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Trump and the Rise of 21st Century Fascism

I don’t pretend to know whether Trump could evolve into a leader anywhere near as murderous as Hitler. But I do know this: Trump is a neo-fascist, and it’s time we start saying so. Wishing the danger would go away won’t make it so.

President Donald Trump speaks during the 2018 Ohio Republican Party State Dinner in Columbus, Ohio, AP Photo/John Minchillo

When Donald Trump, enemy of the U.S. Constitution, first came to power, we were advised by the sages not to throw that “F” word around—you know the one I mean, the one that ends with an “ism.”

We’d never be taken seriously if we used it to describe him and his regime, we were told and, besides, its use in the current context was a disservice to those who suffered great horrors under Benito Mussolini and his ideological cousin and all-out monster, Adolf Hitler.  

But neither Hitler nor Mussolini committed their worst atrocities at the outset of their respective tenures as dictators of their nations. In fact, as Al Gore reminded us in his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” “At first, even the truth about Hitler was inconvenient. Many in the west hoped the danger would simply go away.”

Now, I don’t pretend to know whether Trump could evolve into a leader anywhere near as murderous as Hitler. But I do know this: Trump is a neo-fascist, and it’s time we start saying so. Wishing the danger would go away won’t make it so.

From its messaging to the president’s notion that the agencies of government exist to serve him, personally, this White House continues to exhibit some of the hallmarks of fascism—the gaslighting and the race-baiting, for starters. And as prosecutors close in on his cronies, one can only expect the president’s increasing displays of authoritarianism to multiply.

Never mind that his speechwriter addressed a white nationalist conference that featured the same white identitarian author invited to White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow’s birthday party. That kind of thing, meh, we’re used to it.

On Wednesday night, Trump thrilled members of the so-called “alt right” and “white nationalist” crowd with his tweeting a far-right trope about the victimization of white farmers in South Africa. The false narrative was set up expertly for him by Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson, who must have been promised something really good during his visit to the Crossroads—like a primetime show on a cable news channel.

With Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (which owns Fox News) and the Koch brothers’ donor network of private capitalists bought into the Trumpian project, you have another element of fascism: the promise of protection for capitalist elites, which in this administration is displayed in the massive deregulation project the White House has undertaken. But fascist economics being more politically pragmatic than economically sound, they also display the prerogatives of the leader in ways that are politically potent but often economically illogical, as in the Trump tariff wars. Still the cultural messages sent by those tariffs resonate in ways that portend ongoing political support from the hoi polloi.

Given Trump’s virtual illiteracy, vulgarity, self-contradiction and naked id, it is tempting to believe that he is stupid, that he doesn’t know what he is doing. That’s a mistake. In the aggregate, he’s pretty savvy when it comes to accruing power. Just look at the way the Republican Party bows down to him. Look at the disgrace of the Republican Congress, willing to, in the most obvious ways, shield the president from any form of scrutiny. (What, one wonders, do they figure to tell their grandchildren when the world is left a smoldering pile?)

In 1990, Marie Brenner reported in Vanity Fair that Trump’s first wife, Ivana, told her lawyer that one book Trump regularly read was one of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which she said Trump kept “in a cabinet by his bed,” according to Brenner.

Brenner wrote:

Perhaps his possession of Hitler’s speeches merely indicates an interest in Hitler’s genius at propaganda. The Führer often described his defeats at Stalingrad and in North Africa as great victories. Trump continues to endow his diminishing world with significance as well.

Trump’s own attorney, who is unnamed in the story, told Brenner, “Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory. If you say something again and again, people will believe you.”

And so we have “Witch hunt!” and “No collusion!” and fanciful accusations of Hillary Clinton’s malfeasance, just to mention a few.

Even as the president’s fixers and strategists are shown to be felons (perhaps ready to sing), Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—who believes that a sitting president can’t even be subpoenaed, never mind convicted—is scheduled for confirmation hearings before the National Archives could possibly gather the documents requested by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to determine his fitness for a seat on the highest court in the land. That would be the court before which will likely come a White House challenge to any subpoena or indictment the independent counsel might serve.

Important figures in the Senate are now saying, well, it might not be so bad if, after the mid-term elections, Trump fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a race-baiter and hater who was initially hired for those qualities). Then Trump could shut down the independent counsel investigation into Russia’s role in delivering his electoral victory, and any involvement of his own campaign in the deal.

The checks on this authoritarian president are virtually non-existent. A lot of people—white people, for the most part—believe his big lies about immigrants and African Americans and women and his political opposition, not to mention the relentless hammering of the news media as purveyors of untruths.

Give him this Supreme Court nominee, and his power will be completely consolidated, leaving us to ask, gee, I wonder which side the military is on. Yes, it really is that bad.

Trump is a neo-fascist, only because he has had to labor under a modicum of constitutional restraint. Unfetter him with a Court and an attorney general poised to do his bidding, and you can kick that "neo" part to the curb.

Adele M. Stan is a columnist for The American Prospect. She is the winner of the 2017 Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism. Follow @addiestan. Articles by Adele M. Stan. RSS feed.