Ruth Ben-Ghiat on Coronavirus and the Rise of Autocracy

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of History and Italian Studies at NYU, while a Member in the School of Historical Studies this spring, has been working on a book entitled Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present. Professor Ben-Ghiat’s scholarship centers on the history of autocracy and authoritarian regimes. Her current research began five years ago when she noticed disturbing similarities between the psychological and political characteristics of authoritarian leaders in history and current leaders, including those in the United States. Professor Ben-Ghiat spoke with Joanne Lipman, Distinguished Journalism Fellow, about autocratic behaviors in leaders in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This conversation was conducted on April 6, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Joanne Lipman: What is your take is on the coronavirus and autocracy?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Unfortunately, some of the conditions the pandemic causes are perfect for autocracy. For example, you have a defenseless nation that cannot turn out in numbers to protest. So, some of the instruments of resistance against creeping autocracy, like public demonstrations, you can’t do at this time. You also have a population that’s more in contact than ever, but is weakened and distracted. Those are just some things that would make it easier rather than harder for someone in the autocratic mind frame to increase their power.

JL: Yet repressive nations like Korea and Singapore, which have essentially established martial law, have been praised for slowing infection rates. How do you reconcile that?

RB: South Korea is a democracy and Singapore is a form of authoritarian rule. So, those are good examples because, in my mind, it’s everything to do with the intention of the government.

If the government’s intention is benign, there may be elements within police or secret services of democracies that will use those moments of surveillance and intervention to do non-democratic things. But if you have a democratic government that has the public good in mind, those are temporary interferences—just like in a situation of war, when you have enhanced executive authority, but the intention is to protect citizens. For example, when you up surveillance so that you minimize leaks to the enemy in war time. So it all depends.

JL: Are we seeing autocratic tendencies in the U.S?

RB: One thing that’s emerged clearly is that there is a common authoritarian style of government and Trump engages in it.

I was going to do an op-ed on this before this (COVID) happened, that Trump has been dismantling since the day he got into office a lot of public health and disaster prevention programs. He took away money for prevention of dirty bomb attacks, for example. He’s been doing this and funneling the money into his border wall. This is now all coming home to roost, in that all of these things he’s been doing for years are leaving us far less prepared than we would have been under a different kind of president.

JL: You’re suggesting the pandemic is worse than it could and should have been. Is that correct?

RB: Yes.

JL: What about the outcome for democracy?

RB: I wish I could be more positive. An op-ed article in the LA Times was talking about how voter suppression—which far pre-dated Trump; it’s a GOP way of keeping its own hegemony in states—has been far increased during the pandemic. We can expect that. Trump has been very against one of the solutions to this, which is mail-in voting. He refuses to entertain this. This is a joint strategy of Trump and the GOP; we cannot lay all the responsibility on this with Trump. They will do whatever it takes to keep themselves in office, whether it means fixing elections through voter suppression and other things, or the pandemic leaving citizens unable to protest. It’s going to exacerbate all of the things that may have been in the works anyway.

JL: Do you think that the U.S. elections will be delayed?

RB: I’m not sure. I’m not a constitutional expert and elections expert, so I can’t talk about the full range of possibilities, but whatever voting is held, the attempt to manipulate it and prevent people who might vote against Republicans and Trump from voting, will clearly happen. The pandemic can only help that, rather than help democracy.

In general, we’ve seen in other countries, such as Hungary, Viktor Orbán used the pandemic conditions as an excuse to increase his power. He now has the power to rule indefinitely. So, unfortunately, at the national level, democracy may be very harmed as a result of this. However, we’ve seen huge new respect and solidarity at the local and state levels.

We can think, in New York, of Governor Cuomo, who has earned new visibility and respect as a leader. So there are other processes of democracy and respect for law and order in a democratic way that will be strengthened, I believe.

JL: You’ve said there are elements of authoritarianism that repeat over and again through history. One of them is misinformation. Is that playing out here?

RB: Yes. Misinformation, and spreading conspiracy theories, have been tactics of Trump since far before he came into the presidency. This is how he operates. He was one of the chief promoters of birtherism, which was trying to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency. In fact, in 2011, when Trump was seriously thinking for the first time about becoming a candidate, he tested the waters with birtherism. He’s very, very practiced at misinformation, at using rumor and innuendo to undermine certainties and undermine people.

JL: Does your certainty come from observing him, or from your study of previous autocratic leaders?

RB: It’s both. One of the tragedies of autocracy is that the ruler is beloved by a large part of his people. And he gets their loyalty very early. They bond with him. To the frustration of the opposition and the press, they don’t understand why they don’t wake up and see through his lies. But one of the recurring things with autocracy is once they believe in him, they will believe anything he says. Or they know that he’s telling lies, but they don’t care because they even can applaud it because he’s an anti-establishment maverick.

As a counter to that, one of the remarkable things that people are starting to write about and will write about is how all over the world, people have found ways to have those horizontal bonds, which is very moving. In Italy, they had quarantinis where—like, martini aperitifs but quarantined...

JL: I’ve had several quarantinis!

RB: Yes, and Italians are very expert, because family and community bonds are so important. And then, early in their quarantine, they had moments where everybody would sing together, and this went viral on social media. Humans want social engagement. They want to be close.

So, it’s going to be a very interesting story how, all over the world, people find ways of doing that because that is a basic human need.

JL: Can you put this in a global context? Were we already in a moment when globally, there was a move towards authoritarianism?

RB: Yes, we were in a heightened time of authoritarianism, because these things are contagious. When rulers who want to be authoritarians see others who are doing the same thing and succeeding, they learn from them. So, definitely, there’s an uptick. But something else was also happening: mass protests all over the world.

In Chile—in Santiago—they had not had such big mass protests since the days they were opposing Pinochet in the 1980s. And this was a big story, that millions and millions of people all over the world were out in the streets protesting economic inequality. So, right now, that’s not available. When you protest, you’re not just letting the rulers see. You’re letting the elites who back him up see, because rulers are nothing without their elites who invest in them and control the parties. Those people—if they see that enough protestors are out there thinking they might lose their own seats, they may turn. They may defect.

So, right now, we don’t have that option (to protest) anywhere in the world. That’s an issue.

JL: It seems that there are moments in time when there’s a global shift toward democracy, and other moments when there’s a shift toward authoritarianism. Am I right about that?

RB: Yes. And the big unknown story is, I do believe, in the short term, that we will come out of this pandemic with more, rather than fewer, repressive governments. However, I also feel that this is a life changing experience. It’s a leveler because, for example, those people who like Donald Trump because they agree with his racism, they can feel that it’s not going to affect them. But here comes the pandemic, which doesn’t care about your age, your religion, your skin color—nothing. It’s a leveler. I believe that people who have been imbibing lies of autocrats—sometimes for decades—they will see that it’s going to affect them. Their mother might die. Their beloved pastor might die.

They will see a little more easily that perhaps, what they believed is not true. And also, as I mentioned before, we’re going to appreciate community more. We’re going to appreciate those horizontal bonds, and kindness, and how interrelated we all are. Because we can’t survive without each other.

JL: You’re saying that in the short-term, we’ll have more authoritarian rule, but in the longer term, it breaks down?

RB: I could see a longer-term reappraisal of the way we were living—backing politicians who believe in inequality, who teach us to be cruel to each other. Because this is a profound experience to go through. People who were able to say that they were not affected, or they never saw the ruler be cruel, they won’t be able to do that anymore. I think that on a global level, the energy that was fueling this mass protest, it hasn’t gone away. It’s at home. It’s sheltering at home.

And so, there’s the potential for something transformative to come out of this. I can’t say more because I don’t have a crystal ball, but I believe that we can’t be the same after going through something like this.

JL: Could there be a backlash against the authoritarianism?

RB: Yes. And the things I’m describing are directly in opposition to authoritarian rule. So, we could see, in a medium term or longer term, a new appreciation for democracy.

JL: That’s hopeful.

RB: That’s hopeful. I end my rather bleak book on a hopeful note, too, because the bonds of love and caring, in several instances, have spawned political movements that have appealed to people more than law and order and repression and hatred.

JL: Can you mention one or two of those moments?

RB: The most recent one—which I’m very interested in—happened in Turkey with the race for the campaign for mayor of Istanbul. Ekrem İmamoğlu ran for mayor as an opposition candidate. He had a platform he called “Radical Love.” Instead of preaching vertical obedience to authority and hatred, he walked around the streets of Istanbul and he embraced people. He went to where they were, face to face, and he refused to engage in polarizing and negative campaigning. And this has enormous appeal. So he won the race for mayor of Istanbul causing the Erdoğan government to use technicalities to annul the results. Because that’s what autocrats do.

They made them have a rematch. And İmamoğlu persisted in his positive campaigning and he got, the second time around, even more votes. So, he’s now the mayor of Istanbul and he’s published articles—including in the Washington Post—about how he feels this approach can beat polarization, and give hope to people. Basically, he gave a message of optimism, caring, and hope.

JL: And it worked.

RB: And it worked. There are several cases like that and I think that this could work in our country as well. That remains to be seen. But the experience of writing this book has led me to believe that that is possible even though, as you see from our conversation, I’m no Pollyanna. I say bleak things if I need to, but I believe that there is a hunger in the human heart for a more just kind of government.