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Author On Trump's Acquittal As A Product Of 'The Cult Of The Leader'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're still wrapping our heads around the last few remarkable days and weeks here in Washington, D.C., which saw for the first time in U.S. history the impeachment trial of a former president for his role in a mob attack aimed at stopping the ratification of his lawfully elected successor. Yesterday, after days of being presented with graphic and often violent video evidence showing how close the attackers came to succeeding in their intent, a majority of the Senate did vote to hold former President Trump responsible, but not by a big enough margin to meet the two-thirds threshold required to convict.

Despite that outcome and the desire of many Democrats and Republicans to move on, the repercussions of these developments could be felt for some time to come. Last night, President Biden issued a statement that read in part, quote, "this sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile, but it must always be defended," end quote.

So the question is, how will this all play out? We have two conversations about that to start the program today, and our first guest is Jason Stanley. He is a professor of philosophy at Yale, and he's been writing for some time now about the rising threat of fascism around the world. And we called him once again. Professor Stanley, thanks so much for joining us.

JASON STANLEY: Thank you for having me on the show again.

MARTIN: So the bottom line is, the impeachment trial is over, and former President Trump has been acquitted, even if, as we said, a bipartisan majority voted to convict. What is your response to that event?

STANLEY: My response is that it's a signal, worrisomely, to future politicians who may seek the same path that they will receive support within the Republican Party.

MARTIN: And, you know, as we mentioned, you've been sounding this alarm for some time now. I mean, last year, the former president was claiming the only way he could lose the election was fraud, and afterwards, when he did lose, insisting there was fraud when there was no evidence of that. You were very clear at the time that this goes beyond bad sportsmanship or bad manners or even being a sore loser. You specifically said this was fascist behavior. Why do you say that?

STANLEY: I said that because the open disdain for democracy, that is sort of the last phase of authoritarianism. The particular character of authoritarianism I would call this is fascism because of its basis on racial legitimacy. The places that the president targeted as the sources of illegitimate votes were Black-majority cities such as Atlanta and Detroit or cities with large Black populations.

MARTIN: So, you know, as we've seen now, all of this evidence was presented at trial. There was evidence presented that the former president has a long history of propensity of urging supporters to attack people who disagree with him. There was evidence presented that the Senate, in fact, in its entirety - that some of them really were in danger that day and could have been harmed or killed because a mob really has no leader. So how, then, do you understand the fact that all of these people were witnesses and all of these people were in harm's way and that wasn't enough?

STANLEY: So Trump has been laying the basis for political violence for weeks, months and years. We know from the past that it doesn't happen immediately. It takes a while to happen. What we saw with the Republican Party is we saw this fealty to a leader. Everyone is talking about this. How could people whose very lives were placed in danger by the rhetoric of the commander in chief still shows such fealty to him?

That's because they've already compromised their positions. And this is how a cult of the leader works. This is why we've gone beyond the ordinary Republican Party and we can start talking about something like fascism, because there's a cult of the leader, where even those who follow are so in thrall to the leader. And they've made so many compromises already, these kinds of loyalty compromises of accepting the lie, that they've themselves become compromised. And so they have to go down with the leader.

MARTIN: So the question then is, what happens now? The fact is, a sufficient number of people, for whatever reason, either don't take issue with what happened at the Capitol or agree with what happened at the Capitol, and to the further point, agree with or don't take issue with or don't take sufficient issue with the manner in which the former president conducted himself. What now?

STANLEY: Make people trust government again. We've got a complete crisis here facing the nation with COVID. Let's have a vast economic relief program that is clearly going to the people. Let's address the incredible economic inequalities in our country that lead people all over the country in rural and urban areas to feel that the government has betrayed them.

When we do that, we won't eliminate the problem because a desire for a strong leader, a desire to follow, is part of human psychology. But we will reduce the number of people who will be followers of such a movement. If people feel the government is working for them, then the number of people who turn to those pseudo-solutions will decrease.

MARTIN: That was Jason Stanley. He's a professor of philosophy at Yale, and he's author of the book "How Fascism Works: The Politics Of Us And Them." Professor Stanley, thank you so much for joining us.

STANLEY: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.