People don’t take these people seriously until it’s too late

Why Trump Firing FBI Director Comey Amid Russia Probe is So Worrisome

Ruth Ben-Ghiat talking:

some people, including Republicans, are now trying to spin this as Trump being Trump, an impulsive action that was just out of grievance. I see it differently. Trump is an authoritarian, as I’ve been arguing for some time. And when he says that Comey wasn’t doing his job, he means Comey was obstructing him from using the office of the presidency to further his personal goals, because authoritarians believe that the institutions should serve them and not the other way around. So I see this as completely consistent with his temperament and his agenda of colonizing the country to make it serve his personal interest.

during the campaign, he started with a very important point, which was forging these bonds with the public that were based on loyalty to him. And it’s come up repeatedly that he felt Comey wasn’t loyal to him. And loyalty is the most important thing, because authoritarians forge bonds that are based on their person and not allegiance to a party or a principle. Trump doesn’t care too much about the GOP. It got him to power, it gave him the nomination, but it’s just a vehicle for him. So, that’s part of it.

The other thing is, a senior—a former senior intelligence official said that the Comey—the way that he fired Comey was “like an execution,” in quotes. And, you know, the method, and he did it—Trump is a—he’s a proponent of the doctrine of surprise. And this was a kind of threat to the FBI, to the American public, which is consistent with the kind of dangerous persona he has had. And I want to remind everyone that in January 2016, when he was on the campaign trail, he said, “I could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and wouldn’t lose any followers.” This was, for me, a turning point. It meant that he was giving us a message that he considered himself to be above the law. And he was testing the GOP, which is what authoritarians do. They test, on their way up and once they’re in power, to see how much they can get away with. And the GOP rewarded him with the nomination. So he feels emboldened, now he’s in power, to do exactly this kind of thing.

In the past, once elites are coopted to an authoritarian, it can be very difficult, for pragmatic reasons, for them to jump ship. This is not, strictly speaking, a constitutional crisis, in that it was perfectly legal for Trump to fire the FBI director. What’s at issue is the politicization of the judiciary and intelligence, which he’s been doing all along, and the method. And so, this depends on what the GOP is going to do, and I’m a bit pessimistic about their having the political will, the unified political will, to see this through to get rid of Trump.

I also want to highlight, though, that the comparison with Watergate leaves out the very, very important foreign dimension. This is a Russia—Trump-Russia probe. And firing Comey in the way he did was a very important message that Trump sent to the world, number one, to all of his fellow authoritarians. And we’ve seen how he calls the president of Turkey. He invites Duterte of the Philippines to the White House. And he has gone out of his way to forge ties and show allegiance to this kind of leadership, and, above all, to his Russian client. And I felt it was such a tragedy for our democracy to see Trump in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister the day after this happened. This is a very strong signal to his Russian client and to authoritarians all over the world that he means business, and the business is their business.

Being also a historian of propaganda, you cannot overestimate the impact of acquiescing to a request to have the foreign minister in there. And apparently, you know, news reports are that he was—Trump was duped a bit, because he was told the photographer was the personal photographer of the foreign minister, when in fact the person was also taking pictures for TASS, the state agency. And think of the impact that has within Russia and the world, and the U.S. media was not allowed in. And besides the security concerns, which have been raised with having Russians in the Oval Office with a photographer for—into the most sensitive space of America, it sends a message that Russia has won and that Trump is indeed willing to do what they say. So I felt this was a great tragedy and a kind of culmination of all the things that have been said and alleged during this Russia-Trump investigation so far.

I’m pushed many times in the media to label Trump a fascist. And I’ve never done that, because Trump is not aiming to establish a one-party state. It’s too much work, I imagine, and he doesn’t need to. The thing about authoritarians today—and we can look at what’s happening in Turkey and elsewhere, and even in Russia—you don’t need to have a dictatorship in the classic sense to accomplish your goals. You can intimidate people. You can try and control the press. You can attack the judiciary, the media, the institutions, hollowing them out, without having to ban parties in the traditional fascist manner.

That said, there are many similarities. One of them I mentioned before. There’s this testing period constantly that the authoritarian is doing to see how much he can get away with. What is the appetite of the political elites and the public for violence? And this goes back to Trump’s comment—right?—that he could shoot someone. This is quite extraordinary. And Mussolini did the same thing, as did Hitler. And the other element is that people don’t take these people seriously until it’s too late. So, I’ve been trying to warn the public, along with many other people, about the dangers, including this article you mentioned most recently, the dangers that these men bring with them. And by the time people realize, it’s too late.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
professor of history and Italian studies at New York University

— source


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