Fascism and the New American Caesar
by Dr. Bruce Arnold
There’s a lot of loose talk during an election year, especially one as heated as 2016. Not that we haven’t seen heat before. The Bush years were full of a blind invective from the Left. Bush Derangement Syndrome, I heard it called. If he had gone back to drinking, many would have criticized his choice of hooch.
Then there are the slurs that the booboisie has flung at Obama. Just as deranged, and made more despicable by the racism they just have to add.
This kind of thing goes back to the beginning of the Republic. In 1800, old friends Jefferson and Adams squared off for the Presidency.
Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” — Kerwin Swint, Mental Floss
This is far from pristine, principled discussions of issues!
It’s the issues that count the most, when the campaign’s over and someone has to govern. As much as possible, I try to keep things on that level. I avoid the simplistic characterization, the ad hominem attack, and the dumbing-down of important policy distinctions.
Most of all, I dislike hyperbole. I’m a staunch supporter of the frame of mind implicit in Godwin’s Law (1990): “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.” French author François de Smet refers to this as the “Reductio ad Hitlerum.”
There’s a corollary to the law, that says that whoever mentions Hitler or the Nazis first, loses the argument.
So far this year I’ve been avoiding using the term “fascism” to describe Donald Trump, for all the above reasons. But I’ve been studying fascism, too, because the parallels are too strong to ignore.
There is a time and place for everything. We can’t take this comparison off the table. Mike Godwin himself has said, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”
There are Nazis, and they are dead serious about it. And then there are those who are not Nazis, but who have fascist tendencies. They can be more dangerous than the out-and-out Nazis. First, they’re more numerous. Second, they’re not as obvious. I believe Trump falls into the latter category.
Let’s take a moment to describe fascism, so we’re all on the same page.
Robert O. Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” [quoted in Fascism: The Ultimate Definition]
All of these elements can be seen in play in the Trump campaign.
“Obsessive preoccupation with community decline”: The very slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that America, once great, currently is not.
“Humiliation or victimhood”: “When Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and initially refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, he offered voters a toxic mixture of victimhood and pugilistic rhetoric tinged with nostalgia for a violent, unapologetically racist past.”— Gunter Peck, Salon
“Compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity”: Jesse Graham, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, remarked “More than any other Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has been appealing to a particular combination of in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns. On the purity side, he often expresses disgust, often toward women and women’s bodies (e.g., Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate). But his purity appeals are most commonly in the context of group boundaries, like building walls on our national borders to prevent contamination by outsiders, who are cast as murderers and rapists, both morally and physically dirty.” – (quoted by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times)
“Mass-based party of committed nationalist militants”: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” [Donald Trump, quoted in The Guardian] Sadly, this seems to be pretty much true. If that’s not committed, what is? And as to the militant part, I give you this. And this. It’s not Kristallnacht by any stretch of the imagination, and no one suggested that Trump is organizing Brown Shirts, but there’s no question that the raw material is there.
“Uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites”: Did you hear Paul Ryan’s speech? Uneasy collaboration is a pretty good description. We’ll see about the effective part.
“Abandons democratic liberties”: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” (Donald Trump, quoted by Hadas Gold on Politico.)
“Pursues with redemptive violence”: There’s no way for Trump to carry out his plans to build walls, deport millions, ban Muslims, etc. without violence ensuing. And clearly he sees these plans as redemptive, making America great again.
“Without ethical or legal restraints”: Trump talks about doing many things without reference to how the Congress or judiciary would be involved. It’s as though he thinks that, with the stroke of a pen, he’ll be able to put all these ideas into action.
“Goals of internal cleansing”: the well-known wall, deportations, of course. He has also said he would consider tracking Muslims, perhaps with a form of religious identification. New moons sewn on their clothing? I know: Godwin’s Law. But the specific form of religious identification doesn’t matter; it’s despicable just that it would even be considered.
“External expansion”: no specific plans that I’ve seen. The age of colonialism is over, so there’s that. Economic expansion is another thing though. Trump is a businessman, and had made a major part of his appeal that he will create jobs. This suggests that some kind of corporate imperialism is on the agenda.
Brian Anesi notes some other characteristics of countries in which fascism has taken hold. Among them:
1. Polarization and deadlock: “In all cases where fascism was successful, its rise was preceded by a period of political polarization and parliamentary deadlock.” Case in point: Merrick Garland.
2. The political stance is poorly defined: “Fascist ideology was vague and protean. This is a source of endless frustration to those who expect to find a coherent definition of fascism in the writings of party ‘philosophers’. But it reflects nothing more than fascism’s pragmatic approach to attaining its goals and its unwillingness to be bound (like its predecessors) to failed dogmas. Like all popular movements, fascism tried to encapsulate ideology in terse slogans – ‘Believe, Obey, Fight’, ‘Strength through joy’, ‘Work makes you free.’ Or, as we’ve heard so often, Make America Great Again.
3. Emotionally appealing: “It is commonly observed that fascism was more a matter of the gut than of the head. Clearly those who joined fascist parties often did so from shrewd self-interest, but the same could be said of those who join any party. It was the emotional appeal of fascism – the notion that through sheer hope and force of will difficult and long-standing problems could easily be resolved – that set it apart. Triumph of the Will. This idea of course was not new and is still popular.” Trump is making a patently emotional appeal. Now, we know he has lots of good words, but primarily he is connecting to people through gut instincts. Fear, self preservation, anger.
4. Intolerance for dissent: “It would be trivial to observe that since the fascist model required individuals to serve the nation-state as the embodiment of the popular will, and subordinate their interests to it, dissent would be unthinkable for any true believer. A stronger reason for suppressing dissent can be found in the emotional characteristics of fascism. Accepting that ideas firmly held become reality, a dissenter imperiled the collective spell, and dissent was seen as a species of malefic witchcraft.” Even the stodgiest of media outlets – U.S. News – raises concerns about Trump on this issue.
In researching this essay, I found that all of a sudden, over the last week to 10 days, the number of respected journals that have identified Trump with fascism has exploded. When I first started writing it, it was hard to come up with enough varied resources that I wasn’t just repeating the same authors over and over. Now, there are so many, it became a major investment of time to read them all thoroughly in order to pick the sources I wanted to use.
We are at a crossroads. This is not exaggeration. Every country that has been taken over by an autocratic leader, be it Franco or Putin or Pinochet or Stalin, has found that once its democratic tradition has been destroyed, it is very hard to go back again. We must not let that disaster befall the USA.
It’s not enough for people to the left of Hillary Clinton, such as the millions who Bernie Sanders inspired with a vision for 21st century socialism, to stand up against the threat posed by the rise of this new American Caesar. As a lifelong socialist, I’d like to end with a high-falutin call to progressive ideals. Right now, that has to wait. What is most important now is for independent voters, who are the great majority, and for moderates in the shards of the Republican Party after it sold out to Trump, to set aside their differences and defeat him and all the people in Senate, Congressional, and statehouse races who are aligned with him. Having saved our nation, then we can go back to the usual arguments over policy.