terrible atmosphere post-Hitler, who killed himself, of course, because the — I have it in the conclusion to my book — the one constant with all these men is that they despise their people, and they blame their people when things go badly, and they leave them in the ditch. Their only loyalty is to themselves.

And the Republicans in America have seen this happening as Trump has turned on the people who enabled him at the beginning, like Jeff Sessions, who was the first person to bring him to a rally. And Trump said, "Oh, I'm being mainstream now." And then we know what happened to Jeff Sessions.

And so, Trump has had an enormous success, to a shocking degree, in domesticating and making as a personal tool the GOP, considering he didn't start his party, like Mussolini or — and Hitler was, you know, a head of the party very early on. Trump came in from the outside. And in only four years, through intimidation, bullying, buyouts — the usual autocratic methods — has completely wrapped the GOP around his finger. And this is how we get this complicity.

And so, those who had to wait for an armed assault with murderous intentions on the Capitol to do the right thing, like McConnell and Pence, I'm not so impressed. They were only reacting to their personal safety being jeopardized. So, any legacy reckoning with the Trump era has to actually focus on how successful he's been at getting people to be their worst selves.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Ben-Ghiat, you tweeted, "Historian of coups and right-wing authoritarians here. If there are not severe consequences for every lawmaker & Trump govt official who backed this, every member of the Capitol Police who collaborated with them, this 'strategy of disruption' will escalate in 2021." If you would elaborate further and end by talking about what is deeply concerning to so many people right now, that this was just a first attack?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: So, when Trump says this, "Our beautiful" — or, "Our journey is just beginning," I had already been very worried that this would be — that Trump and the GOP — Trump will act as an outside agitator when he leaves. And this would be a strategy of trying to delegitimize the Biden administration — they've already been trying to sabotage it with nonaction on coronavirus, economic misery — but to make America so ungovernable and so difficult to govern, so chaotic, so violent, under Biden and Harris, that it creates more desire for law and order, and in come the Trumps back again, or Trump proxies.

So, I'm very worried that this — there's already a, quote, "armed march" being planned for January 17th around the nation. And once you legitimize and give a presidential imprimatur to extremism, and once you convince — you plant people throughout federal agencies, you know, you radicalize law enforcement, as Bill Barr, who stepped away but has a huge amount of responsibility for this, it's very hard to turn this back.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, author of the book Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. We will link to her new piece at CNN titled "Trump's end game? Power at all costs."

Next up, we look at Big Tech's response to the Capitol insurrection. Twitter has permanently banned Donald Trump. Parler is offline. We'll host a debate.