Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of Italian studies and history at New York University, is author of the forthcoming book “Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall.”
Benito Mussolini created the world’s first Fascist dictatorship not just as a counter to the powerful Italian left — that’s a well-known story — but also as a desperate act to avoid prosecution. His time as prime minister of a coalition government (Oct. 31, 1922-Jan. 3, 1925) offers lessons in how democracies die and autocracies are born.
Mussolini pioneered the mix of persuasion and intimidation that autocrats have employed ever since to come to power. From 1919 to 1922 he used paramilitary violence to destabilize Italy, creating the perception of a void of leadership that he alone could fill. In October 1922, an intimidated king and commander in chief, Victor Emmanuel III, offered him the premiership.
Over the next two years, Mussolini undermined the institutions and culture of Italian democracy persistently and methodically. He denounced any negative press coverage of him as “abusive” and “criminal,” and demanded that the offending reporters and editors be fired. In Parliament he made offhand remarks about abolishing the constitution, creating a secret police and becoming a dictator. He dismissed officials who were insufficiently servile. He bullied Parliament into passage of an electoral law that guaranteed his coalition’s victory in the 1924 elections. And he stayed silent when Fascists beat up or killed opposition politicians.
Among those was the popular Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, who was murdered in June 1924 by Mussolini’s secret police not only because of his loud opposition to Fascism but also because he was about to reveal evidence of illegal Fascist Party financial transactions that involved Mussolini and his family. A special investigation was soon launched to determine Mussolini’s role in the murder. By December 1924, rumors circulated that the Italian leader would be impeached or arrested, while Fascist loyalists floated the idea of pardons.
To save himself, Mussolini took the plunge into dictatorship, announcing in January 1925 that he and his party were above the law. “If Fascism has been a criminal association, I am the head of that criminal association,” he told Parliament, letting them know that the window to unseat him had closed. Amid the slew of repressive legislation that followed, Mussolini pardoned all political criminals and fired the two magistrates overseeing the investigation, replacing them with loyalists who issued a verdict of involuntary rather than willful murder. He ruled without limits to his power for 18 more years.
Much in this sad tale may sound familiar to those who have watched President Trump degrade the culture and institutions of American democracy and seek to eliminate anyone who obstructs the expansion of his power. From his calls to have his political opponent in the 2016 election, Hilary Clinton, imprisoned, to his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump has followed the authoritarian playbook first written by Mussolini.
And of course Trump, too, is plagued by an investigation: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in his election. Trump’s recent contention that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself, discussions of his loyalists about firing Mueller or worse, and the (quickly retracted) comment of his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that Trump could murder Comey and escape prosecution not only illuminate the president’s horizon of anti-democratic possibilities but also open a door that leads directly to the origins of dictatorial rule.
While Trump is no fascist in the historical sense — one-party states aren’t needed today to rule as an autocrat — he proves that some rules of strongman behavior haven’t changed: Always warn people what you’re going to do to them, and, for maximum intimidation, be sure to refer to your personal capacity for violence and criminality. Mussolini would have applauded Trump’s January 2016 boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any followers: It told America that if he were to be elected, no one would be able to hold him accountable. Trump has been clear about his admiration for autocrats of regimes past and present who have stopped at nothing — even declaring dictatorship — to derail processes of justice that would threaten their power.
“He speaks and his people sit up at attention,” Trump recently said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. “I want my people to do the same.” It is indeed high time for Americans to sit up and listen carefully when the president tells them what he would like to do to expand his authority, whether it is removing limits on his time to govern, censoring the media or putting his political opponents in jail. We can’t protect our republic if we don’t take seriously those who threaten it, especially when they behave in such a chillingly similar fashion to those who have destroyed democracy in the past.