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New charges against Trump focus on lies. Scholars see an authoritarian playbook

Donald Trump, left, is handed an umbrella from Walt Nauta, his personal aide and co-defendant in a felony case in Florida, on Thursday, the day the former president pleaded not guilty to four felony charges in Washington, D.C.
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Donald Trump, left, is handed an umbrella from Walt Nauta, his personal aide and co-defendant in a felony case in Florida, on Thursday, the day the former president pleaded not guilty to four felony charges in Washington, D.C.

Updated August 7, 2023 at 10:56 AM ET

The latest federal case against Donald Trump is putting a spotlight on the role of false and baseless claims in his presidency. The indictment alleges that the former president and his co-conspirators used lies for the criminal purpose of overturning the 2020 election. For some scholars of history, its forensic look at how speech underpinned an alleged conspiracy to illegally retain power helps to situate Trump into larger historical patterns.

"All authoritarian leaders have cults of personality," said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history at New York University and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. "Meaning, they propose themselves as all-powerful, as the only solution possible to the nation's ills. 'I alone can fix it.' "

At times, the drumbeat of false assertions during Trump's candidacy and presidency perplexed the American press and public. So did Trump's invocation of baseless conspiracy theories, which invariably situated him as a persecuted victim of a "deep state." But Ben-Ghiat said in her studies of authoritarian leaders such as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Silvio Berlusconi and Jair Bolsonaro, there was precedent for this.

"The use of lies takes place in a larger effort to turn the public against alternate sources of authority," she said. Those sources might include independent courts, legislative bodies and law enforcement agencies. Or — it may be the fourth estate.

"If you're looking to see if somebody's going to be a strongman, what you find is even when they start campaigning, they immediately start trying to turn the public against the press, saying [the press is] biased and that they are the truth teller against the establishment," said Ben-Ghiat. As that leader's supporters increasingly come to believe that he is the only source of truth, she said, they will be primed to believe his claims of a stolen election.

"What Trump is doing is, he's asking for personal loyalty to him to outweigh the rule of law," said Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. "We see this in any authoritarian takeover of a system. We see the authoritarian say, 'Devotion to me is more important than the rule of law.' "

The case will likely focus on statements that Trump and co-conspirators allegedly made in the weeks between the 2020 election and the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Nonetheless, Stanley said it may illuminate some of the mechanics that have contributed to a profound shift in American culture and society.

"What jumped out to me is that we finally have a structural understanding of the way lies can undermine democracy, of the way trust is central for our democracy," he said. "Democracy relies on faith in its institutions and laws. Otherwise, there's no stability."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 6, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Jair Bolsonaro's name as Balsonaro.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.