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How Dictators End


And when Ahithopel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and arose, and gat him home to his house, to his city, and put his household in order, and hanged himself.

                                                                                 2 Samuel 17:23

In 1922, Italo Balbo, a 25-year old political activist who had joined Benito Mussolini’s budding Fascist Party (and later sat on its Grand Council), made a diary entry at a time when the Fascists were trying to figure out how to consolidate power in Italy.

The question confronting the young radicals was whether to work within the existing parliamentary system, or to undermine it from without, through violence. Balbo cast his lot with the latter approach. “Better [he wrote] destroy everything in order to build everything up again from the bottom.” Which is exactly what Mussolini did when, within a year, he assumed absolute power in Italy.

Does Balbo’s quote sound familiar? “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” said Steve Bannon, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. It was a goal Bannon was to achieve through his Leader, Donald Trump—and while Bannon has since departed the White House, Trump continues to destroy the existing order, almost on a daily basis.

Mussolini and his Fascists spoke of an Italy rotten to the core, emasculated by a feeble Papacy and monarchy, lacking the machismo of the old Roman Empire, which he hoped to resurrect. Italy needed “order, work, and discipline,” he told his followers on the eve of assuming power; if opposed by reactionaries, “We shall reply by insurrection,” he warned, and followed through on that threat with an authoritarian dictatorship that, ultimately, dragged Italy onto the losing side in World War II and cost Mussolini his life.

Shortly before Balbo’s diary entry, Mussolini himself had published an article in his newspaper, Popolo d’Italia (which was the Fox News of Fascism), proclaiming the need for a dictator, namely himself, and an end to universal suffrage, “to save Italy,” i.e. make Italy great again, as it had been in the days of Empire. Can we not see the direct analogy between Mussolini and the Fascist Party, on the one hand, and Donald J. Trump and the Trump Party? Like Mussolini, Trump detests the messy chaos of democracy. A parliamentary system (and our Congress) is a useless impediment to progress. Far better for the top man—the Duce, or the President—to issue orders and have them unquestioningly obeyed. As for a clamorous free press, there can be none: the people must have clear, simple instructions from the top; a cacophony of opinions is dangerous, and will not be tolerated.

Comparison between Trump and Hitler have been rampant the last few years, but the better analogy is between Trump and Mussolini. The latter invented the concept of the “corporate state”; indeed, his calls for “administrative decentralization” were precursors of Trump’s war on “the regulatory state.” The Fascist Party’s program, drawn up at Mussolini’s behest, called for “private industry to be encouraged” and “the right to strike” withdrawn. In similar fashion, Trump’s orgy of deregulation gives a green light to mega-corporations to, in effect, determine their own policies–policies that will not be challenged by the Federal government. (Offshore oil drilling is but one salient example.) And of course, workers’ unions are in Trump’s crosshairs.

Hitler had his Brownshirts. Mussolini had his Blackshirts, or Squadre: young, angry thugs, virile and healthy, men who loved to fight, to crush skulls, who had no patience for political opposition or compromise. Who comprises Trump’s Squadre?  He is commander-in-chief, of course, and while we must not presume that the 2.2 million men and women in the U.S. military would automatically obey any order from Trump to use force domestically, still the departure of Gen. Mattis must give us pause. What would happen if Trump tried to use the military as the enforcement arm of Trumpism? In yesterday’s blog I referred to Trump’s threat that he “knows how to handle” Democrats. Mussolini, too, knew that the way to handle his opposition—the Catholic Church, the Monarchy, the indulgent middle classes, Communists and Socialists—was through brute force and coercion. Mussolini had occasionally to veer this way or that, in order to stay on course: the occasional Concordat with the Church, or friendly gesture to the Royal House, had to be made every once in a while. These were necessary steps backward or sideways, in order to ensure a continued path forward. Trump, so far, has not shown any “friendly gestures” to Democrats or liberals, but that is because he has not been in office long enough to realize that such “deals” are required if he is to remain in power. Mussolini had realized this by the 1920s, by suffering political defeats in the prior decade. Hitler, too, realized it in the 1920s; he had gone from a “my way or the highway” authoritarianism to “Adolf Legalité,” the revolutionary who was willing to work within the system to gain power legally.

Well, this is getting into the tall weeds, but my point is that Trump ought more aptly be compared to Mussolini than to Hitler. Mussolini enjoyed a pretty good run: absolute power from 1923 until 1945. But his end was not pretty: killed and then hung upside down, dangling from a lamppost, beside his mistress. There will be a not-pretty end for Trump too, and while I am not calling for violence (hello, Secret Service), it’s well to remember that Mussolini’s murderers were his own people, the Fascists, freed at last from thrall, and enraged at the catastrophe into which Mussolini had plunged Italy.

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