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Story highlights

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Trump and Bannon intend to turn us against each other by striking system

Keep your feet on the ground and eyes on the prize: the defense of US democracy, she says

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.

(CNN) —  

We’re not even two weeks into the Trump presidency. Has your head exploded yet? If so, you’re right where Donald Trump and our shadow ruler, Steve Bannon, want you to be.

The onslaught of executive orders and threatening talk, while entirely in keeping with what Trump promised during the campaign, have left Americans of many political leanings feeling overwhelmed and fearful of what may come next.

The confusion and chaos generated at the bureaucratic and individual level by Trump’s most spectacular executive order – his ban of individuals from selected predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States – came in part from its sudden announcement. From enforcers to the public, many were thrown off guard.

Welcome to the shock event, designed precisely to jar the political system and civil society, causing a disorientation and disruption among the public and the political class that aids the leader in consolidating his power.

Those who still refuse to take Trump seriously cite his incompetence for the rough start in office. Yet this blitzkrieg was intentional. “Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact … Shock to the system. And he’s just getting started” his counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted Saturday.

As Conway implies, these first days of the Trump administration could be considered a prologue to a bigger drama, and one that reflects the thinking of Trump and Bannon alike. From their actions and pronouncements, we cannot exclude an intention to carry out a type of coup.

Many may raise their eyebrows at my use of this word, which brings to mind military juntas in faraway countries who use violence and the element of surprise to gain power. Our situation is different. Trump gained power legally but this week has provided many indications that his inner circle intends to shock or strike at the system, using the resulting spaces of chaos and flux to create a kind of government within the government: one beholden only to the chief executive.

“Strike at the enemy at a time and place or in a manner for which he is unprepared,” reads one US Air Force formulation of the old military doctrine of surprise. Trump has long been an advocate of this tactic and complained various times during the campaign that our armed forces were far too transparent about their planned operations.

Yet Bannon is the mastermind of this takeover strategy as it’s been adapted to the domestic realm. Well-versed in military tactics and the history of the radical left and right, Bannon has repeatedly talked about “destroying the state” in the name of securing power for “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment.”

Besieging your targets until nothing makes any sense – giving them no time to absorb or recover from attacks – is a time-tested strategy in the history of war and authoritarian takeovers. One might cite what’s gone on in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It’s now being employed at the pinnacle of American democracy. It’s particularly useful in situations where the leader is vulnerable due to possible investigations, blackmails or other circumstances that close off gradualist approaches to implementing an agenda. With all the emergencies going on, who is bothered at the moment about those Trump tax returns, or even his ties to Russia?

01:27 - Source: CNN
What you need to know about Steve Bannon

This strategy requires a two-pronged approach. First, the creation of a small group of loyal insiders, who take orders directly from the leader’s inner circle and are tasked with creating chains of authority that bypass those of the existing federal government and party bureaucracies. I was disturbed, but not surprised, when Conway said two days after the inauguration that “it’s really time for (Trump) to put in his own security and intelligence community.”

Second is the unleashing of the political purges that authoritarians so love. Some purges are punitive (say the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates because she defied Trump’s immigration order) and some pre-emptive (the expulsion of senior State Department staff) but the effect is to cleanse the government of troublemakers and leave a power vacuum to be filled with loyalists – or not filled at all, for added disruption of the state bureaucracy.

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Trump campaigned on a platform of unifying the nation, but by striking at the state he and Bannon intend to turn us against each other.

Their blitzkrieg not only throws us off balance but forces us to take sides. Do I work for Trump or leave the government? Do I issue a statement that my company disapproves of the travel ban? What will my shareholders and stakeholders think? It’s no accident that the World War II language of resistance and collaboration has come back into circulation – these are the situations authoritarians create to divide us, making it easier for them to restrict our freedoms.

Trump and Bannon are in this for the long run. Trump has already filed paperwork for a 2020 candidacy. Our focus, in the middle of this storm, is to keep our feet on the ground and our eyes on the prize: the defense of American democracy.