Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: The clues to Trump's presidency are already there from authoritarian regimes throughout history
From stifling of press to discrediting justices who object to extra-legal practices, Trump's record bodes ill, she says
In less than a week, America will embark on a new political experience: rule by an authoritarian President. Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. So, for every American who looks forward to the Trump era, there is likely another who fears he will lead us into ruin.
What can we expect from Donald Trump, based on his words and actions over the 19 months since he declared his candidacy?
Many Americans were initially confused by Trump and his unorthodox behavior, or dismissed him as a joke. I have spent decades studying authoritarian and fascist regimes and saw in Trump a deeply familiar figure: the strongman who cultivates a bond with followers based on loyalty to him as a person rather than to a party or set of principles.
Such individuals inevitably seek to adapt the political office they inhabit to serve their needs. They are clear from the start about this intention, refusing to submit to shared customs and norms – such as releasing tax returns – that would mean they were submitting to the will of the political class. Anyone who believes that Trump will morph into anything resembling a traditional politician will be sorely disappointed. Authoritarians never pivot.
Donald Trump's rise
He has been open and unconcerned about his most provocative character traits – his penchant for aggression and for serial untruths – from the start of his campaign. Two years ago, he boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters – and voters still rewarded him with the GOP nomination and the presidency. What incentive does he have to change now?
Trump has followed the authoritarian playbook in targeting the media. And once in power he’s very likely to step up his attempts at intimidation.
Strongmen show aggression to the press as part of a slow-drip strategy of discrediting all information that is not dispensed by their close allies. Many were surprised at Trump’s rude treatment of CNN at his recent press conference. Calling the media outlet “fake news,” he refused to allow reporter Jim Acosta to ask a question. This was classic authoritarian posturing.
The Inauguration: Donald Trump becomes president
Trump was delivering a lesson: anyone, no matter how powerful, can be humiliated and deprived of access if they displease him. No wonder Trump’s Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised him for putting Acosta “in his place.”
We can hope that Trump does not follow Erdogan’s criminalization of the media (thousands of Turkish journalists have been arrested). But recall the fencing-off of journalists at Trump’s campaign rallies and his incitement of the crowd to treat them in a hostile manner. This does not bode well. The media must push back strongly now or pay a heavy price later.
Strongmen also target the judiciary, since it stands in the way of their “reforms” that often veer into extra-legality. Those with a history of legal troubles can be particularly focused on this sector. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose conflicts of interest and legal involvements were so numerous that they have their own Wikipedia pages, spent enormous energy attacking the Italian judiciary.
Trump, too, has a complicated legal history – and has demonstrated a similarly vindictive character.
So look forward to Trump administration efforts to tar individual judges who seem to block the fulfillment of GOP agendas or interfere with Trump’s personal interests. Remember the President-elect’s campaign to discredit Judge Gonzalo Curiel due to his Mexican heritage? We can expect more such accusations of bias, and rhetoric about “draining the swamp” of our legal system as well.
One more thing: Authoritarians love to think they are making history, and never hesitate to rewrite the past to suit their political agendas. Trump’s use of racism as a campaign tool laid the foundations for what will be a concerted effort to delegitimize the history of civil rights struggles in our country.
Trump often levies tweet-attacks on those who criticize him, but his denigration of Representative John Lewis on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend sends a message that he intends to fulfill promises to his white voters to try and reverse the course of racial emancipation.
“Be courageous or be complicit,” Representative Cedric Richmond recently stated in his testimony against Senator Jeff Sessions. The Trump administration promises to test that wisdom.
Each of us can stand our ground in our own way, but the lessons that come to us from a century of authoritarian rule around the world – and the civil rights movement in America – meet up in one phrase: Do not lose hope. Do not hide away. Be visible and be heard, on the street and in phone calls to your elected officials.
Some of us have taken our freedoms for granted. We now have a reason to value them all the more. We also have a chance to decide what side of history we want to be on.
Trump may be aligning himself with the global forces of illiberalism and racism, but we don’t have to follow him down that path. It’s up to us to make sure our most precious national treasure – American democracy – stays protected.