The Signorile Report
The Signorile Report
The "cult leader dynamics" of the debt ceiling crisis and the GOP presidential nomination

The "cult leader dynamics" of the debt ceiling crisis and the GOP presidential nomination

An illuminating conversation with authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat about Trump, DeSantis and Republicans in Congress.

photo: Tyler Merbler

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Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University professor and author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to Present," is one of the most important scholars on autocracy and fascism and continually gives us a window into the authoritarian mindset. Her newsletter on Substack, Lucid, is always enlightening.

I invite her on my SiriusXM program often. And I spoke with her last week to help us make sense of what’s going on at this time as a MAGA-radicalized GOP holds the debt ceiling hostage while Donald Trump and his imitators like Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis are running for president.

Listen to the full interview. Below is a transcript slightly edited for clarity and space.

Michelangelo Signorile: So we've been talking about the debt ceiling and what's going on, of course, and what Republicans are doing and how the president is interacting. And this is something that has a history going back to the Obama years. Previously, the debt ceiling was routinely raised. And it was routinely raised even under Trump. But in terms of Republicans using it in this way, that is about hostage taking. It's been something that's gone on back into the Obama administration. How does it fit into this authoritarian absolutist mindset that we're seeing, and how is it different now, perhaps than it was earlier?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, unfortunately, we're dealing with extremists and Trump, you know, most of all. And these are people who have no moral code. Trump himself does not care about mass hardship. If you recall when he was asked on camera about when COVID hit a death toll of 100,000, he just shrugged and said, "It is what it is." And he didn't care if Americans lived or died. 

So the kind of care, that they couldn't possibly do this because it would cause too much hardship, does not factor into the thinking of somebody like Trump and his extremist MAGA faction. So there's that. The other thing is extremists who already had a violent coup to try and step around the  system of democracy to get to power. These are people who will do anything, including crash the economy, to hurt Biden. And I firmly believe that. 

And the other thing is that there is a precedent for a Republican administration crashing a national economy to prevent socialism from taking hold. And that was in Chile in the 1970s. I write about it in my book, Strongmen. Nixon and Kissinger, they had a meeting, and they said, "make the economy scream." And so they used truck convoys disrupting supply chains. They used every possible economic warfare and political warfare, psychological warfare tool to create a system of a situation of crisis. And they crashed the economy. And these were Republicans not so long ago. Kissinger is still around. So think about that as well.

MS: I think hitting his 100th birthday as well. I saw you speaking about some of the hearings we've seen that have been all about the weaponization of the government supposedly, by the Republicans, you know, their point of view, against Donald Trump, against Republicans. And how much of this is about them trying to undo the history, the documentation, the facts of January 6th and the insurrection, and rewrite what happened. You talked about how important that is to strongmen to do that, to control that narrative.

RBG:  Yes. And one of the reasons the GOP is so dangerous right now is they are a party in damage control mode, in panic mode, and they're doing like this. Jim Jordan, Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government —its purpose is to weaponize government, to shut down any exposure of secrets, any exposure, further exposure of complicity of the party in the coup attempt. And that's why they're going after the "deep state."

And Donald Trump has said, and I believe him, if he comes back to the White House, there are going to be massive purges. I'm writing about that today. I’m going to publish tomorrow for Lucid an essay about how intelligence agencies who have, you know, they have their own history of anti-democratic activity of course, but with the right or wrong leader, they can become targets because they are dedicated, dedicated to investigation and inquiry so they can become targets just like journalists and prosecutors. And so we saw this last week when they were trying to kind of taint the FBI and they consider it part of the deep state. 

So is just the start of all kinds of waste of taxpayers money and time. It's supposed to exhaust you. It's supposed to distract you from the GOP's corruption. And I call this garbage politics. And Jim Jordan is the perfect person to strew garbage. And by the way, these talking points are circulated all the way to Moscow. So it's a kind of a larger crusade to take down Biden's administration, to take down any non-loyalists of Trump that's going on.

MS: And people should go to lucid They can read that piece but also subscribe to Lucid. 

Ron DeSantis is going to announce any day now his run for the presidency. We've talked about him before and you've talked about what motivates him and what he's doing. He just finished signing a slew of extremist bills worse than the previous batch. You know, a license to discriminate law that allows doctors to turn people away based on their moral beliefs. They can turn away gay people if they want. Of course, the six week abortion ban, the horrible bathroom bill, the anti-trans bill, the anti-drag queen bill, all of it. And a lot of people talk about whether he believes these things or not, if he's just posturing for the base of the party. But in terms of being an authoritarian, that doesn't really matter because he's willing to do it, right?

RBG: Yes. It doesn't matter. I've been writing about him since 2021. And one of the things that worried me is that I saw him as a kind of empty shell of a person who, in the classic strongman tradition, would become anything that he needs to become in order to get power. 

And Trump is like this too. Trump's a marketer by profession, among other things, as well as a money launderer, etcetera. And Trump kind of read the political marketplace, and he found he could, you know, kind of sell his product as white grievance, etcetera. And Ron DeSantis studied this very carefully. And he has made himself, of course, a mini Trump, but he has no moral scruples either. And so both of these people are letting themselves be led by the most extremist tendencies of the Republican voters. And once you go there, you see that. Trump’s become more and more extreme. He's now, you know, he always was soliciting, soliciting neo-Nazis, telling them they were good people. But now he's like exacerbated this. 

And that's what Ron DeSantis is doing, too. They double down even though it's unpopular what he's doing. And I think there's a whole kind of grassroots and lawmaker alliances that have come out in Florida. It's becoming actually a laboratory of interesting resistance, but they don't care. They'll do anything they need to do, no matter how how many people they demonize to get power.

MS: Well, and it's similar to what we're seeing in the states. And you said Florida is the laboratory. We've seen, of course, other states now pushing the same horrible don't say gay laws and anti-trans bills. And of course, we've seen anti-abortion bills and bans on abortion all through the states. And there's a lot of discussion about how Republicans, a lot of them know this is disastrous for them and they saw what happened in 2022 and how, you know, Roe v Wade being overturned really galvanized Democrats. 

And yet they still, at least in many of these states, in fact, even after some abortion bans were beaten back, South Carolina, North Carolina, Nebraska, they went back and they got it done, pushed it through, and used procedural moves. Talk about that. How even the environment and the political reality, at least how it seems, doesn't really matter to them.

RBG: Well, there's two things going on. One is their profound arrogance, and often authoritarians’ arrogance does them in. Not before they've, you know, caused enormous grief and often loss of life, unfortunately.  But they don't understand that or they think they can just have more and more repression, more criminalizing protest. 

They're not seeing; they're so blinded by their arrogance that they are causing an enormous army of resisters to come to the streets to be allying with lawmakers, as in Tennessee. They're sparking this whole countermovement.

The other reason they don't care is that they have doubled down on what we call electoral autocracy. Now, when you keep elections going, but you game the system in myriad ways, which the GOP has a long history of doing because of racialized voter suppression for many decades. And it's all about this trickery. And so they feel that—they don’t care if things are not popular because they're not depending on the vote anymore. That's where [Alabama Senator] Tommy Tuberville, when he said, well, we should just not have elections anymore. You know, he said the quiet part out loud because they're not depending on the popular vote anymore. 

They just become like autocrats, like in Turkey and in Hungary. So in that sense, they don't have to care either. So it's quite a fateful moment we're in.

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MS: What should political leaders and Democrats be doing? I mean, certainly we see the movement and, as you said, the resistance. And we're seeing incredible people like Justin Pearson and, you know, Justin Jones, and people who are just galvanizing people across the country. But then you see President Biden, you know, going into these talks with McCarthy, still trying to talk about bipartisanship, negotiation, giving things up, give and take, compromise. Is that the way to do this?

RBG: I think it's not either/or. And he has a different role. He's been so strong on democratic ideals, both in terms of keeping the U.S.—he’s tried to repair the U.S.'s profile abroad. He has all these democracy summits, and I know that people will be like, okay, well what about us here? You know? But I think that it's not either or. I think he's doing what he has to do now as the head of state. 

I do find really interesting, you know, Nikki Freed, the chair of the Florida Democrats, who was recently arrested. It was very interesting to see her and the Florida state minority leader. They were arrested, and they were locking arms with activists. And this kind of optics of this lawmaker and grassroots activist alliance was very strong.

And we're seeing this in Tennessee, too. So I think that we know from studies of nonviolent protest, you have to ally with what's called the pillars of society. If you're a grassroots activist, you have to get people who have power, influence, and money involved, and you create a broad based coalition, and that's how you succeed. There's all kinds of research about this in different countries, and that's what's going on here slowly. So that's one thing. And what Biden is doing right now with the debt ceiling is another. It's a very specific and scary circumstance.

MS:What is your thought on these other candidates who are putting themselves out there? Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator, put his hat in the ring. Chris Christie is going to jump into the Republican primary. DeSantis has kind of deflated, but I don't know that anybody should rest on their laurels. And of course, Donald Trump is still there.

RBG: Yeah, it's really interesting. I think they're all quite deluded. Maybe for good reasons, because Trump is a is a cult leader. The thing about Trump, and I have an essay on this, and he's not a conventional politician. He's a cult leader. And everything that's going on in the GOP is because they are a party domesticated by this cult leader, and they became his personal tool. I mean, it's incredible. The guy hasn't been in office for a long time, and they're still taking orders from him. This is not normal. Except if you're a cult leader. 

Jim Jordan is like a total—these people are lackeys of the Trump cult, and they can't seem to find a way out. So it's really interesting that anybody at all is declaring, DeSantis aside, because DeSantis, you know, a long time ago, he already had like 40 or 50 billionaires backing him, and a few of them have left. But he's always had a big war chest. And so he's a little bit different than the others.

But Chris Christie etcetera, I don't know how they would go up against the Trump cult or the alternative of DeSantis, who somehow, some people, it makes me crazy this, they want so badly to have a, quote, normal politician that they want him to be like the moderate one. And you still see, like, even New York Times headlines that say, "Oh, he's he's very conservative." Well, there's nothing conservative about him. He's like demonizing, LGBTQ populations so that there will be violence against them. That's not conservative. That's extremist.

 So it's a very interesting dynamic field right now. But the cult leader dynamics show that it's very difficult for anybody else to prevail.

MS: And Trump certainly was able to just use CNN in that town hall, have a platform to cement that cult status even further and sort of set the terms of this Republican field and the nomination fight.

RBG: Yeah, and the thing is, if we look at everything he does, start with and being a cult leader. His campaign events have a different function than other politicians. His campaign events are radicalization venues for people to become radicalized. 

Since 2015, he's been telling people that they should be full of hatred, that they should hurt each other, that, you know, compassion is bad. So he's emotionally retraining them. He's radicalizing them. 

And he's circulating his propaganda. And they have to have loyalty to him. So those are what he uses his rallies for, as well as, you know, fleecing people, you know, ripping them off, of course. And that's a little different than other politicians. That's because he's a cult leader.