*Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
"In 2016, I declared, I am your voice. Today, I add, I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution." Anyone who wants to understand how Fascist models of leadership can find expression in our own time need only read this passage from former president Donald Trump's speech at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee meeting held in Maryland.
Trump's CPAC speech brings forth a century of rhetoric and agendas that have been used to destroy democracy, conjuring threats that are meant to build support for authoritarian action and leadership, starting with the idea of the head of state as a vengeful victim.
“What did Italy need? An avenger!... It was necessary to cauterize the virulent wounds...and eliminate evils which threatened to become chronic," Fascist leader Benito Mussolini wrote in his autobiography, striking a similar note to Trump as he explained why he had declared dictatorship in 1925.
Ever since Il Duce came to power a century ago, strongman leaders have proclaimed their unique ability to lead their people to greatness, including by righting the wrongs internal and external enemies supposedly perpetrate against the nation. In the process, the strongman absorbs the blows delivered by those enemies, putting his well-being at risk as he battles to save the nation and protect all that is cherished and dear.
The focus on victimhood sets up any repressive action by the state as self-defense. It justifies the literal weaponization of government, with violence used against enemies "for the good of the nation." The "public safety laws" that jailed leftists and transformed Italy into a police state in the 1920s upheld this fiction.
And Nazi policies did not just make good on Adolf Hitler's vows to punish elites who had "stabbed Germany in the back" by accepting the draconian terms of the Versailles Treaty (which held Germany responsible for all moral and material damages incurred during World War One). They also targeted groups that Hitler identified as threats to Germany’s survival in the future. These included Jews ("black parasites of the nation"); Bolsheviks (the “scum of humanity”); and war profiteers and international capitalists— the forerunners of the "globalists" Trump regularly denounces, including in this CPAC speech.
When such leaders feel their power is threatened, or are staging a comeback after having been voted out of office, they focus on gaining control of public institutions to exact revenge. This is one meaning of Trump’s declaration that "we're going to finish what we started.” If he returns to the White House, he will punish all who did not collaborate with his attempt to overthrow the government.
Trump's well-honed victimhood persona is the star of the CPAC speech, and he invokes a dizzying array of enemies who want to "kill America" and do him in as well. "A sick and sinister opposition, the radical left, communists, the bureaucrats, the fake news media, the big special interests," as well as "Antifa thugs," and "corrupt intelligence agencies."
Looking satisfied with his performance of victimhood. Trump speaks at CPAC in Maryland, March 4, 2023. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Fascist leaders pose as pure souls who risk everything to defend the nation. Trump followed suit at CPAC by presenting himself as an innocent and honest man who had never tangled with the law before "corrupt Democratic prosecutors" funded by "the George Soros money machine" sought to stop his "an epic struggle to rescue our country."
"I had a beautiful life before I did this..."I didn't know the word subpoena, I didn't know the word grand jury. I didn't know that they want to lynch you for doing nothing wrong." Luckily for his followers, Trump is tenacious. "We're going to complete the mission, we're going to see this battle through to ultimate victory. we're going to make America great again."
But why stop at America? The true Fascist avenger fixes the world. "I will have the disastrous war between Russia and Ukraine settled. It will be settled quickly. I will get the problem solved. I will get it solved in rapid order—it will take me no longer than one day. I know what to say to each of them. I got along well with all of them. I got along well with Putin."
In fact, as Trump remarks, had he been in office now, as fearsome and powerful as a mountain, "Russia would have never pulled the trigger. This is the most dangerous time in the history of our country and Joe Biden is leading us into oblivion...Biden is a criminal and nothing ever seems to happen to him."
With this incitement to violence against a sitting president, Trump's CPAC speech reaches its peak. Trump offers Americans no policy ideas, but rather a classic Fascist cocktail of negative emotions, satisfying promises of revenge, and a sense of heroism and power.
Like Mussolini and Hitler before him, Trump knows that the strongman must be everything to his people. His devoted followers must be so bonded to him that no other leader is possible in their minds. Only he can save them. "I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution."
Benito Mussolini, My Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928), 205. Adolf Hitler, speech in Salzburg, August 1920, in Neil Gregor, “Hitler,” in Mental Maps in the Era of Two World Wars, eds. Steven Casey and Jonathan Wright (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 189; Hitler, “Rathenau und Sancho Pansa,” Völkischer Beobachter, March 13, 1921.