I would be lying if I did not admit that one reaction I have had to the presidency of Donald Trump is a paranoid fear that he represents a new form of American fascism. I know I am not alone in that view.
Part of what makes Trump hard to understand is that he is not a normal Republican. He is something different and it is hard to peg that difference. He has often praised dictators. During the campaign, at one time or other, he praised Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. He retweeted Benito Mussolini. I would acknowledge though that it is hard to say he believes in anything including fascist ideology.
While there are certainly ways Trump is not like other famous fascist leaders, it is impossible to ignore his megalomaniacal, authoritarian, and racist tendencies. At the same time it would be wrong to look at him statically rather than as evolving. Like all past presidents, Trump’s presidency is subject to changing circumstances. What remains unclear is how Trump will respond to some as yet unforeseen crisis.
My own paranoid fear has been a scenario where a terrorist attack, a war, or some other disaster acts as a catalyst and justification for Trump to consolidate power and suspend rights previously taken for granted by Americans. The emergency would allegedly require greatly expanded executive powers to manage the public fear and terror.
Such a crisis could also be used as a vehicle to impose a speeded-up transformation of the economy more to the liking of the 1% – tax cuts, privatized services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation.
Manipulating terror is now a time-tested strategy in the authoritarian leader playbook as exemplified by Putin.
In her book, The Shock Doctrine, the writer, Naomi Klein, presents many examples of this type of scenario. For example, Klein looks at what happened in Chile after the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. In that instance, the trauma of the coup acted to facilitate the political adjustment to sudden, dramatic changes pushed by Pinochet. Klein calls it shock treatment.
Real American fascism would likely include: suspension of freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; dissolution of opposing political parties; the end of checks and balances; no more due process of law; no right to a fair trial; and the arrest and imprisonment of activists hostile to the new regime.
Whatever the dramatic event or series of events that would shock the public, the process of becoming fascist is about removing obstacles to more centralized power.
The historical example that I have seen most cited to describe the process is the German Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. No one ever learned who set the fire but the German Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend the rights of all German citizens.
In a very short time, the Nazis used the emergency to preventively detain political opponents including Jews, liberals, social democrats and leftists of all stripes. They arrested thousands on no specific charges. The security forces put many into Dachau concentration camp and disappeared others. Even in the early Nazi years, hundreds of labor leaders, leftists, and Jewish prisoners died in custody.
On March 23, 1933, a new Nazi-led parliament passed an enabling act which allowed Hitler to rule by decree. For the next twelve years until the end of World War II, Germany was a dictatorship and it remained in that state of emergency. The Reichstag fire had opened that door.
I would also mention the role of a German government campaign called Gleichschaltung which means “coordination” or “synchronization”. With astonishing speed, in an act of anticipatory obedience, many Germans willingly placed themselves under the Nazi rule and command. Almost overnight, millions fell in line.
The best dramatization of this type of coordination is the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. In the 1930’s Ionesco had watched the growth of the fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania. He saw many former friends transform into vicious anti-semites. The Iron Guard was xenophobic, strongly nationalist, and it claimed all Jews were illegal immigrants in Romania. In the absurdist play, Ionesco had people turn into mindless, rampaging rhinoceros.
The coordination campaign was reflected in the new Nazi salute. By 1933, the expectation was that everyone would give the Hitler salute. The German public widely embraced the salute and people incessantly saluted each other.
I think it would be a mistake though to see German fascism as entirely sudden. Fascism evolved and worsened through multiple incremental steps, a cumulative radicalization.
Americans need to discard the notion that a fascist-type state could never happen here. Authoritarianism is very alive in the world. I expect many Americans have believed we were immune from the awful things that have happened elsewhere. It is an American conceit that somehow we are beyond history.
On the positive, we do have far stronger democratic institutions than existed in Germany. Also, the American people are more rebellious, have a stronger tradition of dissent and will not be so easily coordinated as evidenced by all the anti-Trump demonstrations since his election.
Still it is sobering to know how few people in Europe actually opposed the fascists during their rise. I have seen historians estimate that only 2% of the French population or 400,000 people engaged in armed resistance during the Occupation.
How will Americans respond if fascism becomes real here? I think that remains an open question.
I admire the honesty of the response of Toivi Blatt, a Holocaust survivor, when he was asked about the human response to fascism he saw. Blatt, who was a Polish Jew, saw his whole family die in Sobibor extermination camp. At the age of 16, he was one of 300 prisoners who participated in an uprising at Sobibor. 200 escaped. Of those, 150 were captured and killed. Blatt was one of 50 Sobibor prisoners who survived the war. After the war he moved to the United States. This is what Blatt had to say about his experience:
“People asked me “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person, on the street, you ask them, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?”.”
These are uneasy times for those of us on the liberal/progressive side. Trump’s win was a devastating blow with an avalanche of awful consequences. It is painful to contemplate all the harm that will ensue. Revolted at the prospect of four years of Trump, many liberals and progressives are mesmerized at the Russia collusion story and whether we are watching Watergate II, ending in President Pence.
While the Trump show is perversely fascinating to watch, focus there misses a deeper political picture. In spite of what has seemed like increasingly favorable population demographics, Democrats nationally have been getting beaten badly.
The White House aside, Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of these chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.
By any objective standard, the Republicans have had extraordinary success. They control all branches of the government. Nationally, during the Obama presidency, the Democrats lost over 900 state legislative seats.
Beyond just the numbers is the further reality that the far right fringe has become a dominant faction in the Republican Party. The moderate Republican, denigrated as a RINO, is an endangered species. The Republican Party now aims to gut the government by wholesale elimination of federal programs, cutting taxes, removing regulation and shredding the safety net.
Democrats and progressives need to ask: how did we get to such a weak place? Reading the press and watching social media, you do not see much self-criticism or very deep analysis of how and why we have gotten clobbered from still shell-shocked Democrats.
No one likes to air dirty laundry. Also there seems to be a repetition compulsion to just keep doing what we have done – only do it harder. Rationalizations include: “we were close”; “the Russians”; “Jim Comey” etc. The truth is that with the notable exception of the presidency of Barack Obama, we have been getting our asses kicked in much of the country.
I do not think most liberals or progressives have a good grasp on the scope or depth of what we are up against. I would acknowledge that picture is hard to see and for a good reason: much has been hidden from the public. Secrecy is part of the brilliance of the design.
The arch-conservative billionaires have been spending an almost limitless fortune for a generation to create what has been called a “fully integrated network”. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, this spending further accelerated. By joining forces, these billionaires have advanced an extreme strain of conservative politics which serves their bottom line, the public be damned.
In her brilliant book, Dark Money, which is a model of investigative journalism, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, exposes the extreme right wing billionaire methodology and agenda.
A central part of this story is the role of Charles and David Koch, the infamous Koch brothers. Moving from the right wing netherworld of the John Birch Society to the heart of the Republican Party, they have been key political operators in building what has been called the Kochtopus. They have subsidized think tanks, created academic programs, hired a flotilla of lobbyists, financed legal groups and advanced political front groups and operatives. Using the guise of philanthropy and being ever mindful of secrecy, they have created a private political machine which Mayer correctly says threatens to subsume the Republican Party.
In doing this, they invented a right wing universe of jobs and career opportunities for their wannabees. Think Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council and that is just for starters.
Of course, the Kochs did not build this remarkable structure alone. Other hugely wealthy people have been on board. Mayer names Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking and Gulf oil fortunes; Henry and Lynde Bradley, who made a fortune through defense contracts, John C. Olin, a chemical and munitions firm owner; the Coors family of Colorado brewers; and the DeVos family, founders of Amway.
Together, over a period of almost 50 years, they have raised billions of dollars toward their goal of an America modeled on the Gilded Age before the FDR presidency. They aim to dismantle every safety net and government program created for workers, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and the environment while obliterating all campaign finance law. These folks think big. Their vision is rapacious Social Darwinism, a you-are-on-your-own society with greed as the highest value.
Doubters might consider the current example of environmental protection and the evisceration of the EPA. As Mayer points out, coal, oil and gas companies form the nucleus of the Koch donor network. These companies are major funders of the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming. It is no accident Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change denier, to head the EPA. That was a gift to the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry. Through funding cuts and the elimination of programs, EPA is being reduced to a shell of its former self.
Duplicate that model throughout the whole government and you will have an idea what the Kochs and their allies are up to.
I expect some may respond that the Democrats have their billionaires too. One could legitimately cite George Soros or Tom Steyer. However, the sides are not symmetrical. The overwhelming billionaire money is on the Republican side and it has long been that way.
The Republicans represent the billionaire class and that class does not need two political parties to represent it. I would suggest that if your goal is to collect billionaire funders, the Democrats cannot compete on that turf and they would be barking up the wrong tree even to try. In this area, the campaign of Bernie Sanders pointed in the right direction.
So what are liberals and progressives to do?
To use the immortal words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”. It is the 99% against the 1%. They have the money but potentially we have the numbers. We can learn from the systematic, long-term perspective and institution-building adopted by the Kochs. They don’t quit when they lose. Politics is a life-long engagement. The fact that we have been beaten badly should be seen as just one round in a fifteen round bout.
Liberals and progressives can come back. The womens’ marches show both the energy and the enthusiasm is there. Progressives need to do better in speaking respectfully and empathetically to all kinds of people outside their enclaves. The superiority of the progressive vision is that it can speak to the needs and humanity of all Americans.
All the money in the world does not change the fact that the Kochs and their Republican allies are wedded to a selfish vision of oligarchy that will ultimately immiserate the majority of Americans while being an environmental time bomb for the planet.