In This Episode
President Joe Biden finally defined the MAGA movement for what it is, a form of “semi fascism”, and in turn ignited a debate about whether he was unwise, technically incorrect, or plain old offensive. The “F word” is complicated – it’s bandied about and stretched beyond meaning in some circles while others refrain from it to avoid seeming hysterical. Yet these elaborate rules and rubrics to distinguish what is fascist get in the way of clearly identifying the threats to our democracy. Historian and writer of the Lucid newsletter Ruth Ben-Ghiat joins to talk about this crescendo in the fascism debate and what history has taught us about Trump’s brand of semi fascism.
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful, with me, your host, Brian Beutler. One of the strangest experiences I had in college stretched out over several weeks in, I think, my senior year when I was enrolled in a class called The Philosophy of Fascism. This was mostly an elective class for me. I was a student in the departments of Physics and Astrophysics, so I didn’t really need to take a big political science class on the intellectual roots and supposed ideological boundaries of Italian fascism. But this was just a couple of years after 9/11 at the apex of the with us or with the terrorists politics of the Bush presidency. It was Berkeley, California, where I think it’s fair to say the term fascism gets bandied about and stretched beyond meaning from time to time. And the class was understood to be something like a counterpoint to supposed progressive hysteria about the rise of fascism in America and elsewhere. The professor was an Italian fascism scholar and I think a sympathist named James Gregor. And people who had taken it in the past didn’t exactly recommend it, but they said it was a trip. So I tried it out and they were right. I ultimately dropped out of the class for a number of reasons, but my takeaway at the time now, now filtered through 20 years of blurring memory, was that Gregor had drawn up a bunch of elaborate rules and rubrics to distinguish his Italian fascism, not just from George W. Bush’s neoconservatism, but from all the failed despotisms of the 20th century. And as an impressionable as I was at the time, even after I dropped the class, I kind of thought, you know, that guy was really bizarre, but maybe he’s on to something. Maybe fascism really is this highly intellectualized system of government beyond the dictatorial power and militarism and irredentism and so on and so on. Anyhow, I mention all this because after a decade of almost never thinking about that class except to tell weird old stories about college, the whole premise became relevant again when Donald Trump took over the GOP. That question of whether Trump is a fascist or whether his movement is fascist, or whether the Republican Party, by co-opting the movement as fascist, has hung over politics for seven years now. But interestingly, it wasn’t fascism apologists or right wing elites who were at pains to distinguish Trump and MAGA from fascism. It was mostly liberals. Trump’s not a fascist, but dot, dot, dot has become like a mantra or oppose among a whole subset of liberals who seem to want to sound an alarm about this or that authoritarian thing Trump wanted to do but didn’t want to seem hysterical. If you’re part of liberal Twitter and you think Trump is a fascist or fascistic, you’re likely to get an earful from various public intellectuals and academics who think it’s very important we distinguish fascism from, say, Christian nationalism or other authoritarian systems. Basically doing Professor Gregor’s work for him. And a big question I have about all this is, why? It’s not that I think Gregor was wrong or these liberals are wrong, that the term fascism is over deployed and abused. But over time, this aggressive distinction drawing has come to seem to me less like a feather in the cap of liberalism and academia for not indulging in loose slander and more like a pose that different people adopt for different reasons to avoid clarity that over theorizing fascism is sort of the point that we’re insulating bad people, fascist people, from a true reckoning with their ambitions, with the special no true Scotsman style rule that makes it basically impossible to brand any authoritarian with the F-word unless they specifically say, I’m a fascist in the mold of Benito Mussolini. In all this agonizing navel gazing, Joe Biden, of all people, intervened to help us along. A couple of weeks ago, before his big speech on the MAGA movement in Philadelphia. He defined the MAGA movement as a form of, quote “semi fascism” and as you’d expect, given everything I just said, he got an earful from people both liberal and MAGA and everything in between, people who were at pains to explain why what he said was unwise or technically incorrect or offensive. But wise or not? He was definitely on to something and the term he used is definitely clearer than the many, many, many alternatives the team reasonable has put forth. So on the one hand, I’m grateful to Biden for bringing this long debate back down to earth. On the other hand, it’s just wild and alarming that a U.S. president, particularly one as chummy with conservatives as Biden, has felt compelled to warn the country that we’re basically one or two elections away from a fascist takeover. And if that’s where we are, and I think it is, then suddenly a bunch of questions we might have hope to avoid become especially salient. For instance, what does history say about how best to defeat fascism politically before it has a chance to swallow a democracy whole or foment war? Is clear language our friend here? Or are we actually safer using the fuzzier terminology that the American right prefers? Or that these liberals that I’ve discussed prefer? Last season during the first hundred days of Biden’s presidency, we spoke to Ruth Ben-Ghiat about the importance of Trump accountability. Ruth is a historian at New York University, a fascism scholar, though very different from Professor Gregor. She wrote a book called Strongmen about the commonalities between authoritarian leaders as opposed to the distinctions between them. And she writes a newsletter called Lucid. On threats to democracy around the world and the state of resistance to those threats. So it’s great to have her back to reassess the Trump accountability question and whether the crescendo of the fascism debate marks a turning point. Ruth, it’s great to see you again.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Happy to be here.
Brian Beutler: So one of the main things I took away from the conversation we had last year was a point you made about the importance of striking a balance between opposing Trump with normal ethical politics on the one hand and on the other, of establishing sort of material consequences for corruption and lawbreaking. In other words, that it wasn’t just enough to win elections against strongmen, but you have to make it clear to them and their imitators that they have a lot to lose if they try to claim power illegitimately. That was before the January 6th committee was impaneled and before the coup plotters became targets in a bunch of criminal investigations. At the same time, people are still walking free. So I’m curious how you think we’re doing on the accountability question more than a year after I first asked you?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, you know, the hearings have been extraordinary. And I always say and I really think this every day that how lucky we are to still have a democracy so we can have hearings like this, so we can have an FBI search on a former president’s residence who’s keeping classified documents for, I’m sure, nefarious purposes, because so many countries around the world, you would never have a January 6th hearings. So we’re doing it’s it’s a process that’s going on. And the message is that nobody is above the law. And it’s just that in a democracy, justice is very slow. And it’s particularly slow because of the cautious nature of Merrick Garland and, you know, a whole set of other factors. And and so there’s lots of time for people to to do. There’s lots of time for GOP, you know, representatives and people who want to join their ranks to soup up their extremism and be wanting their lack of respect for the law. So we’re in a kind of a race race of time, right? In that sense?
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah. I kind of wonder because, you know, the Merrick Garland studious cautiousness thing is such a an ongoing theme. And now, obviously, that the Justice Department is involved in a bunch of these investigations at a seemingly high level. So it’s not like he he like made a blanket rule against investigating Trump and Trump’s top lieutenants. But he he does seem to have been fastidious to the point of maybe blinding himself to what would somebody like Trump bring to bear to make his work harder? Right. Like this judge in Florida who Trump went and shopped for, who issued this crazy ruling saying it’s the Justice Department has to stop criminally investigating Trump, a judge he appointed. I mean, I don’t I don’t know what internal deliberations of the Justice Department are like. But if you’re going to be slow and cautious in order to make sure that every I and every T is dotted, I think you also should be thinking, what are they going to do to exploit my slowness and my caution? And I don’t I don’t know if they ever thought, well, he’s just going to find a judge. He’s going to tell us that we have to stop. And if they did think that, then doesn’t that increase the imperative to speed things up a bit?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, because what we’re what what we’ve learned, you know, since we last spoke, we are some of us already knew this. Is that the whole question of whether Trump should be prosecuted? I wrote an essay on that for my Lucid newsletter, and it’s absolutely crucial that he be prosecuted. And I do want to say what an unusual situation we are in in America, because other examples of failed self-coups, because January 6th was it was many things, but it was also a self-coup. Somebody in power trying to stay there in Indonesia and Guatemala and other places. When the self-coup fails, the leader is, had to go into exile. So there isn’t really an example of a somebody who perpetrated a coup who’s not only still hanging around, but is thinking of running for president again and has his cult intact. Both support from the GOP and his base. So we’re in a kind of, you know, uncharted water in that sense.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. You mentioned that there’s no precedent for, you know, in other countries, the standard is usually exile. Here we’re seeing he wants to run for president again. Is there any example in a in a in a democracy or a country with strong norms around the rule of law, of just a regular judicial process being. That brought to bear against somebody who tried to obtain or seize or remain in power illegitimately. Short of I mean, we don’t have exile. [laugh]
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah. No, I mean—
Brian Beutler: It’s not one of tools. [laugh]
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: —their are plenty of heads of, former heads of state who have been criminally prosecuted and some have gone to jail. Two former French presidents, a leader of South Korea, a former prime minister of Israel, these are all democracies or—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: —you know, variations of democracy. So and these are for all for corruption. And Berlusconi in Italy, the case I write about a lot in my book, he this is very important precedent because he had a personality cult and controlled the media which is even more than than Trump’s because he owned networks and he was highly corrupt. He had dozens of corruption trials and he was like Teflon. Nothing would stick to him. And he was became so extreme that his party actually fused for its Italia. His party fused with a neo fascist party toward the end of his last term. So that tells you a lot. And they were doing great replacement theory, the whole the whole template that we’re hearing today. And he finally he was forced to resign because of the eurozone crisis. So Angela Merkel and others forced him to resign. And then two years later, he finally got convicted and he was banned for office, banned from politics. He was banned from running for office for five years. And that’s what finally deflated his personality cult, the fact that he he still controlled his party and his party did really well, actually, it almost won again right after his conviction because he was talking about a witch hunt. But the fact that he had to be away for five years, it’s a long time from politics was the death knell for his party as a major party and for him. So that’s prosecution sends a message that you are not above the law, that it’s just it’s it builds trust back in institutions. It just does a myriad of things that are part of democracy protection.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, the the question with Trump is like there’s there’s the crimes that he committed that are more recognizable as public corruption. And then there’s the the coup attempt. And I mean, I personally would like to see him prosecuted for every crime he committed. You know, they have evidence that they have sufficient evidence to bring to bring charges against him for. But if you distinguish him that way, it almost seems like there’s the question of, you know, does he deserve to be prosecuted for obstruction of justice or for stealing classified documents? And separately, there’s this question of should the provisions of the Constitution that allow it forbid him from ever having holding office again and because he still has control of the Republican Party, Congress seems to have basically said that’s off the table. We’re not going to make sure that this person never holds federal office again, even though that’s within our power. And so that leaves you prosecution as basically the only remedy available for what is ultimately a crime against the Constitution.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Right. Yeah. I’m not I’m not a constitutional expert or a legal expert, but. Yes. And it’s just he’s a uniquely dangerous individual and he’s lawless in so many ways, you know, sexual assaults, money laundering, associations with mafia, multiple mafia, just so many realms of criminality in this one person that. And also so like the fascists so very skilled as a propagandist, he really is one of the most skilled propagandists of certainly of the early 21st century. And the big lie was, it’s a genius thing. It didn’t actually work for him. He had to leave in the end. But the reason it’s been kind of institutionalized in the GOP is that it has broad applicability. Anybody can now be a mini Trump and dispute an election, refuse to concede. And I really see that the big lie as a form of it’s not just propaganda, it’s a falsehood. And that’s its name, big lie. Okay, it’s propaganda, but it’s corruption. Everybody is conspiring and agreeing that they’re going to uphold this lie and actually make it into part of GOP political practice. And so if you want to get ahead in the party now, you have to espouse the big lie. And one of the most opportunistic and I’ve been writing a lot about him is Ron DeSantis. He he’s more ambitious and smarter than others. So he was very quick. You know, in November 2020, he proudly said Florida has no voter fraud. And yet less than a year later, he announced this office a very or well, very office of election crimes and security. And now he’s arrested 20 people, which is totally authoritarian. These were trumped up arrests to make his career look good. So Trump is he’s uniquely dangerous because in in in and of himself and because he has provided a model of lawlessness, a model of brutal masculinity, a model of scorn for the law. And so many of the things that the GOP has adopted.
Brian Beutler: It’s so funny to how systemically it has worked, because I think I think, you know, the main purpose it served for him at first, other than, you know, whatever salve he needed for his ego was to remain a viable contender for leader of the Republican Party. The the normal thing that happens when a president loses reelection after one term is that the party says, well, you know, you might be a perfectly fine person, but you lost and we can’t have you back because you’re you’re not likely to win again. His saying that the election was stolen from me served I think also to to say to to them I didn’t lose really you can’t say that I lost if you want to have cachet in the party anymore. And since we’re not going to have this conversation about how I actually lost, I remain sort of the de facto leader. The the the the the the the internal mechanism that would normally have made him sort of yesterday’s news in the party, he removed it.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah. And he was able to do that because again, he was there was no he was unlike any preceding president, Republican or Democrat, because he was an he’s an autocrat and he subjected the GOP to a kind of authoritarian party discipline where not only you had to make the opposition political enemies, but you couldn’t have any internal dissent. So that’s why, you know, these Republican congressmen who voted to impeach him in in the second time they had to buy body armor and they had death threats from inside the party. And that’s totally authoritarian. So he set this all up. So by the time, you know, he he he lost he had this kind of mafioso boss control and he could threaten them. He could, you know, he had this kind of private army of thugs. And then they turned out, you know, on January 6th, he has all these ways to pressure and leverage people, which he’s done his whole life. And he just imported all these things into politics. But you know that this makes him very much a fascist style leader to go back to our theme of fascism and it also the big lie stuff and and the party backing him up because the GOP politicians know perfectly well that he lost. But what the base, the people who may believe the propaganda, it was very smart because he managed to with the big lie his his devoted followers never had to reckon with the fact that he was a loser. He’s their idol and he is their God, in a way. And he and they’re told by evangelicals and Orthodox Jews that he’s they’re by the will of God, they worship him. And so the big lie allowed his aura of infallibility and omnipotence to be intact, because once that gets punctured, that’s where with the Berlusconi example, well, he you know, he was forced out of office and then he was convicted. Well, gee, he’s not as powerful as I thought. And so the allure and the glamor of this great, strong man, it it go. It recedes. So Trump allowed people to keep thinking of him as a winner.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And and that’s because of this fascist style bond that he worked really hard through social media and rallies to forge with his followers.
Brian Beutler: I like hearing that in a weird way, just because there’s been seven years of, you know, daydreaming about the day when he gets frog marched into, you know, custody or whatever. And obviously, I think from it’s like people have come to think of it as a fantasy and probably, you know, the Justice Department would just let him turn himself in or whatever. But it’d be great to actually see him rumpled and hauled out of bed at four in the morning and arrested that way because not just because it would be satisfying, but because it would do some of this work that you’re talking about. In puncturing the mystique and the aura around him as this guy who’s in control and, you know, he always has a spray tan on or whatever. So with all that said, where have you come down over the years on the Trump fascism question? Have you have your views on how to categorize him and the spectrum of strongmen changed between summer 2015 and today?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: In some ways, yes. So, you know, fascism was just along with early communism, a first stage of this larger kind of authoritarian tradition. And so in my book, you know, you go from fascism. I mostly did right wing authoritarian because that’s my expertize. And then you get to the Cold War and you have the military, you know, junta people. And then you have the people who come into elections today. And I made you know, I did a lot of research on all the continuity. So as you said in introducing me, such as the personality cults and these are tactics from fascism that remain. So definitely he he uses you know, there are many things about him that are fascist. But I felt that it didn’t capture the complexity of Trump as a 21st century figure. In fact, he’s constantly complimenting China’s criminal justice system. He wants to be like, you know, president. He wants to be like the head of state, Xi. And so he loves, you know, the leader of North Korea. These are communists. So he he’s really goes he goes beyond fascism to a kind of authoritarianism that encompasses right and left. It’s just about power, ultimately. So that’s one reason I didn’t use the fascist term, because I felt like, ironically, fascism wasn’t really enough to describe the full power hungry, you know, despotism that he wanted to have, because a lot of it was modeled on China. Honestly, he tried. You know, we know because of his ties with Putin about all of the help that Russia gave him to get elected. But he asked China for help, too. He doesn’t care about ideology. He just cares about power. So that was one reason. The other reason I didn’t use the term was messaging, really, because when we think of fascism, we just think of Nazis. And if people this is back when we’re talking 2016/17, if people didn’t see Nazis in the street, if they didn’t see a one party state, if they didn’t see all opposition media shut down people like me and you, we can’t be speaking. We’re not in prison. There would be a tendency to just think of us as alarmist and not take it seriously. Because. Because there’s not as much awareness of how things have changed that today. You don’t, you know, shut down elections as often. You leave a pocket of opposition media. So. So that’s what those are the reasons I didn’t use the term, but now I think that Biden’s semi fascist is perfect because it acknowledges all the things that he that Trump does and that are totally fascist. And yet the semi is because today again you don’t you don’t have a one party state except in communist regimes as often it works differently today. And so it’s not going to look exactly like fascism. And so that can be confusing to people.
Brian Beutler: I mean, even to me, I, you know, I recognized fascistic tendencies and Trump right away and then he was president. And obviously, on the one hand, he was unable to establish a dictatorship here in four years. He he tried. He was just unable to. On the other, he and his movement have proved there’s there’s no principle limiting how much violence and illiberalism they’ll they’ll use to restore political and cultural power to to their supporters. They have welcomed out and out fascists into the movement. And, you know, in a in a nonacademic sense, in like just, you know, as the as the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Europe, that seems like enough, right? If you if you’re willing to brook fascists.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Mm hmm.
Brian Beutler: Then isn’t it fair game to deployed the term against you? And I think that the intellectual the intellectualization of the debate makes it hard to to reckon with it in that sort of associational way. Does that make sense?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, it does. And the other thing that’s gone on, though, is since January 6th was it has some similarities to the March on Rome and people just don’t know enough about Italian fascism. Again, Hitler’s always the default.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And I’ve been writing a lot these last seven years. Maybe it’s my fault because I’m the expert on Italian fascism. I haven’t written enough. That’s why Strongman starts with Mussolini. He’s everywhere in the book. That was part of the education. But the January 6th like it. It caused an acceleration of the radicalization, of the extremism, of the fascist nature of the GOP. And so even if there were reservations about calling it full on fascist before January 6th, the situation is very different now. In fact, we’re living through this kind of historical time where the party is remaking itself to support a future autocracy before our eyes. I wrote an op ed in the L.A. Times on this that if it’s really in this period of like refashioning itself it in and so you can look to fascism and other experiences to see what it’s doing so that any moderates are being cast out. So Liz Cheney, most famously, we think, who’s coming in? Well, extremists are coming in. And so Mussolini had his it’s a little it was different, he had all this [?] violence before he came in. But they want lawless, violent people to be in the party. You have to have those people because those are your new values. So if you think about all the GOP candidates who posed with assault rifles, also sitting lawmakers posing with weapons, all the talk about, you know, glorifying violence, the toxic masculinity, all of this stuff is is if you look at it from the big picture, it’s like, what qualities does the GOP want in its leaders now? Well, it wants like fascist qualities. You bust people’s heads, you hate the opposition, you have no tolerance for others values. And the roster of enemies is exactly the same in many cases as the fascist enemies, the left and liberals and anybody who doesn’t get on board, gays, you know, nomadic peoples, immigrants, it’s it’s there’s a huge amount of overlap. So I’m looking at it that way. And so this acceleration of the you could call it the fascistization position of the GOP is why I’m also using that word now.
Brian Beutler: So you’re using it, you think using semi Biden’s term semi fascism is is about right the developments like January 6th where. The like. Fascistic images were on our TV screens, maybe primed the public to be more accepting of the term. But how important is deploying the term in and of itself just knowing and naming your enemy? Two historical example examples of resistance against fascism.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, fascism is a very strong word. It’s a very effective word. It’s a very emotionally effective word. It’s very satisfying for for people to use, you know, calling somebody a fascist. There isn’t really another word that like, again, I always use authoritarian. I’ve used it in like 600 interviews and I’m very pleased. It’s not just my efforts. Many people that now like in 2017, I remember the first time CNN had a chyron, you know, the captions at the bottom of the screen and it used authoritarian. And I was like, oh, my God, they’re using the word. And and people couldn’t pronounce it for a while. And now it’s like all over the place, right? So that’s that’s that. But there is something uniquely descriptive about fascist. And again, it, it, it can turn some people off. But I also think that the dangers have accelerated dangers to our democracy have accelerated. So that and hearing Biden, who is not a firebrand of a man, that’s legitimates the use of the term. Right. I mean, I was already starting to use it, you know, way before Biden said this. I use it of Tucker Carlson. I’ve called him on TV and MSNBC several times. He’s a fascist demagog. He truly is. There’s no doubt no semi so and indeed, the more we know, even about January 6th, the the the breadcrumbs we have, it’s it’s it’s an it was a coup, right? But the stuff that Trump Trump’s vision of it is totally fascist. In fact, when it came out that he was trying to get to get back to the Capitol and the Secret Service wouldn’t let him get there, I was like, yeah, of course he needs to be there because he’s the fascist leader and you’ve got to be he he intended to be there to pronounce the new Trumpian order. You know, there with his faithful. And Mike Pence, whatever was supposed to happen to him would have happened. And so that’s very fascist that the leader of course, the leader has to come and be there. And people were kind of shocked by this, but it makes total sense to me. That’s because I’m thinking I’m using the frame of fascism to interpret with what Trump does, and I always have. That’s how I started writing about Trump. I saw him at rallies, loyalty oaths, and I’ve never written on American politics. And I was like, uh oh, this is really familiar. And it all started from there. [music break]
Brian Beutler: Is there a historical basis for I don’t know what to call it, blowback, anxiety, this idea that, well, like, okay, we got a real problem with this opposition over here. It looks kind of like fascism, but if we call it that, we’re going to we’re going to lose people and other people are going to get offended and it’s going to be counterproductive to the goal of beating them if we call them by what we think they really are.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, this was what Biden was trying to navigate in his speech, his most recent speech, because it’s one thing to call Tucker Carlson a fascist or Paul Gosar or all these people or Trump himself. It’s another thing to label all Republican voters who might like Trump for many reasons. It’s to label them all. Fascists isn’t perhaps very productive, because if you’re trying to get them away, if you’re trying to pry them away. And that’s why Biden was very careful to say MAGA extremists are a part of the Republican, you know, universe. But there are many Republicans who are not like that. And I think that’s probably accurate because we know even from studying regimes, there are people who go along with things or they’re just brainwashed. And secretly those some of those people are looking for an offramp. They’re looking for an exit.
Brian Beutler: Okay. Yeah, I you know, I think that it was an effective speech. I think notwithstanding some sort of cheap seats, punditry about whether he painted with too broad of a brush or whatever else. I mean, he I think he was at pains. I mean, if anything, I kind of think he painted with too narrow brush. I mean, I guess I should say my intuitions on this are a little messy. You know, on the one hand, like right wing politics well before Trump were built on. Totally heedless slander of everyone to the left of the GOP. Everyone’s a socialist. Health care. Socialism, marginal tax increases are communism. And you know, maybe you can tease out some blowback to this kind of aggressive Republican rhetoric when you look at the internal polling or the results of an election. But I just think in general, they’re really cavalier with their rhetoric and they seem to do pretty well in elections, you know, all things considered. On the other hand, the non MAGA Republicans, non MAGA Republicans who he’s cut bipartisan deals with, he’s at pains to talk about how they aren’t part of this framework that he’s criticizing. They are kind of fascism tolerant, at least. Right. I mean, they’re retaining membership in this party organization that is welcomed extremists into the fold. And Biden’s, like, intentionally giving them a pass.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: And maybe that’s maybe that’s strategically wise, A, but it cuts against the criticism that he’s being reckless with his words and then separately. It raises the question of should he be a little bit, you know, drop the Semite. It’s fascism. And every member of the Republican Party seven years into the Trump era is complicit.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah. Oh, they’re all complicit. And when I’m talking about people who want an offramp, I was really referring to the electorate. Not. Not the politicians. Yeah, they’re all complicit. They are. Every day and everything they’re doing, they are choosing to prop up the Trump cult. And sadly, when you have these, they’re called authoritarian bargains. And it happens early on. Trump did it in 2015/16. You, this kind of outsiders or or, you know, extremists. They come into the political system, but they require conservative elites to let them in. And and sometimes, you know, Mussolini had founded his own party. It’s all the more remarkable what Trump managed to do. It’s truly astonishing that he came from outside. He you know, he as we know, he tried to be in politics. He thought about running for office for a long time. But the guy wasn’t in politics. He comes in and, you know, this giant storied party and he just takes it over. And they were ready to be taken over. So he does all of that. And and that’s how, you know, we started into this situation. But they these authoritarian bargains, once they are once the bonds are formed, they will put up with everything and anything that the leader does till the bitter end. And I keep thinking, for example, Mike Pence, he could actually really change things if he came out and spoke about the fact that he was supposed to be kidnaped or assassinated. Clearly, something was supposed to happen to him and I can’t get past that. Every single day I think about that, that the vice president was trying to rub out the vice president like a mafia boss. I mean, this is is an incredible. But Mike Pence’s silence really haunts me because if he spoke out, I don’t I don’t like him. He’s he’s terrible, right. He’s a terrible person. [laugh] But if he spoke out, you would see and he could actually take the moral ground on that one issue of preserving rule of law. Rightfully so. You would see a defection away from Trump, from other Republican lawmakers who are complicit but want that offramp. Somebody’s got to do it. And Pence has a unique qualification. Others, were, to have been targeted, but not like that. Not like that. He wouldn’t even get in the car.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: He wouldn’t get in the car. Like I mean, we’re not hearing very much about that and people can’t even process it. And if you ask a Trump supporter, if you say anything about that, to a Trump supporter, they think you’re insane. They can’t. It’s like a cognitive dissonance. They can’t imagine that that actually was supposed to happen. So I’m haunted by those things. So there but he’s not talking. And so they’re all totally complicit every day in every way.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Well and he—
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Sorry for my little rant about Pence but I, I will never get over this it’s.
Brian Beutler: We’re friendly to rants against Mike Pence here on Positively Dreadful. I mean you know he he seems like he maybe he’s maybe saving it up for the primary. I don’t know. Like if so. But you’re, you’re more likely, right, that he just decided he’s got to let bygones be bygones if he wants to have even like a sliver of a chance. But so Biden isn’t the first Democratic Party leader to be generous with Republicans who are complicit, but nevertheless normal in some ways in that they, you know, can work on legislation with Democrats or whatever else. And I found it frustrating the whole time, this willingness to be try to be to make just such kind distinctions when the when the party is, as you say, complicit fully. And I and I worry about the strategic value, the strategic what you sacrifice by doing that is being clear to the public that those guys, all of them, it doesn’t matter where you’re voting, there, there, the authoritarians, the fascists, whatever else. Don’t don’t try to think that there are some who are good and some who are bad. There’s an easier way to understand this. At the same time, Biden, I mean, I know that he had he had this lunch with historians. I think the the authors of How Democracies Die were among them—
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: No they weren’t.
Brian Beutler: And I know that one of one of their big ideas, oh, they weren’t okay.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: No, no, and they’re political scientists. So I wasn’t I wasn’t. Yeah. Anne Applebaum was the person from the Democracy Space who was there.
Brian Beutler: Got it. Well, in any case, I know that one of the big ideas in their book, big idea in all political science now, I think it’s been floated around at the White House. Is that an essential element of resistance to democratic backsliding is for the center right to break with the right and align itself with pro-democracy forces. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re in trouble. And I’m curious, A, if you think the way Biden has handled this is meant to sort of incentivize more center right peel off and separately overall how we’re doing on that front. You mentioned Liz Cheney is one example of a center right or a Republican who’s pro small democracy peeling off. But overall, are we closer to safe ground or in dangerous territory?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, the problem is that in all the examples in the How Democracies Die book are from multi-party systems. And the problem is this is where our bipartisan system which is supposed to be good for stability is a nightmare because those people who have those Republicans who may not secretly be extremists, they have nowhere to go, just as Liz Cheney has nowhere to go. She hasn’t exited the party. She hasn’t said I’m resigning from the Republican Party because there is no other place for her to go. And I know a number of former congressman who are there, just independents. They don’t they don’t have an alternate political identity because they’re not ready to become Democrats. And so this is the problem. It’s a structural problem that impedes because if people want to peel off, I guess they can just vote as independents. Sure. But they don’t they don’t have a home politically. And many people maybe that bothers them.
Brian Beutler: But it’s interesting because, you know, even though they don’t have another minor party in a multi-party coalition that they can join as a large statement, like a visible statement, a protest against the right wing faction that is going all in on illiberalism, authoritarianism, authoritarianism, fascism, whatever else. It’s not really lost on anyone that Liz Cheney got run out of the party and that a variety of other Republicans have also been run out of the party. Whether they’re still technically members or not, they’re persona non grata. Separately, the rising stars of the party, the people that Trump basically hand-selected, are famous across the country for being conspiracy theorists, sort of demagogic liars, the people that Biden was basically trying to stigmatize in his speech. And, you know, you could look at that one way and say, well, you still just have the Republican Party. And so you haven’t had a center right peel off like a fracture the way you would in a multi-party system. But you can also kind of see it happening internally. To that party’s that it’s the same big party across the country. But it’s it’s becoming just a haven for for the extremists. And they are kind of isolating themselves, even though they might still be capable of getting 75 million votes or whatever.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I don’t know if they’re isolating themselves because the people coming in to the party who are being promoted are ever more extremists. So example, you know, for a long time pre-dates Trump. There were state at the state and local level in particular, a lot of GOP representatives who were friendly with Oath Keepers and proud boys and other in militia groups. Well, now those people, now the extremists are the GOP. And they’re not just friends with the GOP, they are the GOP. So this guy in Arizona, he’s the state representative, Mark Finchem. He is a self-proclaimed Oath Keeper. He’s a member of the Oath Keeper. And he never hid it. But it was something like people voted for him despite the fact he was the Oath Keeper. Now they vote for him because because he’s an Oath Keeper and indeed his career has taken off. This is, again, the post January 6th radicalization. And guess what? He is now he is the chosen nominee for secretary of state of Arizona of the Republican Party because he’s an Oath Keeper. And there there’s just I could give you a million other examples. In Miami-Dade County, the now Proud Boys, members of the Proud Boys are in the Republican executive committee. So so it’s not just a fringe. It’s that the party is rearranging itself to to to populate itself with extremists. But the thinking forward, what could happen is I believe it’s going to get more and more extreme, both if if Trump starts to go down or they think they’re going to lose, they’re going to get more and more violent and extreme that who’s waiting in the wings? Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis is an extremely dangerous individual in a different way than Trump. He’s far too smart to to go around with an assault rifle in his hand. He’s very cagey. He’s the man of the people. Unfortunately, I follow his Instagram. The guy is popping up at every fish fry, every small, small businesses he poses with his fake smile and his like fish eyes at every bakery. So he’s man of the people, which is important to personality cult. But he seems respectable. This is my point. And he doesn’t have the baggage. No, nobody has the baggage of Trump. But many GOP people that you hear, they’re like they’ve been domestic abusers, they’re child porn, they’re fraudsters. He apparently doesn’t have that. So I could see. But but he’s he’s an extremist. You know, look at his anti LGBTQ stuff, his racism. He’s a terrible, terrible. So I could see the party thinking that it’s going to become more respectable and mainstream through him. And yet it’s it’s a it’s a question of form and not content.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And if he’s the solution, our democracy is is still screwed, excuse my language, but.
Brian Beutler: Right in a way. So it it matters what the destination is. If if the Republican Party reorganizing itself around Trumpism means that the next standard bearer for the party is Marjorie Taylor Greene, then that’s really terrible. But at least that’s a party that’s probably going to lose. It’s not going to fool anybody into thinking it’s anything other than a then a illiberal, anti-democratic party. If you get somebody who’s got the polish on him, like DeSantis, you end up, you could end up in some trouble. Why why do so many liberals I think you’ve sort of hinted at some answers to this question, but why do so many liberals tie themselves in knots to avoid the F-word? As it pertains to to Trump and at least the subset of candidates who he’s endorsed.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I don’t know totally. I can’t really speak for others. Maybe some think it’s to it’s too out there. Some think it’s inaccurate. There’s a school of people, including some historians, who just they don’t want to use fascists to. They want to keep the word fascism for the fascist era and historic fascism. And they don’t want to call people fascists. They want to respect the eras of today. So there’s that that’s not that’s a very small thing. And and then some people, I think, are it’s a scary word to use, because if you if you acknowledge that we are facing fascism, it becomes more incumbent on you to do something about it—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm, yes.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: —and not just like sound off on Twitter, which is totally useless. You have to actually integrate democracy protection, anti-fascism into your everyday life, whatever that’s going to mean. My way of doing it is I’m constantly writing and speaking. I’m trying to constantly speaking to journalist, trying to sensitize people, let them understand with the danger is. But others can do phone banking or voter registration, whatever it’s going to be. But some so some people don’t want to go there because once you do, you can’t just say, yeah, okay, well, it’s going to pass. We’ll have a little fascism, but it’ll go away. Well, that’s not how it works. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I see again, it’s in vogue, I think today to refer to at least a subset of these candidates as Christian nationalists. And I mean, I want to stipulate that I don’t necessarily think that that’s like inaccurate, but I think it’s a term that was designed by both people who adhere to Christian nationalism and by people who are critics of it, to sort of sand off the rough edges of fascism and make it seem less threatening. You know, there are a lot of people in America who identify as Christian and not nationalism isn’t a universally dirty word in the US. And so I think that somebody like Doug Mastriano is perfectly happy that the that the label that got applied to him is Christian nationalist. And again, it’s not like I’m saying it’s a huge misnomer or anything like that, but it doesn’t convey the inherent menace in his program that fascism does. And yet even his greatest critics are like, Well, stick with Christian nationalism. And I find it a little mystifying. You know, I it makes less sense over time. You know, seven years ago, I kind of understood why people were leery of the term. Now less so. [laugh]
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah. Because it, it, it encompasses one part of his ideology, which is the dominion of white Christians and the racism. But it doesn’t encompass for most people the corruption. And it’s really important to talk about corruption. That’s why the big lie is an act of, spreading the big lie is, an act of corruption. Refusing to accept the certified results of an election is an act of fraud. So these are these are criminal and corrupt acts. And so just calling him a Christian nationalist is talking about his faith and his ideas about the nation, but not practices.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And the GOP has adopted these practices, and that’s what is making it so dangerous. It’s not just his ideas, it’s putting them into practice.
Brian Beutler: So there’s been some quibbling about this. Okay. Given that Biden’s let the cat out of the bag here, he should tether his warning about fascism rising in the GOP to material concerns about what will happen if they win power rather than just let the pejorative term fascism do all the work. And I’m wondering if history has an answer for us there. Like are are citizens responsive to the threat of fascism, simply by being told credibly that this or that person or party is is fascist. Or do they have to be reminded that, like, fascists are bad for business in some way for it to matter?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, it has to be it has to be concrete. That’s and it’s been very effective. One example of that is, is that you are going to lose your abortion rights because of what happened with the Supreme Court. But as Hillary Clinton said, she warned people when that happened that it’s not not going to stop there. You’re going to be silenced. And again, you could look at what’s happening in various states, right, including in what Ron DeSantis is doing, going after businesses. So it’s important to reach out to different constituencies and let them know that they will be constrained, they will be losing their rights. And it’s hard because the Republicans have been very brilliant in hiding the fact that they are trying to censor and silence people by their whole line about cancel culture. That’s why we’re canceling them, right? We’re we’re silencing them when it’s the opposite. But millions and millions of people believe that liberals are the silencers, the Democrats are the tyrants. So it’s important to set the record straight. But doing it to different constituencies based on specific rights that you’re going to lose with with facts is the way to go.
Brian Beutler: This setting the record straight is actually I think it’s how I kind of harmonize it in my head, because I am torn about this question of how how much you should be connecting the fascism accusation with the the fascism accusation with with the material one. Right. That my instinct is that you don’t need to put a lot of spin on the ball with somebody. If they if they are convinced that somebody is a fascist, they’re going to know in most cases that that’s a bad person and I don’t want to support them. And if and if we insist on saying and that means that these economic institutions are going to change or blah, blah, blah, and so you should vote against them because your your quality life will go down, that we’re sort of treating them like a caricature, right, of a swing voter that doesn’t know how to process any morality unless it’s affects their wallets. But on the other hand, there’s this this this potable water crisis happening in Mississippi right now. And and the the governor there appealed to Biden for federal help. And Biden provided it without without a second thought. And I think that was obviously the right thing to do. On the other hand, it reminds me that when Trump was president, he would use federal resources to extort Democratic governors when their states were hit with disasters. And I would like Biden to remind people of that difference between them. Set the record straight, as you said, and say that MAGA, fascism, whatever, they don’t help their citizens, they blackmail them. And when he did it, I’m not doing it. They did it. When they did it, it was repugnant and we can’t allow that to happen again.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, ideally he would do that. He he the thing the episode with the heckler during his speech he did that very that was a big difference.
Brian Beutler: That was good.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah I mean ideally he would use but he doesn’t I think he doesn’t want to over overdo that I’m great and they were terrible kind of thing. I think he’s treading lightly on that. But hey, the fact that the president of the United States used the term semi fascist for the other party and the former president is, giant.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And it’s a big step forward we can conclude on.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Absolutely.
Brian Beutler: Good to hear. All right. Sorry for keeping you so long, but Ruth Ben-Ghiat thank you so for spending so much time with us.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Oh, no. It’s a pleasure. [music break]
Brian Beutler: It’s admittedly a stretch to find positive in the dreadful of a fascist movement. That’s just a couple lucky turns away from taking over the U.S. And even when you try, it’s easy to end up wallowing in the many ways this could all still go south. We could dwell on Biden continuing to absolve a bunch of congressional Republicans who should be beyond redemption. We could stew over the fact that Merrick Garland has, without any explanation, allowed statutes of limitations on several Trump crimes to lapse. You can harbor grave doubts about the traditional media, like the fact that it has spent a week tone policing Biden for calling Republicans semi fascist or that none of the major national networks carried Biden’s Philadelphia speech warning about the threat that movement poses, like the fact that it has spent a week tone policing Biden for calling MAGA Republicans semi fascists or that none of the major networks carried Biden’s Philadelphia speech live. Those are real problems, and you’re not wrong to notice them or even to think they’re all bad omens for the big fights ahead. But look, we’ve all spent years and years now having to wonder whether the Democratic Party, under this leadership, really understood what they were up against. And so to me, the semi fascist appellation was a pretty big watershed. You can’t really stuff that cat back in the bag. Which means we can now safely set aside concerns that Biden’s deluded about the threat to the country. And that is, in and of itself, a big relief. It doesn’t mean every tactical move he and Democrats make from now on will be optimal, but it’ll be a simple, good versus evil fight against a form of opposition that’s still widely loathed and thus beatable. [music break] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. And our producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.