Last week, Politico ran an interview with a scholar of autocracy.You really–really–need to click through and read it in its entirety, because I lack the space and ability to offer a coherent synopsis.
The scholar, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, had made accurate predictions about Trump’s likely refusal to concede his 2020 defeat, and she made them well in advance of the election. During the course of the interview, she made several other penetrating observations. Among them: the likely permanence of the changes Trump has effected to the GOP. She says that his sway over the party has permanently transformed its political culture, changing it to an authoritarian party in which you don’t only go after external enemies, but also after internal ones. Authoritarian parties don’t allow dissent
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.
Ben-Ghiat made a particularly important point about a favorite Republican talking point that she noted is a time-honored strategy of right-wing authoritarianism. Authoritarians like to label democratic systems as tyrannical. (Psychiatrists might call that projection.) According to Ben-Ghiat, Mussolini was the first to make the accusation that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. That introduced a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats dictators. “Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.”
Her observations about the “Big Lie” were equally interesting, especially for those of us who have read psychological profiles of Trump.
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.
There are several other points in the interview worth pondering, especially her acute observations about Ron DeSantis, but the one that really struck home with me was her response to the question whether the U.S. faces a civil war. She began by saying that she thought it unlikely.
But then she made a point I’d not previously considered.
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….
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.
The insanity of America’s gun culture has been evident for a long time. What hasn’t been evident is the fact that “only one side is armed.”
Read the whole interview.