This week in Say More, PS talks with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.
Project Syndicate: Before last November’s presidential election, you wrote that the “mere possibility” that a sitting US president would “foment political violence if the outcome doesn’t go his way” was symptomatic of a degraded democratic political climate.” That possibility came to pass with the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, which Donald Trump incited. But many believe that Joe Biden’s subsequent inauguration shows that US democratic institutions weathered the test. Have they? What steps must the Biden administration take – especially in the next two years, while the Democrats have a slim congressional majority – to combat America’s “democratic erosion”?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: We must use this window of opportunity to enact measures that reflect and reinforce the bedrock democratic principles of transparency, accountability, and solidarity. That means, for starters, instituting a much more rigorous procedure for vetting presidential candidates, including disclosure of financial records and foreign and domestic business interests.
We must also hold elected officials and candidates responsible for the language they use. Rogue statements, such as Trump’s January 2016 boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters, should have consequences.
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We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Ben-Ghiat's picks:
Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
by Kathleen Belew
The Capitol insurrection of January 6 displayed the strength of extremist politics in the US. This book explores the history of the politics that made the riot, highlighting how organized the white-power movement has become.
State of Exception
by Giorgio Agamben
When the pandemic hit and I temporarily relocated outside of New York City, I took only this slim volume about the windows of legal uncertainty authoritarians exploit at critical historical junctures. I did not regret it.
The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism
by Miklos Haraszti
I am currently re-reading this 1987 book about the cunning ways communist states compelled intellectuals and artists to self-censor, and how the model of apparent tolerance – letting many present themselves as representatives of socialist aesthetics, rather than imposing strict party-approved standards – paid off for the state.
From the PS Archive
In “The Trump Contagion,” Ben-Ghiat, Jeffrey D. Sachs, and Bandy X. Lee recommend five urgent steps to protect global security. Read more.
Around the web
In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times, Ben-Ghiat examines Trump’s formula for building a lasting personality cult. Read the article.
In an interview with Heidi Siegmund Cuda, Ben-Ghiat discusses how a crisis of masculinity paved the way for fascism. Read the discussion.