NEW YORK – Shortly after Donald Trump was chosen as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate last July, he arrived at the party’s convention in Cleveland to celebrate his victory and fire up his supporters. To the sounds of “We Are the Champions,” Trump vaulted onto the stage from a curtain of thick fog, wearing a dark suit, blue tie and a pin of the American flag on his lapel. Under the meticulously planned lighting and stage design, the former reality TV star became, momentarily, a faceless shadow. That was when the penny dropped for Prof. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an American historian who for more than 20 years has been studying the history of fascism in Europe.
“The image of Trump coming out of a curtain of fog is very significant, because it speaks directly about memory,” Ben-Ghiat explains, in an interview last month at her New York University office. “Trump is belittled for having no political experience, but he had more television experience than any of the other candidates,” she says.
“The Republican convention deliberately used backlighting, which turned him into a silhouette,” she continues. “He invites his supporters to project all their fantasies onto him, like rock stars in a concert. In this sense, he recalls former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. That moment is also a wonderful example of what I call the ‘aesthetic of menace’ – because for Trump’s opponents he’s straight out of horror movies, when someone is coming toward you but he’s backlit with shiny lights so you can’t see who it is.”
In the past 18 months, Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at NYU and the author of numerous works about the rise and fall of Italian fascism, has become a leading figure in the media battle against Trump.
Covering the Republican Party’s campaign for the international site of CNN, Ben-Ghiat repeatedly warned of similarities between Trump and the subject of her research, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Her opinion columns and tweets have made her a target for the new president’s advocates and the so-called alt-right, who don’t cotton to the historical comparisons she draws. She’s received death threats and numberless hate messages. “Until recently, there was a full-time security guard in my office,” she says.
Even after devoting some two decades to the subject, Ben-Ghiat admits “fascism” is an elusive concept. “It’s one of those words that are very hard to define precisely,” she observes, “in part because that’s built into its very nature. Mussolini himself, who was the first fascist, didn’t like to define the term. He famously didn’t want to lay down one ideology. He had different party platforms that changed. There was no one manifesto, and that’s how he wanted it. At the beginning, no one knew what fascism was, not only because it was new, but because it merged ideas that had been separate. It took things from socialism, such as workers’ rights, and fused them with nationalism and imperialism.”
Ben-Ghiat notes that the word “fascism” comes from the Italian word “fasces,” meaning “bundle” – more specifically, a bound bundle of wooden rods wrapped around an ax, which in ancient Rome symbolized the rulers’ authority and power. “It became a way of saying that we’re going to bundle these ‘-isms’ together and make something new,” Ben-Ghiat notes. “So people were confused about whether it was right-wing or left-wing. And when they meant “right,” they meant an older right – which was probably a conservative, traditionalist right. Mussolini would play with this, because fascism was all about contradictions, and this kind of ambiguity has remained in fascism.”
Beyond Mussolini, Ben-Ghiat points out there is a fascism checklist. “The writer Umberto Eco wrote a kind of manual on how to identify fascism, including the state as a supreme value, the cult of the leader, populism, economic nationalization and an appeal to the working class. Another feature is a return to conservative and traditionalist attitudes aimed at allaying anxiety about progress or about social emancipation, and about rights for women and minority groups. There is a conscious effort to turn back the clock. Mussolini, for example, promised the Italians – who, though they had won in World War I, were suffering from a severe recession and political instability – to restore the glory days of the Roman Empire.”
In practice, Ben-Ghiat says, “this creates a political discourse that emphasizes negative elements, that paints a picture of a society in crisis that needs a strong leader to save it. So you have people like Trump asserting that nothing is working, everything is a mess, and only they can set things right and ‘Drain the swamp.’ By the way, it was Mussolini who coined that slogan. Originally, he meant it literally: to invest in infrastructure and reclaim malarial swamps to transform them into beautiful modern towns. And then it became a metaphor for reclaiming, rehabilitating all of society. And the trick was, of course, that some people could not be rehabilitated. In World War II, this ‘draining’ included the Jews, many of whom had supported fascist politics early on.”
Fascism and homoeroticism
Ben-Ghiat’s background – she grew up in the Jewish community of the upscale Westside Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades – would not necessarily seem to indicate a career interest in Italian fascism. “My father, Raphael Benghiat, was born in Jerusalem in 1928 to a Ladino-speaking Sephardi family, and in 1944 he joined the Haganah [pre-state Jewish underground militia],” she relates. “A few years later, his beloved brother, Eli, was killed in the battle for Kastel, outside Jerusalem. My mother, Margaret Spence Robison, a Protestant from Edinburgh, met my father in London and converted to Judaism for him. They married and moved to Israel, before immigrating to California in the wake of my father’s job.
“I am Israeli-Scotch and was born in the United States. It’s a peculiar and complex identity. We celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, and my parents always negotiated over the ceremonies. We had a Christmas tree, but my father always insisted that the lights be blue-and-white to mark the Israeli connection.”
Pacific Palisades, where she grew up, became a haven for Jewish refugees from Nazism, she notes, among them the writer Thomas Mann, composer Arnold Schoenberg and composer-conductor Otto Klemperer. “Legend has it,” Ben-Ghiat continues, “that Bertolt Brecht visited the neighborhood and found it too beautiful to create meaningful art – one would become too complacent – so he moved on. I grew up with the ghosts of these people, and I heard from their children and grandchildren what life under a dictatorial regime was like. These people had to make a huge adjustment. Schoenberg’s son, Larry, was my math teacher, and it was what I heard from him that prompted me to study dictatorships and to think about regimes, culture and intellectuals, which became the subject of my first book.”
To date, her fascination with the subject has produced three books, two anthologies edited by her and numerous articles. Her latest book, “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema” (Indiana University Press, 2015), is based on years of archival research in which Ben-Ghiat located and examined nine films made under Mussolini’s fascist regime from 1927 to 1942. Largely forgotten today, the films were shot mostly in Italy’s colonies of Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia under the administration of a propaganda unit run by Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s son and a close friend of the celebrated Italian director Roberto Rossellini.
These days, Ben-Ghiat lives in Manhattan and divides her time between her academic career, researching a new book about “strong leaders,” writing for cnn.com and giving talks to diverse audiences.
Born to an Israeli father and raised in a Jewish community, Israel was constantly present in Ben-Ghiat's life, who says she's visited the country many times ("Nowadays my father lives in Netanya, and my mother returned to Scotland").
Despite her visits, she doesn’t speak Hebrew and never researched Israeli democracy. When asked about Israel, Ben-Ghiat provides short and concise answers, and seems to be moving away from the comfort zone of her academic research. She says she never thought of making aliyah or moving to Israel.
How would you define Benjamin Netanyahu?
"He's a strong leader with tendencies reminiscent of authoritarian leaders, but I focus more on leaders who emptied out the democracies that they headed, so I've never researched him in depth."
There's a claim that Trump's idea to build a wall with Mexico was inspired, among other things, by the Israeli separation barrier. Do you think there are similarities between Trump and Netanyahu?
"As I said, I don't research Netanyahu. As for the wall – there's a spatial politics in the U.S. that Israelis find very difficult to understand. As opposed to Israel, the U.S. is huge, and it has two friendly neighbors to its north and south – Canada and Mexico. When such a huge country decides to build a wall, it's a sign of weakness and not of strength."
Shortly after the U.S. election, you wrote that on a scale of fascism in which Mussolini is 10, Trump is 7. Would you rank him higher now?