Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has an urgent message during the coronavirus crisis:
Authoritarians like Trump don’t care about human life. They care about power.
Far-right leaders across the globe are responding to the historic coronavirus pandemic with an alarming mix of lies, incompetence, racism, and corruption.
Among them is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly sought to downplay the severity of the virus, and to obscure all the ways his administration has fumbled the federal government’s response.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a history professor at New York University who is a world-renowned expert on fascism and propaganda. She talked to HuffPost Wednesday about the grave dangers of having an authoritarian leader like Trump in charge of America’s effort to beat back the pandemic.
Not only will the president continue to put so many lives at risk, she argued, but he will seek to exploit the crisis to gain more power.
On Tuesday, you tweeted something about Trump that struck me. You wrote: “An amoral authoritarian does not care about human lives, I cannot emphasize this enough, only profit and loyalty and obedience matter to him. The politics of revenge and spite will continue.” And I was honestly just hoping you could expand on that for a minute.
For the general public, it can be hard to accept that we have a very different kind of leader. We have a leader who has an authoritarian mentality, and that kind of leader, they’re often narcissistic, they are amoral, totally immoral, only power and profit matters. It’s very much the end justifies the means. So they think in the aggregate, and they really don’t care about human life. So, this is the worst type of leader to have in a crisis because they’re incapable of acting for the public good. So that’s one part of it.
Another part is, Trump is the foe of expertise and science and any kind of fact that gets in the way of what he wants reality to be, and we’ve seen this with abundance in the way he handled the growing crisis of coronavirus. So he would rather send misinformation to the public — which he did recently recommending [drugs] that I understand put some people in the hospital — than tell the truth. And so the broader thing is that authoritarians, they fear transparency and they fear accountability, and this is another reason why they are terrible leaders to have in crises.
For example, during the Depression with Mussolini, the censorship meant that you’re not allowed to tell bad news. There was no way to talk about, you know, the suppression of labor, there was no way to talk about suicide, and so that’s one way in which the whole historical record in crises is always distorted by them.
And another thing is that they are corrupt to the core and so they will make a profit off of any kind of crisis. And we saw this, you know, well it’s not clear to me what’s going on behind the scenes, there was already some talk of involving a company that is partly owned by [White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared] Kushner’s brother. And then the bailout plan that [Sec. of Treasury Steve] Mnuchin presented that was first rejected by the Democrats contains provisions that could, you know, help Trump’s businesses, so this is another example of the lack of the public good.
And historically what happened was very tragic. When authoritarians get into a crisis, for example, during World War II, Mussolini and Hitler were in a losing war which they started, they abandoned their people completely. Mussolini never bothered to have adequate anti-air defenses. And they retreated from the public and they were nonresponsive. And Hitler went into his bunker in the end, and actually said that Germany should just perish. They blame the people for the consequences of their own decisions, because they despise their people. This is the secret. They actively despise and scorn their people. So all of this adds up to a really dire picture if you are unlucky enough to have this kind of ruler when you have a crisis.
I’m doing fact-checking [for her forthcoming book “Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall”] and going through the book ... it’s just terrifying because Trump meets every criterion for this type of personality ... So it’s been really weird to be going over the book one last time in this situation.
For people that maybe don’t know maybe the strictest definition of authoritarian, what criteria does he meet?
The amoral: only caring about himself and about having more power and more money. The being corrupt, so that you hire your family who are your co-conspirators and you have the opposite of transparency. You have what’s called an inner sanctum, where you have loyalists. There’s this demand for loyalty and the humiliation of everyone around you to make sure they stay loyal. And then there’s the compulsion to lie. The inability to trust experts or to take counsel from anyone. To think you’re always right. I could go on.
You mentioned that Mussolini, during the Great Depression, employed a lot of censorship. But that’s not necessarily what we’re seeing now. But what are we seeing now, when it comes to, you know, information?
We’re seeing disinformation. Trump is very uncomfortable with people who are giving blunt information, like [Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony] Fauci. He says he’s too blunt. And very quickly the coronavirus task force doesn’t have experts who are not loyalists on it. Like the Surgeon General is there, but he’s a loyalist and he himself is very unhelpful. So you are seeing censorship, you’re seeing false information distributed. You’re seeing manipulation of information. When Trump says, “Well, we want to go back to work in two weeks, and that will be fine, and we’ll crowd the churches for Easter?” This is denial of reality. So we’re seeing all of the tactics that the new authoritarians use.
There was a poll this week showing Trump’s approval numbers going up. Historically, you know, what’s the breaking point for the followers of authoritarian leaders? Like, what does it take for them to abandon those leaders?
So his numbers may be going up now, but that’s because more and more people have not gotten sick yet ... And historically, you need to get to very dire straits, very dire circumstances before people will give up their cult of the leader.
It takes until you and your family are personally seeing with your own eyes the devastation, the mistakes of the leader and his inadequacy, and his incompetence, and it has to hit very close to home for that to happen with people who have been indoctrinated. But it does happen. It does happen.