Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s a scene that has repeated itself for over a century: A man appears on the political landscape who seems to stand for something new and grand. Skilled in the arts of self-presentation and emotional manipulation, he captures the hearts and minds of millions, telling them he will clean up the country. Soon, a personality cult forms around him. Religious figures embrace him as a savior who will bring order to a disordered world. And yet, day after day, he courts the most extremist elements in society, encouraging them to see him as a victim of his many enemies. When his power is threatened, he summons them to defend him, throwing his country into chaos – or even dragging it into civil war.
This is the authoritarian playbook, a mode of governance and set of tactics that President Donald Trump has followed since he ran for office and has been relying on more than ever since he was defeated in the November 3rd election. The events of January 6th, when armed Trump supporters stormed Congress, fit this pattern perfectly.
Leaving office quietly is not a hallmark of leaders like Trump, who live in fear of the loss of adulation and power that defeat brings – and the prospect of prosecution for their misdeeds once they no longer have presidential immunity. Trump had reportedly explored a variety of options to pull off a “self-coup” and stay in office illegally. He was reportedly advised to consider martial law – though General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had previously disavowed military involvement in politics – and electoral manipulation (pressuring state officials to “find votes,” as Trump did with Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and trying to get Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the Electoral College results). Nothing worked – stealing an election proved to be hard to pull off.
So the President played his last hand, one he’d prepared carefully: activating the far-right groups and militias he’d long supported. His comment during a September presidential debate to the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by” let them and groups like them think that he’d likely call on them one day. He had already tweeted an invitation to his followers to convene in Washington DC on Wednesday, and at a rally stoked their anger and played the victim, telling them the election had been rigged and they should not “take it anymore” – an implicit invitation to action.
As for his followers, the history of authoritarianism tells us that those who feel their leader is endangered can become extremely volatile. Here the highly effective propaganda war waged by Trump and his allies matters: Although Trump lost the election two months ago, for his followers, he was the winner who had unjustly been deprived of what was rightfully his. Add in the culture of armed insurgency and the anti-democratic, extremist beliefs many of these groups espouse, and the solution of “direct action” – namely, an armed takeover of the halls of power to save the leader – becomes compelling. Thus did men and women, some armed, breach the Capitol building, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and staff.
Trump, of course, was not in the building. He set the fire, but was careful not to be in a position to get burned by it or control it. Only hours after the Capitol was stormed did Trump issue a statement telling his supporters to “Go home now,” but doubling down on his claim of a fraudulent election “that was stolen from us.” This is not a statement meant to bring peace, but rather to continue his politics of resentment and keep his followers angry – and tied to him.
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I will not easily forget the sights – the Capitol building filled with armed extremists, or a man occupying Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, triumphantly sitting in her chair. Nor should any America who cares about our republic. Trump promised “law and order” but delivered lawlessness. His extremist rhetoric and attempts to undo the voice and will of American voters were aided and abetted by the Republican Party, an organization that, thanks to Trump, has left democracy behind. Today the mask is finally off and Americans can see the true ideology of Trump and his allies: power, to be held onto any at cost.