Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Trump's March Toward Fascism

It's a little tough to try to use the word "fascist" as anything but an insult today. In 1944, George Orwell noted that the term was usually "degrade[d]...to the level of a swearword." The intervening years have done little, if anything, to help restore meaning to the term. If one thinks of fascism as being authoritarian, illiberal, undemocratic, and sold using empty nationalism, then certainly we've seen a bipartisan legacy of fascism (or proto-fascism) over the past few decades, and from the Republican Party in particular.
Donald Trump and Mussolini; some have noted similarities
(Trump Image: REUTERS/Dominick Reuter/Files; 
Mussolini Image: YouTube, MrFlogeras;
Edited by me)

However, as ominous as the developments in the United States have been (particularly in the post-9/11 era), we obviously do not have fascism in the same sense as Mussolini's Italy or Nazi Germany. Our treatment of other countries and populations has often been brutal in ways it's fair to compare to those two ("Godwin's Law" notwithstanding), but internally we are obviously not at the level those countries were, or anything resembling it.

But with Donald Trump, we are now looking at something a little, well, different. It's different enough that right-wingers and Republican Party insiders are openly calling him a fascist or accusing him of fascism. John Kasich, one of Trump's many opponents in the GOP primary, released an ad alluding to Martin Niemöller's famous statement about the Nazis ("First they came...") when discussing Trump.

But, of course, just because Republicans are accusing Trump of being a fascist doesn't mean he is one (although it is a bad sign). If we want to talk about fascism not just in the colloquial sense but in the truly serious sense, we'll have to get a little academic. Professor Roger Griffin gave us this influential definition of fascism: "Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism."

That's a mouthful, so let's unpack it a little. Griffin says that fascism's "mythic core"--the mythology that is at the center of the ideology--is "a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism." "Palingenetic" (aside from, somewhat amusingly and perhaps appropriately, containing Sarah Palin's last name) means focusing on a sort of national rebirth, as Griffin makes clear. We don't have to look far for that in the Trump campaign. His slogan, after all, is "Make America Great Again." So in the past we were great--now we're not. Our country has to rise from the ashes and return to its former glory.

That idea is hardly unique to fascism, but fascism does, according to Griffin, have a very strong focus on it. If you look at the headings for Trump's positions on his campaign website, literally every one ends with the phrase "Make America Great Again." I think we can all agree the emphasis is pretty strong. So palingenetic, check.

How about populist? Griffin defines it as "the ‘people power’ generated when enough of the ‘masses’ are effectively mobilized by mythic energies, whether spontaneous or contrived." We've seen the myth already--America's former greatness, waiting to be restored. It's certainly mobilized a lot of people; even though the establishment hates Trump, he's still sitting pretty at the top of the polls for the GOP primary, where he's been for months. There's no doubt his base is the "masses" and not the elites, and that he's succeeding because of his appeal to everyday people who are frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. So it's pretty fair to call him populist.

How about ultra-nationalism? Griffin states:
I intended it to denote not just an overtly anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary form of nationalism...but to embrace the vast range of ethnocentrisms which arise from the intrinsic ambiguities of the concept ‘nation’, and from the many permutations in which racism can express itself as a rationalized form of xenophobia.
So there's a bit to examine in that one term alone. Anti-liberal? Keep in mind, of course, we're not talking about liberalism in the sense of the Democratic Party, we're talking liberalism in the sense of liberal democracy--constitutionally protected rights and such. But we don't have to look too far for that sort of thing in the Trump campaign.

Let's start with his immigration plan. Donald Trump is actually proposing the greatest forced population transfer in recorded history. He is planning on rounding up eleven million people and shipping them out of the country. Don't forget, furthermore, that he would like to deport people born in the United States and constitutionally granted citizenship. For this to be anything except a total fantasy, we would likely have to have something resembling a police state. How else are you going to track down well over ten million people and send them out of the country?

And now, after the Paris attacks, Trump has been proposing things that are--well, something else. He has stated he would "certainly" implement a national database of Muslims (even though he later denied saying this). He's also talked about closing down mosques, which is, obviously, a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.

Anti-parliamentary? Well, in case you haven't noticed, Trump doesn't talk much about how, as president, he'd be introducing bills to Congress. He just kind of says he would do things as president. It's pretty clear that his vision is of a strong executive branch able to do pretty much whatever it wants, unhampered by Congress. Anti-parliamentary indeed.

Then we have the possibility of a "vast range of ethnocentrisms" and "permutations in which racism can express itself as a rationalized form of xenophobia." Well, we know Trump's distaste for immigrants (who are largely rapists and other dangerous criminals, he says). It's pretty clear that he's promoting Islamophobia, too, given his proposals about a national Muslim database and shutting down mosques. On top of these completely heinous policy proposals, Trump has also just flat-out lied, claiming that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11. He's refused to back down from this claim even after it's been pointed out how it's completely baseless and false.

But, apparently, targeting Muslims and Hispanics is not quite enough for Trump. He also tweeted a graphic with a caricature of a stereotypical black gangsta that claimed that the vast majority of whites who are murdered die at the hands of a black murderer. In fact, actual statistics indicate that only about fourteen percent of white murder victims were killed by blacks. The graphic appears to have originated from an actual neo-Nazi who openly admires Hitler, not exactly surprisingly. Whether or not Trump personally tweeted this, he has not apologized for it or taken it back.

Then we have his supporters' assault on a Black Lives Matter activist at one of his rallies. That wouldn't necessarily reflect so badly on Trump himself except that he actually stated that "maybe" his supporters were doing the right thing by physically assaulting someone for saying words they didn't like.

So there you have it--Trump is pretty clearly running on a platform that strongly resembles real, honest-to-God fascism. It resembles it in its propaganda, its appeals to the masses, and its actual policy proposals, which would require a massive, enormously strong and intrusive government. The best we can possibly hope is that this is just a clever con job by Trump because he knows he can get people to vote for him with this sort of stuff, and that (God forbid) if he actually did get elected president, he'd just sort of work within the system and put aside the deranged policies he's been talking about.

At this point--for me, anyway--it's almost hard to imagine Trump not getting the GOP nomination. He's been at the top of the polls for months, and nothing he does seems to hurt him. Nor is there any establishment candidate who seems strong enough to pose a real threat. If Trump does get the nomination and win the election (which is harder to imagine, but not impossible), we could be looking at a truly extreme transformation of the country. Even if he loses the election, just by getting the nomination he will likely leave a lasting impact on the Republican Party. If the thought of that terrifies you, it's because it should.

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