Donald Trump is sending the most dangerous signal of his post-presidency, with a promise that if he returns to power he will be prepared to pardon January 6 insurrectionists. His message is a promise of impunity that does not merely propose to let violent political allies and supporters of the former president off the hook for their past lawlessness. It provides none-too-subtle encouragement for the next wave of insurrectionist violence.
As he prepares for an expected 2024 presidential bid, Trump is stealing whole sections from the authoritarian playbook of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and other fascists who have used political violence as a tool to create and extend their grip on power.
Rallying supporters in Texas Saturday, the disgraced former president gave every indication that he is planning to run again for the nation’s top job in 2024. And he made an audacious promise to abuse the sweeping pardon powers afforded to presidents, in a way that would protect and encourage insurrectionists. “If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6 fairly,” Trump told the crowd, which he whipped into a frenzy. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly.”
That was a dangerous signal in and of itself, as it came from a former president with a track record of abusing his pardon authority for political purposes. It suggested a willingness to employ the power of the presidency to circumvent legitimate and necessary legal accountability for those who launched a deadly attack on the US Capitol, and for himself—as the man who told those at the January 6 rally to head to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
But the even more dangerous signal was to those who might “fight like hell” to thwart ongoing legal scrutiny of Trump’s personal and political wrongdoing—by New York Attorney General Letitia James, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, among others.
As the The New York Times reported:
In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Trump also took aim at the New York State attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney, both of whom have been investigating his businesses for possible fraud, and at the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., who is empaneling a special grand jury to investigate Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.
He urged his supporters to organize large protests in New York and Atlanta, as well as in Washington, if those investigations led to action against him.
Trump told the Texas crowd, “They’re trying to put me in jail. These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick. They’re mentally sick.… If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere.”
Willis, a veteran prosecutor, took the threat seriously enough to request security assistance from the FBI.
Scholars who have studied the rise of fascist strongmen have long compared Trump’s words and deeds to those of authoritarians such as Mussolini, who ruled Italy with an iron fist from the mid-1920s to 1943, and who aligned that country with German dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Not all of these scholars have gone so far as to label Trump a fascist, arguing for a narrow definition of the term that recognizes the distinct character of one-party states and the fervor for territorial conquest that characterized dictatorships of the 1930s and ’40s. But there are many who see the former president as following “the authoritarian playbook first written by Mussolini,” as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, has put it.
“Benito Mussolini created the world’s first Fascist dictatorship not just as a counter to the powerful Italian left—that’s a well-known story—but also as a desperate act to avoid prosecution,” explained Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, in 2018. As they were grasping for power, Mussolini and his fascist allies used pardons of supporters to strengthen their position.
When Mussolini served as Italy’s prime minister in the mid-1920s, a leading Socialist member of the Italian Parliament, Giacomo Matteotti, was preparing to reveal evidence of financial impropriety on the part of Mussolini and his fellow fascists. In June of 1924, Matteotti was kidnapped and murdered by Mussolini’s secret police. It was an international scandal, with Time magazine reporting on protests against “the crime itself and the ruthless methods of suppressing the scandal adopted by Fascismo,” which initially threatened to topple Mussolini from his position as prime minister.
“A special investigation was soon launched to determine Mussolini’s role in the murder. By December 1924, rumors circulated that the Italian leader would be impeached or arrested, while Fascist loyalists floated the idea of pardons,” Ben-Ghiat recalled in her 2018 essay.
To save himself, Mussolini took the plunge into dictatorship, announcing in January 1925 that he and his party were above the law. “If Fascism has been a criminal association, I am the head of that criminal association,” he told Parliament, letting them know that the window to unseat him had closed. Amid the slew of repressive legislation that followed, Mussolini pardoned all political criminals and fired the two magistrates overseeing the investigation, replacing them with loyalists who issued a verdict of involuntary rather than willful murder. He ruled without limits to his power for 18 more years.
Reflecting on Trump’s authoritarian excesses, Ben-Ghiat noted at that time that “some rules of strongman behavior haven’t changed.”
Now that Trump is leaning in to the rules of strongman behavior with increasing urgency, he’s getting some mild rebukes from fellow Republicans. For the most part, though, they appear to be open to backing him again if he seeks the party nomination in 2024.
That failure on the part of top Republicans to push back against Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian tactics that inspire comparison with fascist strategies is one of the reasons constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz says responsible officials in both parties need to step up efforts to bar the former president from running again.
Bonifaz is president of Free Speech for People, a group that makes the case that Trump has violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. That section bars elected officials who have engaged in insurrection—or who have given aid and comfort to insurrectionists—from again holding public office.
Bonifaz has been arguing for more than a year that Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021, were sufficient to disqualify him from making new bids for elected office. Now that the former president is emulating Mussolini, Bonifaz said, “this highlights all the more why election officials across the country must follow the mandate of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and bar the inciter in chief from any future ballot.”