Trump and the Road to Fascism

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

August 6, 2018

(This is an expanded version of the talk that Matt gave in Oregon, Wisconsin, on August 3 to the Oregon Area Progressives at the Firefly Coffeehouse.)

It’s always nice to be back at the Firefly, and I’d like to thank the Oregon Area Progressives for inviting me.

You know, I was here, more than a year ago, shortly after Trump was elected, and I was warning about the possibility that Donald Trump might be a kind of fascist. I think I called him Trumpolini. I was trying to make a little joke. But it’s not funny anymore.

Now the idea that he’s putting America on the road to fascism has become mainstream, with people like Madeleine Albright and Mika Brzezinski and Norm Ornstein warning us about it.

And I just read a book called How Democracies Die by two professors of government at Harvard University (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt), and it’s not, to say the least, reassuring.

They say there are four key indicators of authoritarian behavior, and Trump meets them all.

1. “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) the democratic rules of the game.”

Examples: His bogus claims of millions of illegal immigrant voters. His assailing of judges. His attack on Mueller.

2. “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents”

Examples: “Crooked Hillary” and “Pocohantas”.

3. “Toleration or encouragement of violence”

Example: “Knock the hell out of them. I promise you: I will pay the legal fees.” See also his comments on Charlottesville.

4. “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.”

“Fake news” and “the media is the enemy of the people.” Plus, threats to use the government to go after Amazon and sanctuary cities. Or his assault on the civil liberties of immigrants: Not only the hideous policy of tearing children from their parents, but also the executive order on Muslim immigrants and another saying that ICE agents could send back anyone who they think is “chargeable” with a crime. “Chargeable?” Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

He also is a clinical, pathological narcissist and a playground bully. Fascists revel in bullying, and their supporters admire them for it. Orwell called such admirers “bully worshippers.”

Trump is not a full-blown fascist yet because he lacks a well-developed fascist ideology. He’s not Adolph Hitler. He hasn’t written Mein Kampf. In fact, he hasn’t written anything in his life except a bunch of bad checks.

But he has all the inclinations of the fascist.

He loves strongmen, and not just Putin but Dutarte and others. In fact, it’s one reason he’s warmed to Kim Jong-un.

He fantasizes about being president for life. When President Xi of China essentially became president for life, Trump said: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”

He also echoes the language of the fascists.

During the campaign and still afterwards, he’s talked about “America First,” which was the slogan of the Nazi sympathizers here in the US before Pearl Harbor. He can’t plead ignorance about this because the Anti-Defamation League sent him a letter during his presidential campaign and noted the ugly historical echo and urged him to stop using the phrase. But he hasn’t stopped. He put it in his Inaugural Address, and he keeps using it.

His constant invocation of “fake news” has ugly echoes, too. The Nazis used the term “Lugenpresse,” which means “lying press” in German. In fact, some Trump supporters have picked it up in its original German. (See this Time magazine article )

And Goebbels used “the enemy of the people” to refer to Jews, and dictators throughout history have invoked this phrase against one group or another.

There are a few other crucial trademarks of the fascist that Trump embodies.

1. Incessant Lying

Trump has broken all the records for Presidential lying. He can’t tell the truth even when he says hello and goodbye. As of August 1, he had uttered 4,229 lies or misrepresentations, according to the Washington Post’s tally. His flagrant lying is a telltale sign. Here is the first sentence from another new and disturbing book called The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani, who was the book editor at the New York Times for ever and a day:

“Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth.”

Or take Orwell again: “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but that it attacks the concept of objective truth.”

2. Another trademark is racism or scapegoating.

That Trump is a racist and that he makes racist appeals cannot be denied. After all, he wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people. He led the vicious campaign against the Central Park Five and continued to vilify them after they were exonerated. And, of course, he led the Birther Movement against President Obama. And he launched his campaign with racist appeals against Muslims and Mexicans. And finally, after Charlottesville, it became totally undeniable.

And note how his narcissism fuels the racism, and how the racism fuels the narcissism. Trump feeds off the energy of his rightwing base, and when they respond viscerally to his anti-immigrant comments and chant “Build the Wall,” his ego inflates all the more. He knows that to make himself feel better, all he needs to do is to incite racism at a rally!

3. Then there is ultra-nationalism.

Trump makes no bones about being an ultra-nationalist. That’s what all the “America First” talk is about. Or look at “Make America Great Again.” At bottom, that’s an appeal to people’s sense of bereaved and betrayed patriotism, and that kind of appeal has been crucial to fascists and authoritarians, like Hitler and Mussolini and Pinochet and Franco. The University of Wisconsin’s great historian of fascism, George Mosse, has stressed the central role of ultra-nationalism in fascism.

Racism and ultra-nationalism are the sperm and the egg of fascism, and Trump’s doing some in-vitro fertilization right there in the Oval Office.

4. Finally, fascism is a mass-based movement, and Trump has a mass base.

His popularity can’t seem to drop much below 40 percent ever, no matter what he does. And he has this zealous, over-heated base at his rallies. When Jim Acosta said, after a recent rally, “It felt like we weren’t in America anymore,” that’s something to take very seriously. And when you see the white supremacists and neo-Nazis parading around in Trump paraphernalia, it’s hard not to conjure up images of the Brown Shirts.

America is not a fascist state yet. But it could get there, gradually or in a hurry.

The authors of How Democracies Die warn us that often “the assault on democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible. After all, elections continue to be held. Opposition politicians still sit in Congress. Independent newspapers still circulate. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

But it can also come, they warn, “in one fell swoop.”

Here are two ways that might happen.

The first is Norm Ornstein’s “nightmare scenario”: Trump fires Mueller and pardons everyone; there are huge protests in the streets; Trump’s zealots and the neo-Nazis attack some of those protestors, and violence escalates; Trump declares martial law.

The second is if the United States is attacked again, even at one-tenth the size of 9/11. As the authors of How Democracies Die note, “Major security crises—wars or large-scale terrorist attacks—are political gamechangers,” and they represent “moments of danger for democracy. Leaders who can ‘do whatever they like’ can inflict great harm upon democratic institutions.” Everything we know about Trump’s pathological personality suggests that he’d have few qualms about inflicting such harm.

And the blueprints are probably on the shelves of the Pentagon and Homeland Security already.

After all, General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, said that if we’re ever attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, we might have to suspend the Constitution. And Condoleezza Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council, General Wayne Downing, said essentially the same thing: If attacked again, “The United States may have to declare martial law.” So when the generals talk in public about martial law, you can bet that their subordinates have drawn up plans for it. That’s how the military works. (Veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel warned about this, too, in a graduation speech he gave at Berkeley in 2004: “More than likely, the use of a chemical or biological weapon in a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland would lead to the imposition of martial law.”)

There’s even the chance that if Trump were impeached, he’d refuse to go. And who would stop him? As Stalin said when he was told that the Pope wanted him to stop persecuting Catholics, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Trump is commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world. How many divisions does the House of Representatives have? How many divisions does the Senate have? How many divisions does the Supreme Court have?”

And you can bet your last dollar that if Trump declared martial law in the afternoon, Sean Hannity would be praising him for doing so that night.

So we’re living in a very ominous moment. To say the least, these are dicey times for democracy in America.

But let me give you some reasons why I’m not drawing a hot bath and opening a vein.

I’m hopeful because I’ve studied fascism, and the scholars tell me that fascists can’t succeed, even if they’re already in power, without the acquiescence of civil society.

And the good news is, civil society is not acquiescing. There is resistance, almost across the board.

Judges are standing their ground.

Journalists are standing their ground. (Thank you, Jim Acosta and Katy Tur and Don Lemon!)

Governors and state attorneys general are standing their ground.

Athletes and coaches are speaking up. (Thank you, LeBron James and Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich!)

The ACLU and immigrant rights groups and faith communities are defending those who are under assault.

And much of the citizenry has resisted, as well.

It started the day after Inauguration, with the amazing Women’s March, and it has continued right on through, with the recent successful rallies against Trump’s horrific policy of ripping babies and young children from their parents’ arms.

Other protests, such as Black Lives Matter and the students marching for our lives against gun violence, show that people are not afraid to exercise their rights.

Another hopeful sign is that some Republican officials are standing their ground, such as John McCain and Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.

Some Republican intellectuals are defying their party, such as George Will and David Brooks and David Frum.

Some Republican pundits, like Morning Joe and Steve Schmidt, have had enough and are calling Trump out at every turn.

Some, like George Will and Steve Schmidt and James Comey, are even urging Republicans to vote for Democrats.

I welcome any Republican at this moment who stands up against Trump, even Charlie Sykes, it pains me to say.

It’s crucial that Republicans draw some of their own away from Trump.

The authors of How Democracies Die argue that the Republican leadership in 2016 had a moral and a historical obligation to warn voters about Trump and to urge them to vote against him. Needless to say, the Republican leadership did no such thing. Nor are they doing so today. In fact, their pact with the devil has been noticeable for its bankruptcy: So long as Trump gets us tax breaks for corporations and our rich donors and so long as he gives us conservatives on the Supreme Court, he can get do anything else he wants, no matter how loathsome or how toxic to our democracy. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are up to their nostrils in moral quicksand.

Democratic activists like Tom Steyer and Democratic elected officials like Maxine Waters have been laying down the gauntlet against Trump. But it must be said that the Democratic leadership has not exactly led on this. And if the Democrats win the House in 2016 and then neglect to hold impeachment hearings, there will be hell to pay.

So we need to lean on Democrats, and we need to lean on Republicans, and we need to lean on ourselves.

We need to raise our voices more loudly than ever.

And we need to try to convince some of the people who voted for Trump but are open to rational discussion just how dangerous he is to our democracy.

And we need to vote, and we need to bring everyone we know to the polls.

That means the people we work with.

The people we worship with.

The people we exercise with.

The people in our book groups and our poker clubs and our fishing buddies, everyone.

Democracy itself is at stake.

We must rise to this challenge!

We must be vigilant!

We can’t let democracy die!