The Authoritarian Playbook Part I

In this episode, Center for Media at Risk Research Fellow Sébastien Mort and Annenberg doctoral student Jeanna Sybert sit down with Visiting Scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat to discuss “The Authoritarian Playbook.” From press policies and strategies of repression to personality cults, Ben-Ghiat argues that the best way to understand Donald Trump and his contemporaries is by looking at him in the context of a century of authoritarian rulers from Mussolini onward.


Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Today’s episode is the first in a two-part series produced by Annenberg doctoral student Jeanna Sybert and visiting scholar Sébastien Mort. Jeanna and Sébastien sit down with historian and scholar Ruth Ben Ghiat to talk about the Trump Administration and the resurgence of authoritarianism in the US and abroad. Hope you enjoy.

Jeanna Sybert: Hi, welcome to Media at Risk. I’m Jeanna Sybert, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Sébastien Mort: And I’m Sébastien Mort, an Associate Professor of American Studies at Université de Lorraine in Metz, France and a visiting researcher at the Center for Media at Risk.

In this episode, we sat down with Ruth Ben-Ghiat for a conversation about Trump and the resurgence of authoritarianism in the contemporary era.

Ruth Ben Ghiat is a full professor of Italian Studies and history at New York University, an award-winning historian, and a political commentator on fascism. She’s currently a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication through the Center for Media at Risk.

Jeanna Sybert: In part one of this episode, Professor Ben-Ghiat discusses the state of U.S. democracy, the global rise of authoritarianism, and how Trump follows, what she calls, “the authoritarian playbook”.

Jeanna Sybert: So to start with, how would you describe yourself as a scholar, and where would you situate yourself within your own field and academia at large?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: I’m trained as a historian of modern Europe, and my specialty early on and still today is Italy and fascism. I am also trained as a political and cultural historian, and I’ve done a lot of work on images and image propaganda. My first book was called Fascist Modernities, and it was about the collaboration of intellectuals and artists in social and cultural policy including racism. And my second book is a study of fascist film propaganda, especially imperial propaganda, for the empire and in war.

I grew up in California, in a lovely town on the beach on the Pacific called Pacific Palisades, which was a place of exile for many people from Nazi Germany. And I heard about their stories. There were many famous intellectuals there. Bertolt Brecht was in an adjacent town; Arnold Schoenberg, the composer, his son was my math teacher in high school. I grew up with no direct family experience of fascism or the war, but hearing about this.

And I got interested in what it means to have to go into exile, and the toll of dictatorship on people, on creative people. And I was going to study Nazi Germany and exiles in graduate school, and then at the last minute, one of my advisors said, “Why don’t you do Italy? It lasted twice as long! And there’s less studied. It’s not as studied.”

I decided to do that, and indeed, it’s a very interesting case study for today because it lasted over 20 years. It was from a personal childhood example that I got into this.

More recently, I have been studying authoritarianism on a global scale, and I’m now writing a book called Strongmen, for Norton, that will look at the strongmen style of rule—propaganda, violence, corruption—from Mussolini up to Donald Trump.

Jeanna Sybert: What makes Trump an authoritarian leader, how have these authoritarian qualities, and how did the sociopolitical context of contemporary US society facilitate this rise of Trump?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: If we look in the history of the rise of authoritarian leaders, you can often have certain conditions in society. You can have a sense of, politics as usual doesn’t work anymore, great polarization, which, of course, the authoritarian tries to make worse. You can have a sense of crisis, a sense of people being forgotten.

Other kinds of figures can come up who are charismatic, who are … in our propaganda class this semester, we call them “lying demagogues.” And then people believe them. Even if they know inside that they’re lying, they still believe them because they believe in them.

American society in 2016 fit enough of these preconditions that Trump was able to come up and win.

Not everyone sees Trump as an authoritarian, and it’s been a really interesting process to see how some people have come to accept that label. When I started writing about Trump in 2015, I was using that word immediately, and it was kind of the “A-word.” And it took a while for some of the networks … I remember the first time CNN, Cory Booker used the authoritarian word, and a lot of us … David Frum and Sarah Kendzior and I, a few of us, had been writing extensively using that word.

And when I saw this on CNN, it was in the headline, the chyron, I thought, “Okay. We’ve done something. We have moved into the public discourse this idea that Trump can be considered an authoritarian.” Then the question is, what does that mean?

What I’ve tried to do is take my knowledge of authoritarianism, which I call the “authoritarian playbook,” and see how Trump has done, what he’s done as correspondent. Everything from very early on, kind of hate speech, kind of trying to de-legitimize the press and his political opponents, making it very clear that he didn’t respect the rule of law, using threat including making his own body a weapon, saying he could shoot someone and not lose any followers. That was a very efficient political communication from the authoritarian playbook, that you let people know that you are personally capable of violence or allied with violence, and that you believe you’re above the law.

And that was in January 2016. By the time the election came, Trump had already checked many of the boxes of the authoritarian style, and he wasn’t even in office yet. This is how, again, speaking from just what I’ve done, I was able to write an op-ed that predicted what he would do before he came into office. And every six months, did check-ups, and everything has come true, not because I’m a psychic but because he really does fit this profile.

I believe that the way to understand him and make what he does legible, including his personality—he maps 100% onto authoritarian personalities—is this. Other people have different paradigms to understand him, but this is mine.

Sébastien Mort: In a study that was published in 2009 by Mark Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, the two authors focus on what they call the “authoritarian disposition,” and they argue that it has been embedded in a portion of the American electorate and that decisions made by voters are determined by deeply-held worldviews that reflect this disposition.

I would like to know how this factors in the authoritarian equation.

Ruth Ben Ghiat: One of the great, eye-opening lessons that we are learning every day because of Trump, is that we are not as democratic a nation as we thought we were. Now, to certain groups of American society, this was always very clear; to people of color—especially African-Americans who lived in areas with a heritage of slavery and all of the voter suppression attempts—that’s no news.

But to the whole of society, I think that many people didn’t realize, they didn’t see in that light many of the GOP’s tactics. And the more we come to know about how hard certain sectors of the GOP and their allies have worked to de-legitimize the rule of law. Think about the “sovereign sheriffs’ movement,” which has been in the headlines recently. They believe that they can take their law into their own hands. They are sovereign sheriffs.

And if we look at these indexes of things that in other countries would be very authoritarian, it’s disturbing. Or during the campaign, the number of elected Republican officials who called for Hillary Clinton to be publicly executed. That’s another index, that’s another fact, that you think, “Well, wait, if this were happening in Turkey, in Russia, we wouldn’t be surprised. But it’s happening in America.”

There’s a way of reading the history of … and this is just the elected officials, but they are the people who sit in our institutions and make our laws. Even they are really not very pro-democratic. This has been one aspect of realizing that we’re a different country than we thought we were.

Sébastien Mort: And do you think that precisely because it’s happening in the US, it’s not being taken seriously, or as seriously as it should?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: I think that the way that Trump is acting has forced a lot of allies to begin to look at the US in a different way, as well. Your original question focused on voters, though.

Sébastien Mort: Mm-hmm.

Ruth Ben Ghiat: And I think that this is something that’s happening all over the world, that there’s, for the reasons that we talked about before, people feel uncertain. There’s the kind of truth decay. And this encourages people to want to depend on strong father figures, or other kinds of charismatic authoritarians. And this is just a global trend in politics right now, and people can look back to the recession of 2008. They can look back in Europe, they look to the migrant crisis. There’s always a reason, a contingent reason, but this is clearly a cultural shift that’s going on, and America through Trump is integrated.

I believe we need to see America in this kind of global perspective, and what I’ve tried to do as someone who is not trained in American history, one of the strengths I’ve had is to look at the States with the eyes of somebody who studies authoritarianism abroad, and say, “Well, wait a minute. This person just called for Hillary Clinton to be shot by a firing squad. Is this America? Wait a minute. These people just had a float in their parade in their town, and they had Hillary Clinton in a noose. And is this America?”

Well, yes. This is an example of, yes, it was America, it is America, if you’re a person of color. Now it’s extending … This is the kind of opposite of progression, right? It’s extending in a kind of anti-democratic way to people of any color, and that’s a sign of democratic … they call it in political science, “de-consolidation.” When the norms of democracy are further deteriorating.

Jeanna Sybert: We just had the second State of the Union pretty recently. With that, we’ve marked the halfway point of Trump’s presidency. What do you think we have learned from the administration and the dynamics between the political parties, and what does this tell us about the state of America’s democracy in 2019?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: You said we’re halfway through his presidency. We hope … It’s not … because it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he will win again. And this will be scary to many listeners, but Ivanka is being groomed for political office, very obviously.

Trump is all about optics. He’s a creature who believes that the visual is worth more than the real. And she’s been placed into little positions of power, including at the G20, where he had to go to the bathroom all of a sudden, so she sat at the table. Or she may be the next head of the world bank, or she may be picking the next head of the world bank. We may have Ivanka 2024. If he does not end in some kind of disgrace, and if he … it’s not … these people construct dynasties. All of that, to say …

I think the State of the Union address and the “national emergency,” it’s a little … It’s very typical that Trump would end up trying to militarize the border, because this is what authoritarians do. We were talking in our seminar on propaganda about how Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist, he said one of the biggest functions of propaganda, one of the things that gets it started, is to bring problems into people’s field of vision, problematizing things that were not problematized before, and creating new slogans, new concepts, that then become mainstream discourse.

The “Southern border”—I have tracked this very carefully, I’ve even asked linguists, I’ve checked Congressional records—the phrase “Southern border” was not much in use in the late 20th century, early 21st century, because the border was not a problem to that extent. And all of a sudden, the media started parroting the Trump administration’s language of the “Southern border,” and you have to be very careful when leaders start talking about borders. ‘Cause in every case, it leads to militarization, it leads to war.

The migrant question, the immigrant question, is always linked to demographics and race, and Trump has made no secret of his desire to kind of whiten America, to stop people of color from coming in. If you recall, he said that we should have immigration from places like Norway.

He and Steven Bannon and Stephen Miller, and all of these interests, they’ve been working for years to set up this kind of holistic plan that will allow America to reverse the demographic change that all Republicans are frightened of. The kind of 2030, 2040 will be a minority-majority, and that, they need to reverse.

One of the things that I try and do in my work is to look at the big picture. How is this connected? How is this border stuff connected to these demographic plans? Because if you connect those dots, you have a project. And the Trump project is this. It’s happening ever day. We have children penned in … you have confinement of undesirables. You have certain things that authoritarians have always done. Some have done them in a much more brutal manner, some less, but these are things that they have always done and this is where we’re going. The State of the Union checked the box, and then you use a “national emergency” to get what you want, because this is your top priority.

Sébastien Mort: But can’t we take some comfort in the fact that overall, institutions have played their role the way they should have? I’m thinking of the new majority in the House, or even the judiciary system.

Ruth Ben Ghiat: Mm-hmm.

Sébastien Mort: Which have operated as checks and balances to his power.

Ruth Ben Ghiat: Yes. What I laid out before was the gloomy part. The very happy part, which we happen to be speaking on a fateful day, the fact that there’s a vote about whether to reverse Trump’s fake state of emergency, is a sign that we are a democracy. The fact that it can be debated, and that there’s a kind of legislative process to oppose his imperious proclamation, is very heartening because, believe me, in other places and times, you have no such rights.

And the very fact that the midterm elections brought about this sweeping change, and the amount of women who came to office, is the most visible sign—but there are many, many progressive men who came to office—this is a very heartening sign.

How it’s all going to end, I don’t know. I also, I wish the media would cover a lot of the different kinds of pushback. There’s a whole legal resistance. They wouldn’t use that word for it, but lawyers filing hundreds of suits to block the Trump administration at all levels of government. And these do not get covered by the media. And all of the people who have changed their lives since Trump came to office, who have left high-paying jobs to join nonprofits. Who have started advocacy groups. The creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon, he started a kind of mobilization network. I think he still does it full-time, but he left his job.

These stories need to be reported so people feel heartened, because the first narrative I gave is a narrative that’s depressing, that’s almost hopeless. There’s this other narrative, and we have to mediate between the two.

Sébastien Mort: Talking about the resistance and the response to the Trump administration, in an Atlantic Monthly article, you write that authoritarian leaders “work from a different playbook, and so must those we intend to confront them.”

How can opponents to Trump use his playbook to counter him, while at the same time preserving democracy? And not getting tainted in the process.

Ruth Ben Ghiat: Using his playbook to counter him does not mean adopting his methods. It means being smart, and understanding that the leader you have in front of you does not think the way that most leaders do. And using the weaknesses of those, like for example, during the presidential campaign, there was one of these debates, when there were a lot of Republican candidates still in the field.

And Trump was hammered mercilessly by Megyn Kelly, and what happened? He crumbled. Because the secret of the strongman is he’s incredibly weak and insecure, and he cannot stand to be confronted. And especially by a woman.

She really hammered at him, he fell apart, and then there was a big debate about whether she had been too aggressive and he had a hissy fit, and he refused to come to the next debate. He boycotted the next debate. Even though it was in Iowa, which is very important.

This was an opening. This told you everything you need to know about him, and had the press realized what kind of person this was, and continued to hammer him as … his tax returns, everything, he wouldn’t be there today.

It means knowing who these guys are and what their weak points are, and using that against them. And also, knowing that the more you acquiesce to them, the more they’re going to bully you. That you have to confront them. And we’ve lost so many occasions to do this. Solidarity of the press is very important. When Trump tells a journalist to sit down, everybody has to stand up. Everyone.

Now, okay, Fox News isn’t going to do it, but three quarters of them could do it. And you have to give him a direct show of confrontation, because we are in a democracy. We’re not in Erdoğan’s Turkey where I would not recommend this.

And they have to see that they are outnumbered, that there’s frontal resistance. That’s what I mean. Just a simple gesture of standing up, or turning your back. People could do that, networks could do that, and it would have been a different outcome.

Sébastien Mort: Looking at this phenomenon from a more global perspective, there has been a lot of conversations about a global rise in authoritarian rule in recent years. What is your assessment of this trend?

Ruth Ben Ghiat : I think there’s a phenomenon of enabling and contagion, almost, that the rise of Trump has hugely empowered others, like Bolsonaro, because … and the United States has been such an important funder of nations, such an important example.

There was, of course, already a big trend in this direction, but you’re going to see more of it, because Trump is destabilizing and he’s also encouraging by kowtowing to any despot, seemingly. And making it very clear that he admires authoritarians. Today’s news was the upcoming summit with North Korea, that Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the US asked him to advise them on North Korea. He’s going. He’s going there. He’s going to Vietnam where it’s taking place.

This is deeply sad. Is this true? It could be, but the Russians feel that they can make those proclamations, speaking once again for the United States. This is a symptom that the authoritarian style of rule has gone to a new level, because the United States is such a hinge, and when Lavrov popped up in the Oval Office with only a Soviet photographer—I’m using the old word, Soviet. A Russian photographer.

Game over.

This was a huge … This will go down, that picture will go down in the history of propaganda, and other things. And it was a watershed, that there was no American in the oval office. Only the Russian images spoke from the Oval Office. This was so chilling.

This is a partial focused answer to your question, that the United States has always been the lynch pin either in fighting authoritarianism, and now, the biggest triumph of Putin, which was really a huge world event, would be to turn the United States into an ally of autocracy. That’s the big plan, and from the perspective of Trump, it’s working; from the perspective of the American people, there’s huge amounts of resistance, and we’ll see what happens. But this is very dire.

Jeanna Sybert: There’s a lot of focus on Trump and Putin in the US news media, but what other leaders and political parties outside of Trump and Putin should the American public pay attention to right now?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: That’s a good question. Within, I mean, Europe is really interesting. That’s way too vague, but there are a lot of interesting things happening in Europe from protests in Hungary against Orbán to protests in Poland. Also the kind of, what’s going on in Italy, which is not good. The rise of fascism. And this is one of the most interesting big stories that’s a little bit under-reported is the links between right-wing Americans and the right in Europe.

And Steve King, the representative of Iowa, he’s kind of in the outs right now, but he’s been a very important liaison between the racist American right and Geert Wilders, the Dutch rightist, and there’s a lot of … and Putin. There’s a lot of mentoring going on right now between older authoritarians who grew up under communism, like Orbán and Putin. They have decades of knowledge of propaganda, of repression. They know what they’re doing.

They are mentoring younger rightists in Europe, like Salvini, Matteo Salvini who unfortunately will probably be prime minster before too long. And Sebastian Kurz of Austria, who’s only 31 years old and he’s supposed to be a centrist, but not too long ago he made a declaration that there should be a “axis of the willing” of Hungary, Italy and Austria—all Nazi collaborationist states.

And this is not subtle. For an Austrian to talk about an “axis of the willing,” and I do believe it was in 2017 he said it, or 2018, but not before that. Whenever he’s been in office recently.

There’s a mentoring going on where older autocrats are … it’s part of this rehabilitation of fascisms, of authoritarianisms. And Putin’s putting back up statues of Stalin. These are stories that are going on, and the links of the US with this ongoing trend is very interesting.

Sébastien Mort: To finish, you have studied the rise and fall of many authoritarian regimes. How does this end?

Ruth Ben Ghiat: It’s hard to say. As I said before, we could, there are different outcomes. One is that we descend into a kind of soft authoritarianism, which would be highly contested. One is that … I don’t think the Mueller investigation is going to end with Trump leaving office. He’d have to be voted out.

Another outcome is what we saw in the midterms produces a very compact charismatic. It must be someone who can beat Trump at his own game, in terms of charisma, in terms of exciting people. And then, we have an outcome of a flip back to a Democratic president.

But all of the things that Trump is doing, in the past have not ended well. And this is why, I think, a good place to leave this is that America is a laboratory right now because you have a leader who has 100% authoritarian personality, 100% inclination to have strongman rule, and 100% admiration of other strongmen. But he’s leading America. American democracy. We are a large nation, we have a history of protest, of civil struggle, and civic feeling, and so it’s a laboratory for what can happen, for the collision between these two things.

All eyes should really be on America to see how this particular part of the authoritarian playbook will end.

Jeanna Sybert: This was the first part of our conversation with Professor Ben-Ghiat on the rise of authoritarianism within the United States and around the world.

Join us for part two where we discuss Trump, the media, and propaganda. Here, we talk about the importance of public scholarship in the age of Trump, and what news media can do to counter political intimidation as we enter the 2020 election season. 

This episode was produced by me, Jeanna Sybert, and Sébastien Mort, and edited by Aaron Shapiro. We’d like to thank Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Waldo Aguirre and Emily Plowman. Barbie Zelizer is the director of the Center for Media @ Risk. More information can be found at


“All the Right Things” by Son Lux (intro)
“Ymir” by Dawn of Midi
“Atlas” by Dawn of Midi
“Dysnomia” by Dawn of Midi
“Sinope” by Dawn of Midi
“Moon” by Dawn of Midi
“Two Fish and an Elephant” by Khruangbin (outtro) 


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Ruth Ben-Ghiat is an award-winning historian, author, and political commentator on fascism, authoritarian leadership, propaganda, and threats to democracy past and present. An advisor to Protect Democracy, Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at NYU and a Visiting Scholar with the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School in spring 2019. In her regular columns for and the Washington Post, and on radio, podcasts, and television, she offers historically informed analyses of current events and images that make the news. Her look at Trump and Putin’s body language during their Helsinki summit was one of CNN’s 2018’s most popular essays of 2018. She’s a clear communicator of complex ideas to public, corporate, and academic audiences on topics such as “How Strongmen Think – and How to Oppose Them,” “The Global Right’s Endgame,” and “Propaganda and Personality Cults: How They Work.” She has received Guggenheim and other fellowships for her work on fascism, war, and visual propaganda. In Fascist Modernities and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, she looks at what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold and why they appealed to so many. Her New Yorker article on the normalization of Fascist monuments at a time of resurgent right-wing politics in Italy prompted a national debate about how to consider fascism’s heritage today. Her 2016 CNN essay arguing that women should register for Selective Service is part of the United States Army’s curriculum. In 2016 and early 2017, she predicted that Trump would imitate Putin’s personality cult and follow the authoritarian playbook including using shock events to disorient the public. InThe Atlantic she foresaw the Trump-GOP authoritarian-enabler relationship. She’s analyzed Trump’s language games (his use of Twittertrial balloons, and threatening speech) and their relationship to right-wing violence and has advised how to push back against his propaganda machine. Find her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.

Sébastien Mort is Associate Professor of American Studies at Université de Lorraine in Metz, France, a Fulbright scholar and a Visiting Researcher at the Center for Media at Risk. His research focuses on political partisanship in the U.S. media and the conservative resurgence of the late 20th century, with emphasis on the communication and media strategy of the Republican Party and conservative movements. While in residence at the Center for Media at Risk in Spring 2019, Mort is focusing on Donald Trump’s intimidation of the news media and the ways in which it forces us to reassess journalistic practices and norms in the post-broadcast media regime. Mort also is exploring the phenomenon of Trump supporters’ antimedia anger within the broader questions of popular mistrust in the news media and media bias.Find him on Twitter @SebastienMort.

Jeanna Sybert is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. She is interested in the ways visual artifacts and trends in the media can rhetorically impact publics in the contemporary political moment. Primarily, she is concerned with the changing ways politicized images, especially in the U.S., circulate throughout the digital public sphere, and how these images can be appropriated, repurposed, or perverted in ways that then shape public attitudes. Sybert researches topics within the areas of critical journalism studies, visual rhetoric, and political communication. Within this realm, she largely focuses on instances of distant suffering, war, political violence, and trauma. Before joining the Annenberg community, Sybert received her B.A. in Communication & Rhetoric and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. As an undergraduate, she completed a senior thesis that examined how U.S. news outlets leveraged abject horror throughout the coverage of Omran Daqneesh and its possible impact on American public perception about the Syrian Civil War. Find her on Twitter @Jeanna_Sybert 

This episode was produced by Sébastien Mort and Jeanna Sybert and edited by Aaron Shapiro. Podcast image by Joanna Birkner.