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

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, fascism, 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. Late last year, Ben-Ghiat had just published a book called “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema,” about the years of Benito Mussolini, when another spectacle wrested her attention. One of the candidates for the American Presidency was looking a lot like her principal academic subject. As President Obama put it, the United States now had its own “homegrown authoritarian.”

Earlier this week, Ben-Ghiat sat at a table in her office, at N.Y.U.’s Casa Italiana, on Twelfth Street, inspecting two signatures on the screen of her laptop. One of them belonged to Donald Trump, the other to Mussolini. The scrawls—loopy, cursive, steepled—looked so similar that they seemed to blur together. Ben-Ghiat, who wore a gray sweater and dark skirt, is gracefully soft-spoken, her manner reserved. “I’m interested in how their language and writing are a kind of emanation of their bodies,” she said.

When Mussolini was a Socialist, he wrote his name as “Benito Mussolini.” “Then he dropped the Benito,” Ben Ghiat said. “He even had his stage name, which was Il Duce.” Trump also likes talking about himself in the third person. “He’s selling his product, which is himself,” she said. It’s a cult of personality peddled as good business. During the primaries, he recited a loyalty pledge in which he led his supporters in a promise to vote for him. (“I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote . . . for Donald J. Trump for President.”) While administering the oath, he raised his arm before the crowds in a quasi-Fascist salute. (“I mean, we’re having such a good time,” Trump said later. “Sometimes we do it for fun, and they start screaming at me, ‘Do the swearing! Do the swearing!’ ”)

“There’s this whole political theatre that they stage,” Ben-Ghiat said of both leaders. She called up a photo from a folder of images on her laptop, material from a PowerPoint she delivered at a recent seminar on the election. In the picture, Trump is walking through a rolling mist, from darkness to light, to accept the nomination at the Republican National Convention. “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.” She has a theory about Trump’s manic sniffing throughout the debates: with the crowd silent, he was unmoored and defensive; he had no way to channel his nerves. ...




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