June 1, 2017

In my book Christian Nation, the fictional narrator writes, “They said what they would do, and we did not believe them. Then they did what they said they would do.”

Trump told us what he believed about climate change and told us what he would do about the Paris Agreement. And now he has done it.

Ironically for a man who purports to be dedicated to the restoration of America’s prestige and power, he has at a stroke squandered much of the moral authority and prestige built up over the past century. America may be “first” in his alternative universe, but in the real world we now inhabit an exclusive club of climate non-participants with Syria and Nicaragua.  

Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism, supported mainly by fossil fuel sales, is now assured. China will pivot cynically but effectively into a climate leadership role, assuring that its workers, and not the disgruntled Americans who handed Trump the Presidency, have the millions of 21st century jobs in green energy.      

Earth is of course the biggest loser here. But close behind is American democracy. In polling after the election, 69% of voters said they supported remaining in the Paris Agreement. This included a majority of voters in every state. And even among voters who voted for Trump, only 28% said they favored withdrawal. 

Post-enlightenment civilization has been based on reason and science. Today my country repudiated both. I often wondered what it felt like on August 24, 410, when Rome fell to the Visigoths.   Now I know.


The First Week

I am breaking my silence regarding the man who now holds the office of President out of frustration at the lack of context and completeness in the media’s reporting and analysis.  (Sorry for the awkward elocutions, but I will not feed his lust for attention, even in the tiniest way, by writing the man’s name.)

Reporters seem completely befuddled by the two major “stories” of the first few days of the administration. First the President falsely stated that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever, a statement that his people then had to defend with the Orwellian construct of calling it an “alternative fact.” Then the President again falsely bragged that he won the popular vote, claiming the officially reported tally was off by more than three million due to “massive voter fraud.”  

And how do our professional journalists respond? They behave is if the man is a normal head of government whose Tweets and statements deserve some kind of presumption of seriousness or validity, as opposed to the reality-TV blather, WWE trash talk, and narcissistic braggadocio that most of them are. They dignify the gap between his assertions and reality as if there is an actual “issue” that needs to be covered. And when they marshal the evidence that his statement is objectively untrue, the story reads as if it is a case of a conventional politician caught in a lie.

Consider the following. If an alcoholic politician said he hadn’t had a drink in months, and you then discovered he drank shots at the local bar two days prior, could you run the story of the lie without mentioning the alcoholism? Would you write how strange it was that the person told a lie so easily revealed, or leave unanswered the question of why in the world he would do it? No, the only way to understand and report the story is that the politician did what alcoholics do, which is to lie about drinking.  

The man in question entered office suffering from a severe life long case of narcissistic personality disorder. Investing narcissists with power is like putting an alcoholic in charge of a liquor store, it can only exacerbate the condition. And endowing one of the planet’s most afflicted narcissists with the most power and attention that a human being can have, is guaranteed to create a monster.

Narcissists rarely behave as if truth is some static objective reality. Instead, the typical narcissist regards as “true” that which he says and thinks in the moment, that which makes him look good, and that which will get him what he wants. So for him, truth is not the way things are, but the way things ought to be given the overriding validity and importance of the narcissist’s narrative about himself (e.g., everything is transactional, I’m the most successful person ever, I’m always a winner). This deep conviction allows the narcissist to stray from the truth without conscience or shame, because a small thing like objective reality is nothing compared to the greater truth of the narcissist’s specialness narrative and the overwhelming imperative to fulfill his desires. There is no place in his cognitive landscape for facts that contradict his narrative. This has been completely clear throughout his life, it was clear during the campaign, and it is clear now.

So the man was being completely transparent and truthful when he said he would not accept the results of the election if he didn’t win. He is a winner, and thus if he looses, the results must be rigged.  So why the surprise that he doesn’t accept the popular vote? Of course he doesn’t. He’s a winner, and a winner doesn’t lose by three million votes. Asking for his evidence is foolishness.  You might as well ask a child why he wants a cookie. He just knows that he does. Similarly, as the greatest at whatever he does, of course his inauguration turnout was largest. How could it not be? 

Those who now have the unenviable jobs of enabling his narcissism face an impossible task because his cognitive landscape can never be reconciled with the realities of the world. What could Ms. Conway do other than accurately describe her boss’s world as one of “alternative facts.”  

You might want to review my October posting on Trump and the Truth.

And while I have your attention, please indulge four other points.

First, many of us were criticized during the campaign for characterizing his program as populist, nationalist, and protectionist. It is fascinating that he now self-describes in exactly that way. In his inaugural address he was clear that power was not passing between the parties, but from the politicians to the people. He stated that our normal political culture has been replaced by a popular “movement,” a movement which of course bears his name, which has no coherent ideological complexion, and whose only organizing principle appears to be allegiance to him personally. He doubled down on the fascist/nationalist slogan by stating that there will be “only” “America First” which will be the basis for “every decision.” And, in another assertion contradicted by the experience of history, he stated that protectionism will lead to “great prosperity and strength,” as opposed to the mutually impoverishing “beggar thy neighbor” which inevitably results. So the media now has no possible excuse for failing to explain in every instance what populism, nationalism, and protectionism are and where they inevitably lead. (Although he didn’t self-describe as an authoritarian, his administration’s attempts to stifle and control communication at all levels of the EPA and Department of Interior are early signs of an authoritarian tendency.)

Second, those of us who hoped that responsible Republicans might stand in his way, at least when their own core values are challenged, are instead seeing hypocritical accommodation that is nothing less than unpatriotic and morally despicable. The man now President said in the course of a few days that (i) NATO is obsolete, (ii) he is indifferent as to whether the European Community breaks up, (iii) that he would trust equally America’s morally courageous friend Angela Merkel, and the thug that is our most dangerous enemy, Vladimir Putin, and (iv) that he planned to trade away the sanctions against Russia in return for reductions in their nuclear arsenal. Just think if President Obama had taken any of those positions. The entire right would have risen in righteous outrage and accused him of treason. And now, though we know that most of them were privately appalled, almost all of them stayed silent. (History will be kind to the few, such as John McCain, who have had the courage to speak up.)

In the mean time, Europeans were flabbergasted. Press around the world correctly described these remarks as offensive, absurd, ludicrous, ignorant, incoherent, confused, and mystifying.  In the U.S., they were reported largely without comment for a single news cycle. If the journalism profession does not get its act together and rise to this extraordinary challenge, the man will get away with it all. The fact is that the incumbent U.S. president’s views on foreign policy are no better informed than those of any other reality TV star who does not read books or know history. It is outrageous that he should be permitted by those around him to continue to make these sorts of ill considered off the cuff statements, which render the orderly conduct of U.S. foreign policy impossible. I predict that if he continues this practice, Rex Tillerson will not last the year. 

Third, he has predictably continued as President his business MO which consisted of a lust for splashy launches at which he would take center stage, brag and promise the thing or event would be the greatest, and then pay no attention to follow-through or substance. It didn’t matter if Trump Vodka (or university or shuttle or mortgages or magazine or water) crashed and burned, each remains in his mental world of “alternative facts” “one of the most successful launches ever in the history of this business.” If he liked dramatic entrances in the lobby of Trump Tower to the applause of B list celebrities, he loves sitting alone at the paperless bookless desk in the oval office, the white guys in suits clustered around at a respectful distance, signing and brandishing executive orders (with a signature that a former Secret Service handwriting expert explains is extraordinarily devoid of curves, revealing that the writer is an extreme example of humans who lack empathy and crave power, prestige and admiration). But here’s the thing: most of these executive orders are pure political theater with no legal effect. I don’t mean to underestimate the harm he is doing and can do, but actual implementation of many of the policies expressed in these orders requires concerted effort and follow-through, not to mention Congressional action. The man seems in the grip of the illusion that he can simply sign “orders” to make things happen. The constitution, rule of law, and objective reality (as in Mexico paying, sorry, reimbursing us, for The Wall) get in the way.

Finally, in the search for a silver lining, I had indulged the hope that the man’s lack of ideological or political conviction might mean that the administration’s actual policies would bounce idiosyncratically between right and left. His early interest in a large federal infrastructure program signaled that his agenda might not tow the right wing line. This hope has been dashed. The actions to date are closely aligned with the agenda of the alt-right/far right. This now seems inevitable, because he is surrounded by alt-right/far right advisors, who doubtless are learning quickly that the way to interest him in a policy is not to describe its merits or politics in conventional terms, but to describe how strong and good it will make him look, and to package it with an opportunity for an event or signing. As a result, we are suffering the perfect storm. We are getting the same undiluted far right agenda that we would have had with Ted Cruz in the White House, and at the same time, are suffering all the risks that arise from giving power to a sneering ignorant self-obsessed populist. The only bright side: we can impeach the man and take Pence, because we’d have the same right wing agenda, but at least the nuclear button would not be controlled by an impulsive bully.

*    *    *

I want to acknowledge to readers of Getting to Green that, no matter how predictable, it is hard not to feel shock, horror, and grief as scientists are muzzled, the Orwellian counter-truth of climate denialism becomes the official policy of the U.S. government, and the stewardship of the agency charged with protecting the environment is handed over to someone sworn to cripple or destroy it. But the truth is that the same things would have been done by almost all of his GOP primary competitors. The “day one” reversal of course on Keystone, the Clean Power Plan, and the Paris Agreement demonstrate the thesis of Getting to Green: if the green agenda has no bipartisan support, then even the few federal “victories” achieved by the movement are illusory because they simply will be reversed when the other side takes power. Making policy changes that stick requires changing the politics of the environment. 

When Trumpism, which stands for nothing other than gratification of the man’s narcissistic needs, collapses in chaos and the betrayal of those who pinned their hopes on a delusion, someone is going to have to reconstruct a center-right party. Those rebuilding a GOP that can be competitive in the 21st century would be wise to move to the center on green issues, and anyone who cares about the green agenda will work to help this happen.  

In the mean time, my advice is the following: (i) double-down on your environmental and conservation work at the local and state level; even in relation to climate, the collective impact of that work, together with similar efforts by countries around the world, can make a real difference; (ii) if you are in business, become a loud voice within your organization for sustainability, insist that climate risks be analyzed and quantified, and align your business and investments accordingly; and (iii) make politics a personal priority and become more politically active than you ever have been (think like you’re 20 and its 1970 and unless you stop the war, you’ll be sent to Vietnam to die – that kind of politically active).  


Cry, the beloved country

The posting I had drafted on the assumption of a Trump loss began, “We have dodged a bullet.”   Instead, the bullet hit its mark, fired by one-half of our almost perfectly divided country.

This series of blogs was motivated by my strong sense that a Brexit-like revolt was in the making, invisible to the polls, unseen by the pundits, and condescendingly dismissed by the establishment. I wrote that only complacency could open the door for a demagogue in 21st century America, and that is exactly what happened. Millions of Americans of all stripes dithered about whether they trusted Hillary Clinton instead of mobilizing to stop a dangerous demagogue from assuming power.

My basic argument was that Trump’s unprecedented combination of unpreparedness and demagogic populism was a threat that should transcend our normal partisan divisions. It should have, but it didn’t. Instead, the country doubled down on its recent politics where the animating force is angry antipathy directed toward the other team rather than positive ideological conviction or a rational consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates.   It turned out, among other surprises, that Christian “values voters” are prepared to overlook values and character; that “movement conservative” voters, who previously had professed dedication to ideological purity, were prepared to support a candidate totally lacking in political ideology; and that white men with well-paying union jobs would embrace a union-busting, “right to work” billionaire. It turned out that what mattered more were the lies and half-truths that reverberate around the Internet, viruses that infected many good Americans with an unreasoning furious conviction that the other team must be defeated.

George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” America suffers from problems of historic proportions.   Even before Trump, our political culture had collapsed into a hyper-partisanship not seen since the Civil War. The percentage of the population that has lost faith in our government and public institutions is at an all-time high. We are not educating our citizens to the minimum level required to sustain a democracy. The vigorous press we have enjoyed since our founding has withered and the very notion of professional journalism has been undermined, replaced by faith in the un-intermediated drivel bouncing around the web. We have a popular culture that is clueless about history, obsessed with celebrity, addicted to the superficial, bereft of critical thinking, disdainful of learning and expertise, and ignorant of basic civics. And Americans are now segregated, both geographically and in the virtual world, into echo-chambers of shared belief, where falsehoods and pernicious narratives spread at the speed of the web, making us vulnerable to manipulation by advertisers and demagogues alike. We cannot expect better in our politics and government until and unless these underlying conditions are addressed.

The lurid outrageousness of Trump’s campaign fed the media’s appetite for politics as entertainment, and gave him a free platform from which to instill a poisonous sense of angry victimhood in those fearful of demographic change and globalization. It was a campaign that gave voice to the nativism, prejudice, and misogyny that remain in the hearts of some of our fellow citizens, and that shamefully legitimized the conspiracies and stupidities that have long been confined to the fringes of our political life. The question now is whether the themes of his campaign also will be the themes of his government. We can hope they won’t, and Republicans in the administration and Congress will have a special responsibility to ensure that the worst of his ideas are abandoned (banning Muslims, killing terrorist families, mass deportation, etc.). But precedent does not provide cause for optimism. Populists usually try to do the things they said they would do.

I recommend to all of you the recent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, titled What is Populism? Professor Müller’s study of historical and contemporary populist regimes around the world suggests that we can expect the following when any populist attains power:

·      The populist demagogue in power continues to polarize the population and escalates his rhetoric to suggest that every political debate is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation between “the people” and their opponents.

·      The populist remains in permanent campaign mode, attempting to maintain almost constant direct communication with “the people.”

·      The populist claims moral authority derived from “the people” which justifies the muzzling of the press and the erosion of civil liberties, a type of “discriminatory legalism” which Professor Müller describes as “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

·      Populists in government are unable to actually implement many of their absurd promises, so they blame their failures on vast conspiracies by their opponents. 

·      Eventually and inevitably, even their most ardent supporters understand that they have been betrayed by a con man. 

Taken together, the populist gives us an “illiberal democracy,” meaning a condition just short of full-on authoritarianism. “Illiberal democracy” is characterized by a gradual usurpation of state institutions by the populist and his “movement,” on the basis that the institutions are corrupt tools of the establishment, and that constitutional limits on his power are fundamentally undemocratic because they oppose the will of the people. All of us have two choices:  we can understand the risk to constitutional democracy now or we can face it later once the damage has been done. We can battle to contain its earliest outbreaks; or we can come to our senses years from now and join the much harder fight then. The transition from a constitutional democracy to an “illiberal democracy” is gradual. Many will be inclined to overlook or forgive the first steps taken by Mr. Trump. Republicans have a special moral obligation to oppose their man when he attempts to transcend the limits of the law and the constitution, not to mention the bounds of decency.

As tempting as it is, I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress does not repeat Mitch McConnell’s immoral and un-American error of announcing, when President Obama first assumed the presidency, that the entire GOP would be mobilized to oppose everything that emerged from the White House. Instead, Democrats should take their clue from Secretary Clinton, who graciously told the country – including the man who unforgivably said he would accept the election results only if he won -- that the people had spoken, we must all respect the result, and moreover, that we owe him “an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would be saying if, like Hillary, he had won the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College? Resisting the urge to descend to Mr. Trump’s level will be the hardest but most important thing for the half of of the country that is appalled and terrified by his election.

This blog made the case against Mr. Trump based not on policy or ideology, but solely on the basis of his narcissistic personality disorder and the lessons that history teaches us about demagogic populism. Nonetheless, I cannot end the series without acknowledging my despair at what we face with Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, even if his proposals that are plainly illegal or impractical are blocked. Among other things, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be revoked, and the Paris Agreement on climate will collapse. Environmental regulation will be gutted. Cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers. With a doctrinaire conservative majority on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, civil rights, and separation of church and state all will be eroded with drastic consequences for those living in red states. Read my novel Christian Nation if you want to know what that will look like. State gerrymandering, voter suppression, and campaign finance laws will be approved by the Supreme Court, ensuring another generation of GOP competitiveness without the party having to move to the center. I won’t go on.

I would like to close by saying that American democracy is strong and will survive Mr. Trump. I cannot. It is frayed and very much still an experiment that could fail. I would like to say that civilization is enduring, but we have been reminded again that the forces of darkness churn just below the surface. All I can ask is that you not take refuge in despair, or allow yourselves the luxury of disengagement. History provides few clear lessons, but one of them is that individual conviction and action is what changes the world. We all must do what we can.

*   *   *

It is now time to resume work on my next book, a novel that explores the moral challenges of the most disruptive technology humanity has yet encountered, genetic engineering, which, by giving us the power to create and edit DNA, will allow us to hack evolution and shape the future of all living things on the planet. The book explores whether humanity is ready to wield this power.



The American Experiment

A republic, madam, if you can keep it."  

            Benjamin Franklin


The MacArthur Fellow and short-story writer George Saunders, in a recent piece on Trumpism, wrote “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” I’m a bit older than George Saunders, and so was in the generation that was taught in grade-school civics about “the American experiment.” This was, I suppose, designed to motivate us children to take on the burdens of citizenship. The outcome of the “experiment,” we were taught, was very much up in the air, and largely depended on us.

As a result, I still regard the promise of America as a hypothesis.  It was tested by slavery, fascism, and communism, and I believe that further tests will follow. Trumpism is one of them. And there is nothing written in the stars that says we must pass. 

Our founding fathers had a great fear of democracy, which all too often had resulted in one tyranny being replaced with another. So they tried an experiment. Foreseeing the dangers of demagogic populism, they established a more limited type of democracy, a constitutional democracy, where the passions of the people were, at every turn, tested, tempered and slowed by a multi-polar government and a framework of fundamental rights that could not be denied, even at the behest of the majority of the citizenry.  

Some people who plan to hold their noses and vote for Mr. Trump acknowledge that much of his core program (such as a religious test for admittance to the country) is both morally repugnant and illegal. But they argue, it’s really OK, because Trump will be stopped from implementing his worst ideas by our system of constitutional checks and balances. For example, the New York Times quoted Senator John McCain (before he withdrew his support for Mr. Trump) as saying that he did not believe that the nation would be in danger under a Trump presidency: “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” Mr. McCain said. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”  

I respectfully disagree with this line of thinking. In my novel Christian Nation, I used the counterfactual of a Sarah Palin presidency to probe the strength of our democracy in the face of severe economic distress, a second major terrorist attack, and the simultaneous rise of a populist demagogue. My careful analysis of constitutional law and political strategy convinced me that the nation could fail that test.  

One reason is that the effectiveness of our constitutional architecture is predicated on certain social and cultural conditions:

  • belief in and respect for human dignity
  • trust in the integrity of the system and its institutions
  • acceptance of the rule of law, and
  • maintenance of a minimum educational standard.

To judge the risk to our democracy posed by Trumpism, we need to assess the strength of these foundations.  It is a mixed picture.  The advances we have made in civil rights for women, African-Americans, LGBT people, and disabled citizens demonstrate a common and growing commitment to human dignity.  (I believe this to be true notwithstanding the racism and misogyny of some of Trumps’ most ardent supporters because, despite the voice given them by Mr. Trump, they are a shrinking minority.)   More troubling, however, is the fact that Americans saying they trust the institutions of government fell from almost 80% in 1965 to only 19% this year.   And international rankings of America’s educational performance (24th in reading, 36th in math) would throw Thomas Jefferson ("An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.") into despair.   It is undeniable that the foundation necessary for our constitutional democracy to endure a challenge like Trumpism is, like the country itself, deeply fractured.

Commentators on both the left and the right have reached the same conclusion.  Adam Gopnik argues “Those who think that the underlying institutions of American government are immunized against [fascism] fail to understand history.  In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind come to power, normal safeguards collapse.”  David Brooks agrees:  “As the founders would have understood, he is a threat to the long and glorious experiment of American self-government.  He is precisely the kind of scapegoating, promise-making, fear-driving demagogue they feared.”  Just when our constitutional democracy may be put to a great test, we find that democracy greatly weakened by a popular loss of trust in its institutions, a debased popular culture, and the chronic failures of our system of education.

No matter how deep your antipathy toward Secretary Clinton, refocusing on the idea of “the American experiment” and the fragility of our republic offers an instructive perspective on your choice.   Adam Gopnik put it best: “No reasonable person, no matter how opposed to her politics, can believe for a second that Clinton’s accession to power would be a threat to the Constitution or the continuation of American democracy.  No reasonable person can believe that Trump’s accession to power would not be.”

A note on recent developmentsSo the Billy Bush video showed Trump to be a vulgar misogynist.   This is hardly a surprise.  Nor does it rank in the top group of reasons that Trump must not become president.   It is deeply unsettling that it took an accidental video, and one dealing with sex, to push responsible Republican leaders over the line.   The real scandal is that they were willing to overlook his crippling and delusional narcissism, ignorance, lack of skill or temperament to do the job, proto-fascist demonization of immigrants and Muslims, racism, disrespect for the constitution and rule of law, not to mention fantastical and bizarre ideas about policy (build The Wall, take the oil, get the jobs back from China, etc., etc.).   And it is doubly unsettling that this all resulted in the second “debate” sinking to new lows of ugly meaninglessness.   Trump has dragged us all into the sewer where he reigns as self-professed King, and I for one awoke this morning feeling dirty and in deep despair for my beloved country.    

What is fascism?

The neo-conservative Brookings fellow and Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan wrote that the attempt “to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it no so perilous to the republic.” He called him “a singular threat to our democracy.” This is the critical point missing from most media coverage of Trump. So what exactly does Kagan mean?

What he means is that Trump presents a risk that goes beyond his lack of the skills and temperament necessary to be president. The risk is that, as a successful demagogue, he becomes the vehicle by which the virus of fascism, the great scourge of the 20th century, is unleashed in the 21st century.    

While speaking about my first novel, Christian Nation, I realized that a large part of the American public had only a vague idea of the meaning of the words “fascist” and “demagogue.” In this post I explore the meaning of fascism, and in the next I will review what we mean when we accuse a politician of demagoguery. 

It’s not easy to paint a clear picture of fascism, which is a type of nationalist authoritarianism.  It takes on the character of the place and age in which it arises. But wherever and whenever it erupts, fascism generally is characterized by six features: 

·      Nationalism.  Fascism glorifies “the nation,” and is almost always nativist and xenophobic.

·      Resentment of “others.” Fascism usually is based on a narrative of exaggerated humiliations designed to create a sense of victimhood. This narrative in turn always requires someone to blame, whether it be minorities in general, or a specific group like Jews, gays, intellectuals, or immigrants.

·      Fetishization of strength and power; contempt for the rule of law. Fascists and their followers are always marked by the crude worship of strength and machismo. They disdain weakness, which they see as explaining the many humiliations suffered by the nation. They show contempt for the rule of law, which they see as a type of weakness.

·      Aggression. The fetishization of strength and power manifests itself in an approach to foreign and domestic policy that is inevitably aggressive.  Fascism in power endorses violence and almost always results in war.

·      Disdain for the truth. Fascists assert that their core narrative is a type of truth that is “greater” than conventional objective truth. They show contempt for reason and learning. Fascist movements are always characterized by casual and effective lying.

·      Rejection of political convention. Fascist movements transcend and demolish conventional politics. They do not fit neatly on the conventional ideological spectrum. Fascist movements are not about policy, they are about the strongman and his narrative of redressing past insults, restoring national greatness, and eliminating the hated “other.” The fascist disdains the niceties of democratic culture. Because the fascist breaks all the normal rules and conventions of political life, he confounds elites and institutions, which do not know how to deal with him.

The concordance between these six core elements of fascism and the essential features of Trumpism should concern every American, regardless of ideology or politics. Consider each of them in turn:

·      Nationalism. “Make America Great Again” is the archetype of a nationalist slogan. It encompasses Trump’s narrative of decline due to weakness, and of the strongman as redeemer of national destiny (“I alone can fix it.”). “America First” (Trump’s catch-phrase for his foreign policy) was the name of the isolationist anti-Semitic organization that, prior to Pearl Harbor, urged the United States to appease Nazism. Trump has named his policy after America’s last and most disturbing outbreak of proto-fascism.

·      Resentment of “others.” Trump’s narrative is classic:  all will be well if we rid ourselves of the illegals and prevent further immigration. This time it is not Jews, but immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, who bear the blame for economic frustration, national decline, and feelings of insecurity. Trump’s adviser Newt Gingrich called for re-creating the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate citizens sympathetic to Islamism. Trump tells his most ardent supporters that they are victims of globalization, elites, China, immigrants, and bad trade deals; others are to blame for their troubles. 

·      Fetishization of strength and power; contempt for the rule of law. Trump says that our national humiliation (we are no longer great) is due to weakness: “We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.” Of course he admires Putin; I am thunderstruck every time a journalist or pundit finds this to be inexplicable.  Trump admires Putin for his “very strong control over a country,” for his ruthless use of power, and for his authoritarian instincts. Trump’s narrative of strength and weakness is woven into every speech: “the military is going to be so strong” that “nobody is going to mess around with the United States.” And, as is so typical of the proto-fascist, his respect for brute power is matched by his disdain for the restraints posed by the rule of law. In 1989 Trump took out a full-page ad stating “Civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” The New York Times recently gathered the views of legal scholars of all ideological persuasions who concluded that Trump had “a constitutional worldview that shows contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

·      Aggression. Given the single axis of the Trump universe (winner/strong vs. loser/weak), it’s no surprise that his policy instincts tend toward the aggressive use of violence, whether the forced deportation of illegal immigrants or, in foreign policy, his promises to: “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS,” “take the oil out of Iraq,” use torture “much worse” than waterboarding; and order U.S. troops to assassinate the families of ISIS fighters. Trump’s campaign rhetoric also is typical of nascent fascism, with its veiled approval of violence directed at his enemies (“maybe he should have been roughed up” (about a protester assaulted by Trump supporters), “I’d like to punch him in the face”).

·      Disdain for the truth. Trump’s unprecedented disdain for objective reality is the subject my previous posting, Trump and the truth.

·      Rejection of political convention. In seeking the presidency, Trump broke all the rules: he became a candidate without any prior political record, ran a wholly unconventional campaign, and violated every prior standard of acceptable political behavior. He committed repeated political suicide and yet survived (e.g., calling war hero McCain a loser for being captured, calling Judge Curel a Mexican and thus disqualified, disrespecting a Gold Star mother, etc.). His politics, such as they are, are hard to pin down along the ideological spectrum. His primary opponents and party leadership were confounded and unable to respond effectively. The pundits failed to understand him, and tenaciously predicted his political demise. The elites were in turn condescendingly dismissive and apoplectic. And the people loved it, enough to win him the nomination and perhaps even enough to win him the general election.   

As hard as it is to swallow, there can be no denying that by these six measures, Trumpism is a proto-fascist movement (“proto” in this case meaning rising, or precursor to).   

One reason this is hard to accept is that it requires us to take Trump more seriously than he deserves. But this too is a warning sign. Fascism always tends toward the farcical, and is rarely taken seriously in its early stages. American journalists returning from Germany in the 1930s reported of the fascist leader: "This guy is a clown. He's like a caricature of himself." This was consistent with the view of many Germans, who dismissed him as a self-obsessed “dunderhead,” “fool” and “big mouth.”    

Even so, Trump is no Franco, Hitler, or Mussolini. What he flirts with is a new type of fascism, adapted for the age. Carl Bernstein calls it the “fascinating intersection of celebrity and neo-fascism.” Who would have thought, Kagan asks, that after a long absence, fascism would again rear its head in America, not with jackboots and Nazi salutes, but “with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac.”

Nonetheless, the lessons of history are clear: when politics drifts in the proto-fascist direction, it can no longer be business as usual, and the moral burden of stopping it falls on our individual shoulders, nowhere else.