Trump, Fascism and the Allure of Authoritarianism
Day by day, the evidence accumulates that the elected leader of our country—adored by millions–is a neofascist.
To describe President Donald Trump as a U.S. version of Adolph Hitler is on its face inaccurate and hyperbolic as we are not witnessing the terror of a 21st century holocaust or the brutality of an imperialist world war. Which is why we use the term neofascist.
But under the autocratic rule embraced by Trump, American democracy clearly faces its greatest threat since the country was founded. “Twelve more years,” his supporters chanted at a recent rally.
His administration has provided a home for a white nationalist fury that is to a great extent driven by a change of demographics in the United States.
When the white nationalists and fascists marched through Charlottesville with Confederate flags chanting “Jews will not replace us” they were reacting negatively to very obvious demographic changes taking place in the United States.
The 1990 presidential election saw whites cast 83 percent of the vote. In 2016 ,that figure dropped to 69 percent. Whites constituted 92 percent of Trump’s vote.
This white nationalist fury is also a product of the instability of the country resulting from three decades of war.
In a sense, our country is a experiencing a crisis of legitimacy similar to what Europe experienced after the carnage of World War 1, which saw 20 million die and another 21 million injured. One reason Hitler succeeded was that he was able to tap into the deep resentment and bitterness of millions of Germans who called into question the country’s political leadership they viewed as responsible for this human disaster and the ensuing economic hardship.
During the 2016 presidential election, Trump attacked the Bush dynasty for getting the country entangled in military conflicts. He promised to end the United States’ involvement in war, and he used that promise—which he has broken—as part of his strategy to make his campaign a referendum on the Washington establishment.
In the United States, we have been almost constantly at war since we invaded Kuwait and Iraq in January 1991. We began our attacks on Afghanistan in October 2001. We are still fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in 2020. No country can be at war constantly for over 30 years without experiencing instability and war fatigue.
The right-wing militia members we see on our streets brandishing weapons are dressed exactly as if they were on the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. For many of them this is the only life they know. Domestic terrorism experts and law enforcement analysts estimate that military veterans account for a quarter of the15,000 to 20,000 members of the 300 active militia groups in the country, according to The New York Times.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues its campaign to denounce police brutality and racial injustice, Trump has fueled a counterattack by the white armed militias—his version of the brown-shirt thugs who did Hitler’s dirty work—and has given voice to a deep anti-democratic and xenophobic undercurrent in our country.
This suggests that Trump will count on the support of millions of Americans if he uses the political chaos surrounding a contested outcome of the election to hold on to power in what would be a de facto coup.
It Can Happen Here
The Big Lie. Racism. Nationalism. Armed militias. Electoral sabotage. A police state. An imperial presidency.
All of these signs of Nazi governance are embraced by Trump, who doesn’t hide his admiration for the world’s authoritarian political leaders.
As fascism emerged in Europe eight decades ago, Sinclair Lewis warned us in his 1935 political novel “It Can’t Happen Here” that fascism could emerge in the United States. Over the past four years, the Trump presidency has sparked a cottage industry of books raising deep concerns about authoritarianism at home and abroad.
The initial alarm came with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “On Fascism: A Warning,” a survey of the world’s authoritarian rulers with a concluding chapter on the United States, and Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny,” which offered a concise guide on authoritarianism with suggestions for resistance.
More recent publications include John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers,” Salvatore Babones’ “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts,” philosopher Jason Stanley’s “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” and Masha Gessen’s “Surviving Autocracy.”
John Bellamy Foster, in his 2017 “Trump in the White House,” argues that a neofascist political current is emerging that is based on an alliance between monopoly capital and the lower-middle class, which is driven by a nationalist-racist-patriarchal ideology.
“I have held off using the f word for three and a half years, but there is no longer any honest alternative,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted in June, commenting on the nationwide police crackdown that followed the protests over the killing of George Floyd. “Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America.”
That same week, Gessen wrote an article in The New Yorker in which she commented on Trump’s urging governors to take a harder line against protesters. “Whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept,” Gessen wrote, “Trump is performing fascism.”
Republicans and the Appeal of Authoritarianism
A recent study by Vanderbilt University Professor Larry Bartels shows how many Republican voters are more interested in “keeping America great” and “keeping America’s power structure white” rather than preserving democracy. The study, based on January 2020 interviews of 1,151 Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning independents, found that:
• A majority of respondents (50.7%) agreed that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
• A substantial plurality (41.3%) agreed that “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”
• A near-majority (47.3%) agreed that “Strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.”
Trump Embodies the Soul of the Republican Party
“The strongest predictor by far of these antidemocratic attitudes is ethnic antagonism—especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos,” Bartels said in his study.
“The strong tendency of ethnocentric Republicans to countenance violence and lawlessness, even prospectively and hypothetically, underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics,” he said.
Many analysts have described today’s Republican Party as a cult of the personality and blame Trump for destroying its core values of small government, free trade, fiscal conservatism and the global order.
But columnist David Atkins pointed out in a Washington Monthly article in August, “Donald Trump added kerosene onto the flaming bonfire built by Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes.” Atkins added, “He won the GOP primary not by being something radically different, but by accurately reflecting the existing dispositions of the Republican base. He embodies their ethos heart and soul, and they reward him with intense loyalty even as the economy begins to collapse and 180,000 Americans die in a pandemic he has ignored.”
So, the crisis of democracy in the United States is something that is far deeper than Trump.
Bartels’ findings are consistent with earlier surveys that have pointed to anti-democratic sympathies of many Americans.
Bartels cites a series of surveys from 2010 to 2017 that found a majority of respondents agreed that a military coup would be justified “when there is a lot of crime” or “when there is a lot of corruption.”
Surveys conducted over 2017 and 2018 found that only 73 percent of Americans said it was “important” or “essential” that “government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations,” and only 68 percent said it was “important” or “essential” that “government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically-motivated violence or intimidation,” Bartels reports.
Political Polarization and Economic Malaise
A 2019 Freedom House study, which Bartels cites, identified factors that have undermined support for democracy in recent years, including political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media. Trump has fueled the fire of the fear and anger of American society–particularly that of whites.
“President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system,” the Freedom House study says.
“No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles,” the study says. “Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.”
Fascism and Trump
Historically, the U.S. left and liberals have been reluctant to describe right-wing politicians as fascists for fear of being branded as shrill, out-of-hand, naïve or insensitive to the victims of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
But given the threat Trump poses to American democracy, this is no time to pull punches. Moreover, Trump’s neofascist inclinations actually have a long history.
Trump’s former wife, Ivana, told her attorney Michael Kennedy that Trump used to keep a collection of Hitler speeches, “My New Order,” near his bed, according to a 1990 Vanity Fair article. She told a friend that John Walter, Trump’s cousin, would click his heels and say, “Heil Hitler,” when he visited Trump’s office.
So, with Trump’s apparent sympathy for Hitler, outspokenness in the 1989 Central Park Five sexual assault case in New York City, discriminatory practices in his real estate business and his controversial public persona, it should not be a great surprise that his presidency would drift into authoritarianism.
Indeed, Trump’s record reflects several defining characteristics of fascism:
• A disregard for human rights: Trump has spoken in favor of torture, the death penalty, long incarceration, political assassination and police repression.
In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island, New York, Trump said, “Please don’t be too nice.” He told the police officers that he believed that “the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years, they’ve been made to protect the criminal,” not the officer.
• Stirring Up Patriotic Opposition to Groups Identified as Threats to Public Order: Trump has appealed to voter—especially white—fears by attacking immigrants, terrorists, socialists, communists, ethnic groups.
Trump has encouraged vigilantism by describing protestors as “left-wing mobs” and “anarchists, agitators, and criminals who threaten our citizens.” He defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused of killing two people who were protesting the police killing of the unarmed black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
He referred to armed thugs in a caravan of trucks that drove through Portland, Ore. as “great patriots” as they pepper sprayed protesters of a police shooting.
• Attacking the Mainstream Media: Trump has personally ridiculed and criticized reporters he regards as hostile and routinely complains that he is a victim of “fake news,” a term intended to undermine the credibility of the media and rally his base.
• An Obsession with National Security: Trump’s attacks on immigrants are designed to stir fears about threats to the country’s national security.
His description of Mexicans as “rapists” in the announcement of his campaign in 2016 played into that fear. He referred to a caravan of Central Americans headed to the U.S.-Mexican border as “an invasion.”
• Linking Government and Religion for Political Purposes: Trump portrays himself as a Christian nationalist, though he isn’t a devout religious person.
With statements like “We’re going to win another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country, flag and freedom,” he appeals to his white Christian base. “God, Country and Family” was a popular saying during Spanish fascist Gen. Francisco Franco’s rule in Spain.
• Disrespect for Intellectuals, the Arts and Scientists:
With the COVID-19 pandemic , we have witnessed the tragic cost of Trump’s disregard for scientists.
Tens of thousands of deaths could have been avoided if his administration had followed the recommendations of public health officials.
• Protecting corporate power and the Rich: In a 2018 study, the Tax Policy Center found that under Trump’s 2017 $1.9 trillion tax plan, the average tax cut for the richest 1 percent was $51,000 and the average tax cut for the bottom 80 percent to be about $800.
Only hours after signing the tax giveaway into law, Trump told supporters at a Mar-a-Lago dinner that, “You all just got a lot richer.”
The Center for American Progress found that two years after the tax cut was passed revenues from corporate taxes had decreased by more than 40 percent, contributing to the largest year-over-year drop in corporate tax revenue outside of a recession. The U.S. Treasury reported that from fiscal year 2017 to FY 2018, the federal budget deficit increased by $113 billion while corporate tax receipts fell by about $90 billion, which would account for nearly 80 percent of the deficit increase.
We should note that Italian fascist Benito Mussolini said, “Fascism should be more properly called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”
• Rampant Cronyism and Corruption: Trump has created a kleptocracy and plutocracy, turning the government into a personal profit-making machine filled with cronies and family members–as well as a servant of the rich.
Forbes Senior Editor Dan Alexander’s new book, “White House, Inc.,” indicates that Trump’s businesses earned $1.9 billion during from 2017 to 2019.
“Trump administration officials and people close to them are brashly using power to amass perks and cash,” The New York Times’ David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick wrote an article titled, “Corruption: The Definitive List.”
Visitors to Washington, D.C., who seek help from the White House often stay at Trump International Hotel, paying at least $500 a night.
Son-in-law Jared Kusher has used White House position to line his pockets. For instance, he solicited $500 million in loans for his family’s troubled real estate business from financial executives who visited the White House.
“President Trump, his family and more than a few of his appointees are using his presidency to enrich themselves,” Leonhardt and Pilbrick write. “They are spending taxpayer dollars for their own benefit. They are accepting sweetheart deals from foreigners. And they are harnessing the power of the federal government on behalf of their businesses.
An investigative report by The New York Times found that Trump paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the last 15 years. He paid $750 the year he won the election and the same amount in his first year in office.
• Obsession with Law and Order: “I am your president of law and order,” Trump said as he ordered federal agents violently cleared peaceful protesters from a park near the White House in June.
• Suppression of labor: Trump has supported right-to-work states, issued executive orders that restrict federal unions’ ability to represent their members, adopted trade agreements that harm workers, gutted workplace safety protections, denied overtime to more than 8 million workers, reduced staffing at the Department of Labor, awarded billions of dollars in federal contracts to corporations that violate wage laws, weakened protections against wage theft, and made anti-union appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and National Labor Relations Board.
• Electoral Fraud: Trump is laying the groundwork to declare fraud if he loses the election in November.
His administration is restricting voter access and undermining the mail vote by blocking funding for the U.S. Postal Service (now led by a corporate political contributor).
Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi, a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society, whose recommendations Trump (who has flouted the idea of serving more than two terms in office) has used for all of his judicial appointments, was aghast when the president suggested that the election be postponed.
“I am frankly appalled by the president’s recent tweet seeking to postpone the November election,” Calabresi said.
“Until recently, I had taken as political hyperbole the Democrats’ assertion that President Trump is a fascist. But this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate.”
Save Democracy by Voting Out Trump
Many people were surprised by the dark tone of the video in which Joe Biden announced his bid for the presidency. But the video accurately reflected the sad chapter of American history that we are living under.
The video included images of the march of torch-bearing white supremacists carrying Nazi and Confederate flags in Charlottesville in 2017.
Biden denounced the violence unleased by the Klansmen and Nazis at the march, referring to “their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging and baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s.” He noted that Trump said he believed many of the right-wing thugs were “good people.”
The video was a clear warning that the re-election of Donald Trump will put American democracy at peril.
A vote for Biden is a vote to preserve our democracy.