Donald Trump is sending the most dangerous signal of his post-presidency by promising that he will be ready to pardon the January 6 insurgents when he returns to power. His message is a promise of impunity that goes beyond simply proposing to purge the former president’s violent political allies and supporters of their past lawlessness. It offers not-too-subtle encouragement for the next wave of insurgent violence.
As he prepares for an expected presidential bid in 2024, Trump is stealing entire sections from the authoritarian playbook of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and other fascists who have used political violence as a tool to seize and expand their power.
The disgraced former president, gathering in Texas on Saturday, gave all the indications that he plans to run for the nation’s top job again in 2024. And he made a bold pledge to protectively abuse the sweeping pardons granted to presidents and embolden insurgents. “If I run and win, we will treat these people fairly starting January 6,” Trump said told the crowd he drove into a frenzy. “And if it requires pardons, we will grant them pardons for being treated so unfairly.”
That was a dangerous signal in and of itself, coming from a former president with a track record of abuse of his power of pardon for political purposes. It indicated a willingness to use the power of the Presidency to evade legitimate and necessary legal accountability for those who launched a deadly attack on the US Capitol, and for himself – as the man who defended participants in the Rally on January 6th ordered to go 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 could “fight the hell” to thwart the ongoing legal scrutiny of Trump’s personal and political wrongdoing – by the New York Attorney General Letizia James, District Attorney of Manhattan Alvin Brag, and Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fan Willis, among other.
As the The New York Times reported:
In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Trump also targeted the New York State Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney, both of whom have been investigating his deals for possible fraud, as well as the Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney, who sets up a special grand jury to to investigate Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.
He urged his supporters to organize large-scale protests in New York and Atlanta, as well as in Washington, should investigations lead to action being taken against him.
Trump told the Texas crowd, “They’re trying to put me in jail. These prosecutors are evil, horrible people. They are racists and they are very sick. They are insane… If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do something wrong or illegal, I hope that in this country we will have the biggest protests we have ever had, in Washington, DC, 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 rulers have long compared Trump’s words and actions to those of authoritarians like Mussolini, who ruled Italy with an iron fist from the mid-1920s to 1943, aligning that country with Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler Regime. Not all of these scholars have gone that far label Trump a fascist, and advocates a narrow definition of the term that recognizes the distinct character of one-party states and the zeal for territorial conquest that characterized the dictatorships of the 1930s and 1940s. But there are many who believe the former president is “following the authoritarian script first written by Mussolini,” as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, put it.
“Benito Mussolini created the world’s first fascist dictatorship not only as a counterpoint to the powerful Italian left – it’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. While seizing power, Mussolini and his fascist allies used supporter pardons to strengthen their position.
When Mussolini was Italy’s prime minister in the mid-1920s, a leading socialist member of the Italian parliament, Giacomo Matteotti, prepared to unveil evidence of financial impropriety on the part of Mussolini and his fellow fascists. In June 1924, Matteotti was kidnapped and murdered by Mussolini’s secret police. It was an international scandal With time Magazine Coverage to protests against “the crime itself and the ruthless methods used to suppress the scandal of fascism” that initially threatened to overthrow Mussolini from his position as prime minister.
“A special investigation was soon launched to establish Mussolini’s role in the murder. By December 1924, rumors were circulating that the Italian leader would be charged 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, proclaiming in January 1925 that he and his party were above the law. “If fascism was a criminal organization, I am the head of that criminal organization,” he told parliament, letting it be known that the window to depose him had closed. Amid a series of repressive laws that followed, Mussolini pardoned all political criminals and dismissed the two judges overseeing the investigation, replacing them with loyalists who issued a verdict of involuntary rather than premeditated murder. He reigned for another 18 years without limits to his power.
Reflecting on Trump’s authoritarian excesses, Ben-Ghiat written down at that time that “some rules of strongman behavior have not changed”.
Now, as Trump becomes more adamant about sticking to the rules of strongman behavior, he’s getting some mild reprimands from fellow Republicans. For the most part, though, they seem poised to back him again if he seeks the party’s nomination in 2024.
The failure of top Republicans to roll back Trump’s flirtation with authoritarian tactics that encourage comparisons with fascist strategies is one of the reasons Constitutional Attorney John Bonifaz says senior officials from both parties must step up efforts to get the former president off the hook to hold candidacy again.
Bonifaz is president of Free Speech for People, a group that argues that Trump violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. This section prohibits elected officials who have participated in insurrections—or who have aided and comforted insurgents—from holding public office again.
Bonifaz has argued for more than a year that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021 were sufficient to disqualify him from fresh running for elected office. Now that the former President is emulating Mussolini, Boniface said, “this further demonstrates why election officials across the country must follow the mandate of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and bar the boss’s instigator from future elections.”