Massive personality defects ruled out listening to other people. Narcissistic to a degree, he presented himself to his subordinates and to the public as all-knowing—he could reel off an array of statistics (not all accurate) —and all-wise. A master of the media of his day—newspapers and state-controlled radio—he ruled on the basis of intuition and extemporization. He acted on the spur of the moment, always sensitive to the need to be seen as other leaders’ equal. Rarely did anyone ever try to talk him out of a chosen course, and when they did so they failed. You couldn’t reason with him. He made bad choices, disregarded warnings his country was not up to the demands he was making of it, and turned a blind eye to economic realities. Many of the failures and setbacks were his fault—though not all of them. Had he lived to write his memoirs, he would no doubt have railed against incompetent generals and inadequate subordinates. That would have been a smokescreen. You might almost think I was writing about Donald Trump, but in fact, this is a description of Benito Mussolini.
Following Donald Trump’s release from his three-night stay at Walter Reed Hospital to relieve symptoms of the coronavirus, he flew back to the White House (WH) on Marine One, exited the military helicopter, and ascended the steps leading to the WH second-floor balcony. Once there, he instantly removed his face mask as he turned to the flash cameras and camcorders below. Occasionally visibly gasping for air, he posed in the style of Benito Mussolini with an arrogant gaze and his head held high.
This current El Douche has much more in common with the actual Italian Il Duce than readily meets the eye and ear. While many of the social, political, and economic conditions differ today in the United States from Italy during the first half of the last century, some parallels persist. Trump rises to the level, and possibly surpasses, Mussolini’s arrogant swagger and all-consuming narcissism and sociopathy though I suspect Mussolini would beg to differ. Both figures are legendary for their predatory womanizing and frequent extra-marital affairs.
Both leaders had trouble telling the truth in their utterances and their consciousness. Not letting the facts get in the way is the basis of both their political strategies. According to Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” In Mussolini’s case, he came to believe his lies; it’s difficult to believe Donald Trump actually believes his, but he just may be so deluded that he does. Both could be placed into the category of “Machiavellian” in their single-mindedness, scheming, conspiracy-driven, unscrupulous, and vicious actions to advance their careers and enact their policies. To them, the ends justify the means no matter who gets hurt. It’s all about power and machismo.
Trump, however, differs significantly from Mussolini in terms of interest and achievement in intellectual pursuits. Mussolini prided himself on his scholarly endeavors and command of multiple languages. He acted on strong ideological beliefs. On the other hand, Trump acts on concerns for winning at all costs regardless of ideological positions. The only book he has admitted to reading was a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches. While he claims to love the Bible, Trump cannot tell you a single thing within the sacred text.
Even though he is amoral and shows no signs of being a Christian, Trump received enthusiastic support from evangelicals who claimed he was the modern-day King David, a flawed womanizer who God is said to have loved anyway. Evangelicals also support Trump over his stance against abortion rights. As a socialist youth, Mussolini declared himself an atheist and railed against the Catholic Church. After taking power, Mussolini began working to pander to the Catholic Church to gain wider support. He outlawed freemasonry, exempted the clergy from taxation, cracked down on artificial contraception, campaigned for an increased birth rate, raised penalties for abortion, restricted nightlife, regulated women’s clothing, and banned homosexual acts among adult men. Despite having many mistresses, he also put in place harsh punishments for adultery. In 1929 Mussolini signed an agreement with the Vatican under which the Church received authority over marriage and was compensated for property seized decades earlier. Similar to evangelicals today who support Trump, Pope Pius XI referred to Mussolini as the “man whom providence has sent us.”
When Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States, the man who called himself a “populist” lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Over three million more voters did not support the draconian policies and vile language he uttered during the campaign. But White ultra-nationalist, fascist leaders, evangelicals, and many of their followers supported the Trump candidacy and celebrated his victory. For example, a white nationalist conference held on November 19, 2016, at the Ronald Reagan Building headlined by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, greeted attendees with a tribute to then-President-elect Trump shouting “Hail Trump! Hail victory!” from the stage. Then, before all in attendance, Spencer gestured in a traditional Nazi straight-arm salute.
Another example is when Trump defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville saying they included “some very fine people on both sides,” while expressing sympathy for their demonstration against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In August 2020, Trump addressed the baseless, far-right QAnon conspiracy theory saying he didn’t know much about the online community and its followers other than “they like me very much.” In response to a question about the conspiracy community, Trump added, “I heard that these are people who love our country.” When a reporter partially summed up the conspiracy theory to him — that it revolves around a false narrative that Trump is leading a secret, government-led charge against pedophiles, cannibals, and satanic worshippers — Trump responded: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?” Trump said, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.” He’s willing to do anything to stay in power. And, let’s not forget he refused in the first presidential debate to denounce white supremacists and instead told the violent far-right, neo-fascist and male-only Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Once identifying himself as a Democrat, but never unequivocally disavowing himself from white nationalists, Trump has transformed himself into the mouthpiece of the extreme far-right wing of the Republican Party. Once a staunch socialist, Benito Mussolini was denounced by the Italian Socialist Party for advocating Italy’s involvement in World War I which countered the Party’s stance on neutrality. Mussolini severely transformed his political stance, and later, he became one of the chief architects of the fascist movement. Before his election, Trump had tapped Steve Bannon, former editor of the far-right Breitbart News, as his campaign director, and before firing him, elevated Bannon into the White House to function as his chief policy advisor, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Bannon once boasted that Breitbart News serves as the mouthpiece for the so-called “alt-right,” a less odious and misleading term for white nationalists.
As President, Trump rolled back many of the rights and protections that minorities have tirelessly fought for over the past decades: affordable and quality health care, reproductive rights, voting rights, citizenship rights, anti-torture guarantees, rights of unreasonable search and seizure, rights of assembly, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights in the military, free speech and freedom of the press rights, freedom of and from religion while attacking marriage equality. Now, with the Senate confirmation of the conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court seemingly imminent, he has the chance to continue these policies through the courts long after he has been driven from office.
Trump’s continual cries against “Islamic jihadist terrorists” as the number one threat to our nation (even as the FBI says racially-motivated violent extremists in the U.S. are the primary national threat). He issued presidential executive orders banning travel into the U.S. by six majority Muslim nations, called for U.S. Muslims to be placed on a “national registry,” and should be under surveillance to track their movements. These acts de facto “racializes” Muslims. I would not put it past Trump to call for passbooks, like in Apartheid South Africa, for American Muslims and others whom Trump deems a threat to him and his supporters.
Before becoming the Italian fascist dictator, Mussolini believed nationalism superseded class distinctions as opposed to a focus in socialism on class struggle which he had previously accepted. He argued that a vanguard of elites must lead society which would ultimately suppress democracy, and that the state must control “proper linguistic and racial confines.” Though Mussolini’s theories on “race” centered on the culture of a people as opposed to Nazism’s reliance on biology, he did assert a “natural law” thesis that “stronger” people had the right to dominate the “inferior.” Remember, Trump and his father Fred refused some years ago to rent their properties to black people, and too, his racist representations of Mexican people who attempted to come into the United States across the border.
Later, serving as Italy’s youngest Prime Minister in 1922 at the age of 39, Mussolini helped establish the secret police, outlawed labor strikes, and facilitated a one-party dictatorship. Favoring the wealthy classes and forming a virtual oligarchy, he passed legislation making it easier for privatization, deregulation of business and industry, and the dismantling of labor unions. Trump has proposed and forwarded similar policy directives including using the military to keep him in power and sending government agents into cities to attack and detain protesters without due process. Will his apparent parallels with Benito Mussolini hold – and even strengthen – during his presidency, or will he pleasantly surprise us by pivoting to become a healer of the national wounds he cut into the body politic throughout his career up to now? We all know Trump will never be a healer, only a divider. His divisive and derogatory nature is what seems to energize him.
If you are interested in further comparisons between Benito Mussolini and Donald Trump, look no further than their sons-in-law: Galeazzo Ciano and Jared Kushner. Both had similar privileged backgrounds before they married the daughters of Mussolini and Trump. Their fathers-in-law elevated them to positions in the respective administrations, and neither appeared to be qualified for their elevated stature. While there are many similarities, in contrast to Kushner, Ciano attempted to act as a moderating voice in Mussolini’s ear by warning the Italian leader their military was utterly ill-equipped for any serious and possibly prolonged war effort. He attempted to serve as a voice of reason throughout Italy’s doomed involvement. In response to questioning his authority, Mussolini summarily ordered his son-in-law’s execution on the charge of treason on February 6, 1943, before Mussolini was ultimately rounded up and killed by Italian socialist partisans. Kushner, likely, won’t succumb to the same fate, as he continues to act as Trump’s lapdog. He pushed forth Trump’s policies of denying the COVID-19 pandemic’s seriousness and even went so far as to attempt to block aid to “blue states.”
When affairs were going well, Mussolini considered Ciano a trusted advisor. As conditions increasingly deteriorated, and as Ciano advised a different course – specifically for his father-in-law to sign a separate peace with the allies to spare the country needless loss of life and devastation — Mussolini only distrusted Ciano more and accused him of treason. Trump has shown he will do the same thing to his cronies if they displease him as Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen, John Bolton, and many others did. The Trump administration has been a revolving door of people as Trump dismissed one after the other for the slightest disagreement.
The lesson of this history? Choose your leaders with great care, for they can do real and lasting damage.