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?
“I get asked a lot if he’s a fascist and I always say no – and I always will say no. Because I want to respect the difference between historic fascism, which was dictatorship, and today. Trump doesn’t want to be the head of a one-party state. And you don’t need a one-party state today. There is only one true dictatorship now: North Korea. You can accomplish all your goals in a nominal democracy, such as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, where elections are held, or Erdogan’s Turkey. It’s important to bear in mind that ‘fascism’ is a historical category that refers to a very specific period. But we should also not make light of ‘strong’ authoritarian leaders who have been springing up lately in the United States and Europe, or of the similarities between their tactics and those that Mussolini developed and enhanced.”
In your latest book, you maintain that many of the films produced during the Mussolini regime contain homoerotic narratives or images. Why does masculinity play such a large role in fascism?
“Fascist male propaganda revolved around Mussolini, so it wasn’t easy to be a male movie star – because if you were too much like Mussolini, that wasn’t good. It was easier to be a female star, because then you did not present a threat. And Mussolini was really brilliant at manipulating images. He was the first foreign leader to star in an American sound newsreel. In Italy, he was considered a sex symbol in a brute, powerful way. His massive jaw and stocky body were often commented on. Like Putin, he had himself photographed in bathing suits and showed his muscles. He staged shots in which he ‘wrestled’ with lion cubs. His body language was very macho, which was a significant element in his success, because the Italians felt humiliated. They didn’t like being described as lovers or good cooks instead of as daring warriors.
“Mussolini was the antidote to that, he was very forceful,” says Ben-Ghiat. “In the films, you see these little Mussolinis imitating his body language and trying to project an aggressive, bellicose masculinity. He was the template for that.”
The films Ben-Ghiat analyzes in her book have hardly been written about and are rarely screened. Not knowing what to expect, she says, “I was surprised to see that certain films had openly homoerotic moments, flashes of gazes or exchanges of gazes, glistening muscles – things that cross the line, I would say. These are typical elements in this sort of war environment, but you’d wonder how they made it onscreen in a very homophobic, fascist regime. The reason such scenes were not censored is that it was understood that propaganda films had to be entertaining if they were going to have an impact. Ultimately, the films played an important role in the fascist propaganda machine. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was irked because Italian propaganda movies were very popular among the Germans, who preferred them over the pictures made under the aegis of his ministry.”
Mussolini believed in culture. He wrote a novel and was a journalist and editor. Did his experience make it possible for him to create stories that captured the imagination?
“Yes, and some of the narratives he forged resemble what we see today in Europe: narratives of crisis. [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen says Brexit was an act of freedom. It’s very interesting to see that people are drawn to certain kinds of storytelling. And the basic story, of the savior arriving to fix the broken society, works now just as it did back then.”
But in contrast to Mussolini, who came from the working class, Trump has a completely different story: “I’m a winner, I’m a billionaire. Vote for me and you can be like me.”
“What he said was, ‘I’m a winner, and you need to follow me because your society is broken.’ For example, he described Chicago as a chaos of violence and anarchy. His whole campaign hammered home the message that he alone was capable of fixing broken America: ‘Only I know how to get things done.’”
But the facts told a different story: unemployment was down and President Barack Obama’s approval rating was at a record high. So how do you bridge the gap between these numbers and his narrative?
“The answer lies in the storyteller, not the story. Trump is charismatic in the way Berlusconi was. He has this aura, and both were big brands before they made the transition to politics. One of Trump’s effective tactics was to talk about emotions. He talked about ‘The people who hate me,’ contrasted to the love he gets from his supporters. There’s a reason for his middle-of-the-night tweets: it’s a mistake to read them as a sign of weakness or impulsiveness. He’s bypassing the establishment and communicating directly with others who can’t sleep. He has insomnia, so do others, and when they see that their candidate is also awake, that creates a powerful emotional bond. It’s also related to the consumption of these messages via personal mobile screens. Once created, these bonds are very hard to break.”
Can you imagine Mussolini tweeting at 4 A.M.?
“No, but six months after he came to power, he established a governmental agency for documentary cinema whose task was to make newsreels starring him. Every time you went to the movies, you had to sit through a newsreel featuring Il Duce. He was able to project his image to millions by taking control of the collective imagination. He used newsreels the way Trump uses Twitter – that was the equivalent. He created news and also got rid of journalists who attacked or criticized him. The goal of these people, if they’re going to succeed as authoritarians, is to create division and mistrust among people and ultimately within oneself. You don’t know what to believe anymore. Ideally, all alternative sources of information would be discredited except the leader and his palace media – and here we can include, in our case, Fox News.”
Mussolini invoked the myth of the supposedly glorious period of the Roman Empire, to which it’s possible to return by choosing a strong leader. That’s very much present in Trump’s notion of “making America great again.” But when he says “great,” what does he mean? When was the last time America was great, in his view?
“Mussolini invoked the Roman Empire to consolidate his vision of territorial expansion as a means to rehabilitate national pride. In Trump’s campaign there was nostalgia for the 1950s, before the advent of the civil rights movement and the successful struggles by the feminist movement and the gay community. Trump’s perception of gender roles is very direct. He wants a world in which men are men and the women stay home to look after the children. He’s okay with strong women only if they are under his control, like his wife, his daughter or his spokeswoman. It’s the same with race. In the 1950s, whites constituted a clear majority, but Trump is well aware that, according to the forecasts, whites will be a minority in America by 2042. Much of what he says and does is a reaction to demographic shifts and anxiety over the loss of white male privilege.”
Do you think Trump is anti-Semitic?
“He’s an opportunist. He’s racist. The fact he has Jews in his close family didn’t prevent him from releasing a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that didn’t mention the Jews. Mussolini had a Jewish lover, but that is also unconvincing. I don’t accept the argument that someone is not racist because his daughter is dating a black man. [Trump] is structurally racist and divides the world on the basis of skin color or attributes superiority of some kind to whites."
Despite the historical comparisons she draws in her columns, Ben-Ghiat emphasizes repeatedly throughout the interview that we must not confuse fascist despots like Mussolini or Hitler with the new generation of “authoritarian leaders” such as Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump or the populist Italian politician-actor Beppe Grillo, whom she calls “Italy’s Trump.”
While reading your book “Empire Cinema,” it’s hard not to think about the way Mussolini and Trump presented themselves as politicians who abhor politics. Mussolini described himself as “anti-politician.” Why is that so effective?
“These strong-man types sometimes come up from within the system, like Putin, but often they’re disrupters who come from outside the system. And often they form not parties but movements. Fascism was built as ‘anti-party.’ It was only later, when Mussolini wanted to seize the reins of power, that he created the national fascist party. But even then he went on using the rhetoric of ‘revolution’ and, especially, ‘authenticity’: ‘We are telling the truth; we are not the establishment.’ Hitler also played this card.
“By the same token,” she continues, “I believe that Trump doesn’t care about the Republican Party. It’s a mutual exploitation that’s going on, in my opinion. But he had a movement, which he still occasionally refers to, of his followers, his fanatical fans.
“I first got interested in Trump when I saw him on my smartphone screen at a rally and he was engaging his followers in a loyalty oath to him personally. He talked about his movement, and then he targeted his enemies: Hillary Clinton, whom he would ‘lock up,’ and the media and Muslims. I stopped in my tracks and ran home to write an op-ed for CNN. Because I thought, this is not good, this is not going to be good. This was way before he became the Republican candidate, because I recognized him as this very familiar figure.”
In 1935, to justify the invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini claimed that Ethiopia and the great powers had conspired to deprive Italy of its rightful place under the sun. Was there a genuine reason for him to feel threatened, or was he inventing imagined enemies in order to muster support?
“Italy was the boot of Europe, not its heart or head. Italy was considered second-rate. And although the Italians had been on the winning side in World War I, they felt they’d been cheated. Enter the politics of resentment. Mussolini comes and says, ‘We deserve better.’ He took the language of socialism and cast Italy in the role of the downtrodden proletariat, in contrast to the plutocracies. So there was this kind of class grievance, even though fascism in practice suppressed class politics.”
One by-product of the constant need for control is loneliness at the top. Mussolini had many of his friends and supporters executed, including his son-in-law, and Trump, too, seems to operate within a narrow circle of supporters and family.
“Democracy is based on trust. I was just reading a very interesting book by a German sociologist about the Nazi salute [Tilman Allert's 'The Hitler Saulte: On the Meaning of a Gesture']. If you and I had run into each other on a Berlin street in the 1940s, we would have had to stop and raise our hand and say ‘Heil Hitler.’ So Hitler comes into our meeting; he’s an absent but very present third party. When that happens, the bonds of society are broken and people are set against each other. You use informers, you use conspiracy theories, secret police; people don’t know who to trust anymore. At the same time, it’s a double-edged sword because the leader himself begins to lose trust, and every associate is a potential enemy. That personality type also tends to be paranoid – they have a clan and kinship mentality.
“What’s particularly worrisome in Trump’s case is that he has created a very tight inner circle and he listens only to himself. His nature is to say, ‘I have a beautiful brain, I listen to myself.’ He has his son-in-law [Jared Kushner] and his daughter [Ivanka], and then [chief strategist] Steve Bannon and one or two other people, and that’s it. This is very unhealthy and makes for bad leadership, which we need to worry about, because we’re the most powerful nation in the world and everything we do matters. There was an article in The Guardian about how Trump’s abuse of the press is empowering other despots to be the same. So I think we’ve only just seen the beginning of Trump’s ripple effect.”
Even though her office is crammed with books about depressing subjects – such as the rise of fascism in Italy or collaborators in Nazi Germany – Ben-Ghiat describes herself as an incorrigible optimist. To preserve her sanity in-between poring through archives of propaganda films and writing militant op-eds against Trump, she has developed a series of tactics, which include yoga and meditation practice, and a great fondness for electronic music.
“I remain an optimist because I do think people are basically good," she says. "There's a reason none of the fascist and racist regimes still exist today. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in histories of opportunism and violence, but it's very important not to fall into cynicism or to lower expectations for behavior. I write to document and as a warning because I believe most people would like to choose compassion over hatred, empathy over indifference. At the same time, I fully recognize how power operates and protects itself, I'm realistic about that.”
What can history teach us about the most effective ways to resist tyrants?
“I think there’s no substitute for being seen – being visible and being heard: popular mobilization; being in the streets; showing with your body that you’re there is very important. Which is why there have already been moves to criminalize protest. Several states have introduced bills that make it easy to criminalize protesters, to label them rioters. The worst thing that happens is that people feel demoralized and they feel alone. And they can become very passive and just hide away. And there’s a return to private life, an immersion in private life and an apolitical mentality that takes over.”
That’s a danger many Israelis are well aware of.
“Indeed. Normalization is when you decide to forget what you used to think was not acceptable. It’s this willed amnesia and deciding not to see. These compromises that we make every day, that we decide not to think about. What was extreme becomes normal and it’s, quote, ‘unseen, unremarkable.’”
Trump has said and done so many things that would have ended anyone else’s political career. Do you think there’s anything that could bring him down?
“Civil rights activists I speak to emphasize the danger of fatigue. It’s hardly two months since he took office and already there are people [anti-Trump activists] who are burned out. It’s important to step back and not spill all your words at once, and be able to analyze. You also have to find a way to integrate the resistance into everyday life.”
Did Trump’s declaration of war on the media change your approach to your work at CNN?
“As a woman with a Jewish-Israeli surname I’m used to floods of hate mail, and it doesn’t bother me. I get messages in the style of ‘Get yourself a one-way ticket to Israel’ or threats intended to scare me. I’ve been studying these things for 25 years, and ... I’m pretty tough, I read the stuff and then make dinner. After Trump’s inauguration and the appointment of Steve Bannon, I wanted to write a column titled ‘Are We Having a Coup?’ I thought twice about it. It didn’t stop me from writing, but I felt the allure of self-censorship for the sake of normality.”
But in the end you published it?
“Yes, because I felt like it’s important to step back and reflect, see where we are. The long-term view is essential, not only reactions to tweets. In a column I published two weeks ago on CNN , I responded to a tweet by Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, who praised the Dutch anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders. According to King, Wilders ‘understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,’ and that ‘We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.’ King admitted in an interview that he hopes to create a more ‘homogeneous’ America.
“That brings to mind a 1927 Mussolini speech about the purity of the white race. Six years before Hitler came to power, Mussolini told his followers, ‘The entire white race, the Western race, could be submerged by races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own.’ I am not saying that King is Mussolini, but I do think it’s possible to say that the tactics and ideas that Trump and his supporters are promoting led to disastrous results in the past. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can definitely teach us a thing or two.”