Trigger warning: Reading this blog might ruin your day.
In my September 2016 blog, What is fascism?, I examined each of the core markers of fascism (nationalism, resentment of “others,” fetishization of strength and power, contempt for the rule of law, aggression, disdain for the truth, and rejection of political convention). I concluded, “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).” Even those who accepted my analysis believed, as I did, that – in the unlikely event of his victory – the strength of America’s political culture and institutions would prevent Trump from implementing his proto-fascist agenda.
Most turning points in history are visible only in retrospect. All too often we lack the perspective to see what is happening until it's too late. I have tried to adopt the perspective of a future historian asking the question whether by 2018 the Trumpist political movement had crossed the line from proto-fascist rhetoric to actual fascism. I believe our future historian would conclude that it had. Here’s why:
The GOP Is Now a Cult of Personality. Our governing political party is no longer defined by an ideological or policy agenda, but primarily by loyalty to Trump. Almost 60% of registered Republicans now tell pollsters they consider themselves "more a supporter of Trump than of the Republican Party." This is why virtually all of the GOP has stood silently as the President has reversed its long-standing commitments to, among other things, reduction of federal deficits, free trade, and our NATO alliance. Those Republicans not unswervingly loyal to Trump are retiring from political life, and those who don’t will be defeated by well-funded Trumpists in GOP primaries. Wall Street Journal and Fox News commentator Daniel Henninger now refers to “the Trump Party, formerly known as the GOP.” And Mr. Trump himself dismisses any remaining GOP critics, including most notably the Koch brothers, as not being “real Republicans.” Most disturbingly, 91% of strong Trump supporters say they trust Trump – more than any other source – for “accurate information,” notwithstanding his astonishing record of mendacity and his own express admission that he uses the “fake news” label to discredit anything critical or inconvenient to himself.
“O'Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. 'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston? And if the party says that it is not four but five -- then how many?'” (George Orwell, 1984, Part 3, Chapter 2.)
When nearly a third of Americans are now in a mind-set where they routinely answer “five fingers,” we have to admit that we are in the grip of a fascist movement.
The Foreign Policy of the USA Is One of Extreme Nationalism and Nativism. Nationalist and nativist policies can no longer be dismissed as populist rhetoric. The cowardly Congress of the United States has stood by as the State Department and other institutional stewards of America’s diplomatic values and traditions have been gutted or ignored, allowing the foreign policy of the United States to be defined by the angry whims of one man and conducted mano a mano with the thugs and tyrants that our President finds most congenial. The President has attacked our core alliances, celebrated and embraced fellow-authoritarians, launched trade wars against our allies, and unilaterally implemented immigration policies that have demolished our country’s reputation and standing in the world. Travel anywhere outside of the US and you'll be reminded of an incontestable truth: these are not Tump's positions and actions anymore, they are ours. America now has a fascist foreign policy.
The Executive Branch Attacks the Rule of Law and Press Freedom. The President launches personal attacks against judges whose decisions he does not like. At his behest, millions of Americans no longer trust the integrity of law enforcement or the courts. He illegally instructed his recused attorney general to terminate the Russia probe following months of relentless attacks on his own Justice Department. The President has doubled-down on his “enemy of the people” attacks on the free press, which are now escalating and will climax this fall. In September 2016 these things were the ravings of a populist candidate who few took seriously. But for the past year and a half they have been the acts and words of the President. Instead of a virus attacking the system from the outside, the virus now sits within – at the very core of our body politic – and has already started to cripple the institutions at the core of our democracy.
The Rise of Violence. Most disturbingly, the final line – the toleration and use of violent means – has been crossed. Trump the candidate encouraged his supporters to beat-up protesters at his rallies, and now as President he countenances the threat of violence against the news media. Mainstream media companies now need to engage security guards for their reporters covering Trump rallies. The White House approvingly tweets videos of crowds threatening the press and declines to criticize their menacing behavior. In response, left-wing extremists also have menaced Trumpies. The depth and bitterness of our political divide, engineered and celebrated by Trump and Bannon, is having exactly the effect they intended: the morphing of our politics in the direction of violent conflict. I predict that the 2018 mid-term campaign will be characterized by steadily escalating political violence.
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Trump’s approval ratings stand at 40%, including 84% of Republicans. 34% of all voters strongly approve. History teaches that in Trump’s unshakable 34% of Americans we have a political base sufficient to support and sustain a fascist populist regime. Unless, that is, the rest of us turn out to vote and are unified in our opposition. History might well show that the 2018 midterms were the last moment when Trumpist fascism could have been derailed.
Fascism is a heavy charge, which many will dismiss as alarmist. But for those uncomfortable with drawing parallels to the 20th century, please consider what our future historian will see, looking back at 2018: fascist or near-fascist regimes in countries as diverse as North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and elsewhere. America is not alone in its struggle with this scourge. And remember that political science and history teach that fascism comes in many flavors, but all are ultra-nationalist, all are designed to restore lost national “greatness,” all admire the strong-man in politics and are based on loyalty to a strong-man ruler, and all are fundamentally hostile to the rights of minorities, rule of law and pluralist democracy. In addition to their fundamental political character, historians recognize fascist regimes by a certain style and rhetoric: large theatrical rallies, repetitive chants, extreme and provocative speech, and the toleration or promotion of violence in political life. We have been warned. We’ll find out on November 6, 2018, how many of us listened.