The One Way History Shows Trump’s Personality Cult Will End

An expert on autocracy assesses how far America has slipped away from democracy, and what it will take to get it back.

In the summer of 2020, Ruth Ben-Ghiat was putting the final touches on her history of modern autocracy. She had to do it, though, without the benefit of knowing whether one of her most important subjects would remain in power come November.

But she wasn’t exactly in the dark either.

She had seen enough of Donald Trump’s behavior over the preceding five years to know how neatly he lined up with other strongmen she had studied and how his autocratic tendencies would influence his behavior whether he won or lost.

“I just predicted that he wouldn’t leave in a quiet manner,” Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University told me recently. “He’s an authoritarian, and they can’t leave office. They don’t have good endings and they don’t leave properly.”

Nearly two years later — after a riot, an impeachment, and a monomaniacal campaign to punish the Republicans who tried to hold him accountable — Ben-Ghiat has ample proof of her thesis. And she professes even more concern that Trump’s sway over the GOP has permanently transformed the party’s political culture. “He’s changed the party to an authoritarian party culture,” she told me. “So not only do you go after external enemies, but you go after internal enemies. You’re not allowed to have any dissent.”

With the midterms and some key governors races approaching, Ben-Ghiat is looking around the corner again. She sees dangerous signs of autocracy seeping into state houses and governors’ mansions where leaders such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are executing policies and enacting laws that mimic Trump but with a smoother, less bombastic style.

She insists her urgent warnings should not be construed as fatalism. Throughout our interview she leavened her direst predictions with a pragmatic if not sunny optimism. Political violence is more likely than an actual civil war; a Republican takeover in November would be catastrophic but she remains heartened by the ability of American voters to “interrupt an autocratic personality who’s in the middle of his project;” and ballot box victories alone don’t stop autocrats but the law can. “It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate their personality cults,” Ben-Ghiat said. “That’s what it takes.”

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Kruse: We’re coming up on seven years since Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower and announced he was running for president. I’m wondering where in your estimation we are in this country in the timeline of increasing authoritarianism.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: When somebody like Trump comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

The final thing I’d say is machismo [is] up there as a tool of rule alongside propaganda and corruption. Getting ahead as a man [in this political system] means being more like Trump. And so you saw Mike Pompeo, who started talking about “swagger” and he was a very different kind of State Department head. And now you have people like Ron DeSantis who even absorbed the hand gestures of Trump. And so at the elite level, the political system is shaped by Trump, and every day we see his legacy.

Kruse: What would you say to those in this country who say, “No, the Republicans aren’t the autocrats. It’s the Democrats who are the autocrats. It’s Joe Biden. It’s other Democrats with power who are making us wear masks or take vaccines we don’t want to take. They’re the ones who are behaving more in autocratic ways, not the Republicans.”

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Ben-Ghiat: One of the big talking points and strategy of right-wing authoritarianism, is to label democratic systems as tyrannical. Mussolini was the first to say that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. And there’s a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats, who you want to overthrow, dictators. Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.” And you have people like DeSantis who are doing this very subversive thing of saying, “Florida’s the free state. You can have refuge from the dictatorship of Biden here.” And what this is designed to do is discredit the sitting democratic administration in order to create, a myth of freedom. January 6 was actually marketed as the violence [being] in the service of freedom, and you were overthrowing a dictator.

Kruse: Where is Trump in his own timeline? Is he in your estimation getting weaker, getting stronger, in a holding pattern?

Ben-Ghiat: The genius of the “big lie” was not only that it sparked a movement that ended up with January 6 to physically allow him to stay in office. But psychologically the “big lie” was very important because it prevented his propagandized followers from having to reckon with the fact that he lost. And it maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump, but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats. They always have to be the biggest victim.

Kruse: Have you been surprised at how successful he’s been in this regard, especially considering he doesn’t have Twitter? As you referenced, Truth Social has been more or less a failure to this point. He is doing this through emails and [conservative] media hits.

Ben-Ghiat: The Twitter was for the masses, to keep the masses indoctrinated, and I see Trump as one of the most successful propagandists of the early 21st century. He tweeted over 120 times a day. But that was for the masses. I wasn’t talking about voters as much as how has he kept the elites tethered to him. And that has nothing to do with Twitter. That has to do with what he’s always done: collecting compromising information, threatening, and he’s changed the party to an authoritarian party culture. So not only do you go after external enemies, but you go after internal enemies. You’re not allowed to have any dissent. And it’s not just when the leader was going to be impeached. In February 2021, during the second impeachment, and Republicans who voted to impeach him had to buy body armor because they were being threatened.

The big question will be what will happen in the coming months so that he can retain that power because he’s very toxic. There’s always this worry that maybe the investigations will bring more things out, so it’s not a done deal that he will get the nomination. But he’s been remarkably successful in ways that don’t surprise me at all. Because that’s how authoritarians are. They’re personality cults, even if they rule in a democracy like [Italy’s former prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi did. Berlusconi’s personality cult did not deflate until he was convicted, which he eventually was. That’s what it takes. It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate their personality cults.

Kruse: You recently wrote, “Ron DeSantis is turning Florida into his own mini-autocracy.” Why is he an autocrat?

Ben-Ghiat: He has autocratic tendencies. What’s so interesting is he was a Reaganite and then he had clearly some kind of epiphany when Trump came on the scene. He had that campaign video that showed his house being transformed into an altar for Trump. And he got the endorsement. He has absorbed the lessons of what you need to get ahead in the GOP today. And that is to be a forceful bully, even to high school students. The way he carries himself and speaks has gotten much more aggressive. And he’s also very smartly tried to turn Florida into this refuge for all who are oppressed by Biden. He invited New York city cops and people from all over the nation who are oppressed by federal government vaccine [rules], or state mandates, [to] come to Florida and be free. And so that’s one way he’s setting up Florida to be the fiefdom of a certain politics, a certain ideology, that he clearly then wants to take national. And in fact his spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, says, “Make America Florida.”

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Trump supporters attend a rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, hours before the Capitol riot. | John Minchillo/AP Photo

Kruse: Is it fair to see DeSantis as a very capable, committed student, whereas Trump is more of an instinctual autocrat?

Ben-Ghiat: There are limits to the comparison because Trump truly is an autocratic individual. He was as a businessman and he has surrounded himself with people from [Paul] Manafort and [Roger] Stone to [Steve] Bannon who have decades of experience helping and working for dictators. They’re on a crusade to ruin democracy. And DeSantis had a very different career path. And so what’s notable about him is he has sensed, like all smart politicians, what you need to get ahead in today’s America, in today’s GOP, what kind of leader you need to seem to be, what policies, what talking points, [such as] election fraud. What you need to do is turn citizens against each other, which he does with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. His election security office has a hotline where you can call and tip off your fellow Floridians doing bad things. These are in themselves all things that match up with autocratic policies. Yes, he’s a very capable student of what is going to have success in today’s GOP and with today’s electorate.

Kruse: Is Ron DeSantis the non-Donald Trump politician doing this in the most stark, arguably most effective way, or are there others that you are paying attention to?

Ben-Ghiat: There are lots of others. In terms of his policies and his aggression, Greg Abbott stands out, of course. I’ll never forget that he posed smiling with his target practice sheet and joked about shooting journalists during the Trump years. But Ron DeSantis stands out because, one, he has made clear his aspirations to national leadership, and two, he’s smooth. Just as [Viktor] Orbán is a more palatable Putin — you don’t hear about poisoning [enemies], you don’t hear about people falling out of windows — DeSantis doesn’t have all that baggage Trump has. He’s younger and he’s smoother. He’s more measured in what he says. He’s trained as a lawyer. Trump is a much more outrageous personality and that’s the source of Trump’s charisma, but DeSantis is extremely popular. And so he has his own form of relating to audiences that people like.

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Kruse: Given Trump, DeSantis, Abbott and so on, is the United States of America still a full democracy?

Ben-Ghiat: It’s deceptive because Trump did an enormous amount of damage. And that was why he was there. He was there to wreck our democracy. And then he was voted out. We can never forget that in the middle of a pandemic, 80 plus million people turned out to get rid of him. And that’s very rare in history where you interrupt an autocratic personality who’s in the middle of his project. And now the individual states are continuing this. And what’s so worrying is that they’re continuing it in a very accelerated fashion.

Also, the midterms are so close. I do believe if [Republicans] capture Congress after the midterms, you always have to assume the worst with people who have been very open about wanting to wreck democracy. And so that’s why they float these scary things, like making Trump speaker of the House. You have to realize that these people have left democracy, and nothing is off the table. And that’s why to go back to DeSantis, it’s very ominous that he established this office of election security. It’s very bad because it has its own prosecutors, and it makes things that used to be a misdemeanor a felony. If you look at the details of it, it’s not only an intimidation machine. It has some prosecutorial powers, and it has informing mechanisms, the tip line, and the whole idea of election integrity as this buzzword, which really means how are we going to start making elections come out the way we need to, is a very anti-democratic thing.

Kruse: So the answer I heard to the question — “Is America still a full democracy?” — was … maybe not?

Ben-Ghiat: No. David Pepper, who wrote this book Laboratories of Autocracy, has always said that many states are no longer functioning democracies. I would say that nationally, we are a functioning democracy. That’s how we got rid of Trump. But the system has been eroded and many states are shifting, are evolving over time to a condition where votes are going to mean less. And then you get into a situation which is like what happened in Hungary where over time Viktor Orbán has developed a system where it’s almost impossible for the opposition to win.

Kruse: Is it fair then to see the U.S. as an “anocracy,” neither completely democratic nor completely autocratic?

Ben-Ghiat: It’s in transition. However, I do believe it’s extremely important to never fall into fatalism. I believe it’s my job to warn people what could happen, but it’s very important — that’s why I keep bringing up the 2020 election and also the 2018 midterms — that these are recent events, and there is this energy of protest and love for democracy and freedom, real freedom, not the Republicans’ idea of freedom, that we can’t lose, because once you decide that it’s all rigged and there’s nothing you can do, then you do lose democracy.

Kruse: There has been increasing talk of the inevitability of civil strife, of civil war. And full democracies don’t have civil wars. Autocracies also don’t have civil wars, right? It’s sort of those places that are in some worrying state of transition that might be susceptible to that kind of violence. Are we on the way to civil war?

Ben-Ghiat: I actually believe the possibility of true, active civil war — meaning violence on both sides — is not likely. It’s something that the Republicans, the right, wants us to think is happening, and they use that to get people on their side as armed up as possible, as weaponized, literally weaponized, as possible, as fearful as possible. But I don’t think that we would fall into that state. It’s much more likely that the midterms go the Republicans’ way, and you fall into a system where your vote doesn’t mean much. I do see perhaps an increase of another round of protests. Often protests, big protests, materialize around an event. So the Women’s March was the shock of Trump winning and coming to power. Then you had George Floyd, which sparked the Black Lives Matter protests. I respect a lot Barbara Walter, who wrote the book about our likelihood [for civil war], where we’ve passed these guardrails. But the ones who really want a civil war, it’s only the extremist Republicans. Because civil war is bad for business. Civil war is bad for health. It’s bad for the nation. And so it’s really a scare talking point.

Kruse: A scholar who studies violent conflict, Thomas Homer-Dixon, recently wrote, “By 2025 American democracy could collapse causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.” Does that sound right to you or too extreme?

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Ben-Ghiat: It could happen in a quieter way. I think that it’s not out of the realm of possibility, because if the Republicans tried to impeach Biden and impeach Harris, there would be protests. Whether that becomes a civil war is very different because it’s predominantly only one side which is armed, first of all. So Walter is right. She wanted to point out how far our democracy has eroded. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could end up with some kind of form of autocracy because that’s what’s being set up by all of the assaults on our electoral system. And Bannon’s been working very hard at this, too, from his own vantage point. It’s intimidation of voters, removing voters, look at all these threats to election officials — so you get them out of the system — this all corresponds to what we call “autocratic capture.” There’s a movement going on. This is what I mean by more — it’s more legalistic and quieter. And that doesn’t tend to bring out people into the streets. Because it’s an evolution and it’s happening slowly, slowly, slowly, and big protests are occasioned by an event.

Kruse: Are there signs in these developments of a particularly American style of autocracy?

Ben-Ghiat: The wild card is guns. No other country in peace time has 400 million guns in private hands. And no other country in peacetime has militias allowed to populate, has sovereign sheriffs, has so many extremists in the military, and that matters because of these other things. And in fact, if January 6 didn’t bring out a massive protest, what is going to bring out a massive protest? Because that showed that groups of people who were there were people unaffiliated with any Proud Boys or any radical group. And Robert Pape, who studied them, called them middle-aged, middle class, but they were all armed. Some of them had private arsenals and they showed up at January 6. So that’s the wild card. That’s one thing that’s extremely American, that violence, that the population believes it has the right to rebel against tyrannical government. Like Matt Gaetz says: The Second Amendment is not just about hunting. And here we go back to the idea of Biden as a dictator. And that only works if your citizenry is armed and ours is to a degree that no other country is in the entire world.

Kruse: Given the stakes, what are Democrats doing wrong right now?

Ben-Ghiat: The reason that Trump was able to shift the political culture, Trump and his allies, is that he imposed an authoritarian party culture [with] unified messaging. Propaganda needs to be repeated with small variations. All the different Fox News hosts, all the GOP politicians, you can tell when the various talking points come up, because they get echoed by all these lawmakers and throughout Fox. Now Democrats by their nature are not going to impose unified messaging. And so Democrats don’t have that force of concentration of message, that repetition, and that’s a failing in this environment.

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