A Scholar of Fascism Sees a Lot That’s Familiar with Trump

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an American-born professor of Italian history at New York University, specializes in male menace. What interests her is the manufactured drama of world-historical strongmen—their mannerisms, speech patterns, stagecraft, and mythomania.

.. “They have this hunger for approval. But their personas are created by the symbiosis with the crowd. They need the crowd to consolidate their personalities.”

.. A trip to Rome after college led her to think about Mussolini, whose power was defined by a special sort of pageantry: he was a self-styled outsider who railed against the political system, but also managed to lull the establishment into acquiescence. Six months before taking over as Prime Minister, Mussolini famously asked, “Does Fascism aim at restoring the State, or subverting it? Is it order or disorder?”

.. “These people are mass marketers. They pick up what’s in the air,”

.. they’re selling a paradox: a savior fashioned as the truest, most authentic expression of the masses. Trump summed it up baldly at the Convention: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

.. This also explains authoritarians’ preoccupation with luxury. “They have to be populists, but they also have to be above it all,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Take Putin and his Apple Watch.”

.. When under pressure or scrutiny, he pouts or rolls his eyes sarcastically.

.. At some rallies, he’s thrown the pages of a printed speech off the lectern to show he can’t be scripted, and has explicitly disparaged the teleprompter as an affront to his style. “It’s all about showing that he cannot be contained,”

.. “At the beginning, people loved going to the show of Donald Trump. You didn’t know what he was going to do or say. It was the same with Mussolini. He would insult people in a humorous way. You didn’t know what gestures he would make.”

.. In the speech of Mussolini, Putin, Trump, and also Berlusconi, Ben-Ghiat notes a pattern: they are at once transparent about their intentions and masters of innuendo. “Trump trails off. He uses ellipses and coded language. He lets his listeners fill in what they want.” When Trump seemed to suggest that gun owners should deal with Hillary Clinton themselves, or when he talked about needing to “watch” certain communities out to steal the vote on Election Day, his statements were more powerful for their ambiguity. “It’s all about letting listeners convince and mislead themselves,” she said.

.. When Il Duce claimed that he would further “clarify” matters, his audience understood that “clarification” was a synonym for violence.

.. On the stump, Trump keeps saying that order will be restored on January 20th, as soon as he takes office. “He means everything he says,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Authoritarians never pivot.”