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Latest charges against Trump evoke pattern used by authoritarian leaders, experts say


The latest charges against former President Donald Trump hinge on how his claims of a stolen election may have been the basis for criminal conduct. That case will be decided in a federal court of law. The Trump era has been defined by his repeated false and baseless claims, and many scholars of political and historical trends say these tactics resemble what has often played out in authoritarian regimes. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has been reporting this. Hi, Odette.


PFEIFFER: So tell us what these charges allege in terms of what prosecutors say he was lying about.

YOUSEF: So the indictment alleges that there were three criminal conspiracies. One was to defraud the U.S. by using lies to subvert or overturn the election results. Another was to obstruct and impede the certification of votes. And then the last is conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one's vote counted. The document says each of those conspiracies, quote, "built on the widespread mistrust the defendant was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud." And, Sacha, the indictment details allegations about Trump and/or his co-conspirators lying to the American public, lying to state officials to get different election results and lying to some fake electors in a scheme where Trump and his co-conspirators allegedly lined up slates of pro-Trump electors.

PFEIFFER: And that's what we hashed out in federal court. But as we said, you've been speaking with scholars more broadly about the Trump era. What are you hearing from them?

YOUSEF: Well, here's Jason Stanley. He's a professor at Yale who focuses on propaganda and fascism.

JASON STANLEY: 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.

YOUSEF: Or, as another scholar put it to me, lies are used by political leaders to turn the public against alternate sources of authority. So historically, Sacha, we've seen political leaders use lies to fan deep state conspiracy theories, to denigrate the press, to discredit independent bodies of government like courts or the legislative arm. And ultimately, all of that is meant to persuade the public that truth comes only from one source, and that source is the political leader. It's a playbook that scholars told me they've - you know, it's been used elsewhere before.

PFEIFFER: And when you say playbook, assuming you mean historical pattern - tell us more about how it plays out in history.

YOUSEF: Yeah. To understand this, I spoke with Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She's a history professor at New York University who's studied authoritarian leaders. She says the drumbeat of lies during the last seven years is straight out of the playbooks that she's studied before. And she says that the endgame is exactly the kind of widespread mistrust in elections that we saw in 2020.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: When you debase the notion of truth so people don't know what to believe, then many people will check out. When you assert yourself as the only holder of truth and then if you declare an election was false or corrupt, that has a ready-made audience.

YOUSEF: So this specific case, you know, based on these charges, will really be focusing tightly on just those weeks between the election and January 6. But the groundwork for that period of time was much longer in the making.

PFEIFFER: Odette, as we said, you cover domestic extremism. Explain how this case and these charges relate to extremists.

YOUSEF: Well, Sacha, Trump welcomed far-right extremists into his base, and now we've seen a normalization of some tenets of extremist ideology within the GOP and the general populace on some issues. You know, think about the great replacement theory, for example. And so this goes well beyond what happened on January 6, and it goes beyond Trump himself. You know, we now see a large portion of the right has embraced the idea of political violence. They've embraced conspiracy theories. They reject the authority and credibility of government institutions. And that's a profound shift that American society is going to be wrestling with long after the fate of Trump is determined.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.