Historians and election experts warn Trump is behaving like Mussolini and despots that the US usually condemns

  • President Donald Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. 
  • Historians and experts on fascism warn that Trump is behaving like the dictators the US is often leading the way to condemn on the global stage. 
  • "This is the way dictators come to power," historian Michael Beschloss warned in an MSNBC appearance on Thursday.
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President Donald Trump is refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, threatening to shatter a tradition that lies at the heart of the democratic process in the US. There are serious concerns among scholars that Trump is putting America's democracy in mortal danger. 

Combined with Trump's relentless disinformation campaign, celebration of violence against journalists, and incitement of armed militias, historians and election experts warn that the president is mirroring the behavior of despots that the US generally leads the way in condemning before the world. 

"I've been an election observer in broken authoritarian countries, and let me tell you: Trump's behavior would be swiftly and unequivocally condemned by all international election monitors if it was happening elsewhere. He is behaving like the despots past presidents condemned," Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London, tweeted on Friday. 

When asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power earlier this week, Trump suggested ballots would be thrown away.

"We're going to have to see what happens," Trump said when asked whether he would accept the final results of the election. "Get rid of the ballots and…there won't be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation."

Trump has given the country myriad signs that he will not concede under any circumstances, placing the US on the precipice of a political crisis the likes of which it has never experienced before. The president has repeatedly pushed the bogus assertion that the expanded access to mail-in voting for the 2020 election — a move designed to protect vulnerable people amid a pandemic — will lead to widespread voter fraud. 

Top experts on democracy have been warning for years that Trump exhibits authoritarian tendencies. But their consternation appears to have ramped up significantly as Election Day draws closer and Trump essentially signals that he plans to do whatever it takes to stay in power. 

'This is the way dictators come to power'

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Thursday asked historian Michael Beschloss if he could provide another example of a US president suggesting an election "ought to be disregarded."

"You want to go into history to look for something like this? Go into Italian history and look at Mussolini. This is the way dictators come to power," Beschloss said in response, comparing Trump to the fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini. 

"[Trump is] telling you what he intends to do. And we've got to make very sure that in the next five and half weeks and after, that we do not get into a situation where…Donald Trump announces that he's won and puts us in a situation where our democracy is being stolen minute by minute. This is not a drill," Beschloss added. 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian who's written extensively on Mussolini, agrees with Beschloss that Trump's behavior mirrors that of the Italian fascist dictator. She noted that Mussolini was not immediately a dictator, but gradually consolidated power. 

"The clearest parallel is that Mussolini was prime minister of a democratic coalition government from 1922-1925. During that time, he slowly chipped away at democratic institutions, insulting the press, using violence against the left, joking that he would be in office for 20 years, establishing a militia and a legislative body (the Grand Council) loyal to him," Ben-Ghiat told Insider. 

"[Mussolini] bought off elites with privatizations of major industries and by ending worker and peasant strikes. In 1924, to consolidate power, he had a law passed that drew accusations of fraud but gave him a majority. He had his main opponent, Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, killed for accusing him of fixing the election and for threatening to reveal his financial corruption — and then he declared dictatorship in 1925 to escape a special investigation," Ben-Ghiat added. 

David I. Kertzer, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Pope and Mussolini," told Insider that comparing Trump and Mussolini does "a disservice" to the Italian leader given he "read newspapers every day in four languages, followed policy issues closely, played the violin and loved classical music, and was not particularly interested in lining his own pocket (although there was no lack of corruption in his regime)."

"What the present moment in American politics does make me appreciate more is how Italy, a parliamentary democracy, could so quickly become a dictatorship," Kertzer added.

Kertzer noted that Mussolini said "people were like sheep" and "craved being followers," adding, "Like Trump, he had very little in the way of strong ideological beliefs himself, and knew the power of emotional rather than rational appeals, and of the power of repeating simple, emotionally powerful yet substantively empty phrases (Make America Great Again)."

To Kertzer, the most striking parallel between Trump and Mussolini is that similar to the Italian fascist dictator, the president has enjoyed strong support from religious leaders despite not having "a religious bone in his body." 

"Mussolini could solidify his dictatorship only by reaching a deal with the pope and gaining the support of the Church hierarchy, in a totally amoral exchange: he would give the Church leaders what they wanted (ending separation of church and state, religious instruction in schools etc) and the religious leaders would throw their support behind him," Kertzer said.  

Recent research suggests the US is heading toward autocracy under Trump

Trump has spent the past four years eroding democratic norms and institutions at an astonishing rate.

A project that monitors the health of democracy across the world, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), in its 2020 findings said the US has become more autocratic in the Trump era. V-Dem measures hundreds of different attributes of democracy — including freedom of expression, free and fair elections, and levels of government corruption, among many others — and the project involves over 3,300 scholars and other experts worldwide. 

"The United States – former vanguard of liberal democracy – has lost its way," V-Dem's 2020 report said, adding that the US "is the only country in Western Europe and North America suffering from substantial autocratization." 

Over the course of the past week, Trump at rallies repeatedly applauded an incident in which a journalist was struck with a rubber bullet fired by police during a protest, prompting laughter and cheers from supporters.

 

Last month, a caravan of Trump supporters drove into Portland with the sole purpose of antagonizing anti-racism protesters. Their presence in the Oregon city led to clashes that turned deadly. Trump referred to them as "GREAT PATRIOTS!" as he simultaneously condemned those protesting against racism and police brutality. 

The president in recent months has moved from joking about removing term limits to suggesting he's "entitled" to a third term because he was impeached.

Mary Trump, the president's niece, on Thursday warned that Americans should take her uncle's election threats seriously. She said Trump would go "farther than you can possibly imagine" to stay in power because he's afraid of potentially facing prosecution for tax fraud and obstruction of justice after becoming a private citizen again.

"We have no idea how bad this is going to get," Mary Trump said. 

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