In formally accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump promised, “I will be your voice!” And what a voice it was. The fevered cheers from convention-goers and the lack of serious opposition to his candidacy from Republicans demonstrates that the latent fascism of the political right has been fully unleashed by Trump and embraced by his supporters.
This is our country’s first serious experience of fascism, but Trump meets most of the criteria used to define an ideology that reconfigured the political landscape of Europe during the 1930s, most famously and tragically in Germany and Italy, but with repercussions far beyond those country’s borders.
Trump is an ethnic nationalist, who has increasingly sought to define citizenship in racial terms, whether by calling for special IDs for American Muslims, by questioning whether Latinos can serve in our justice system, or by using the classic language of “law and order” to excuse the indiscriminate deployment of state violence against black citizens long denied access to full citizenship rights.
Trump combines populist rhetoric with corporate policy in the tradition of 1920s and ‘30s European fascists. He distracts his supporters from policies that will not serve their needs by inviting them to blame their fellow citizens--of different ethnicities or religions--for their ills.
Trump shares other fascists’ militarism, insisting that those rightfully clamoring for economic and civil rights within the U.S. should be met with violence, and that we should use torture, indiscriminate (and illegal) bombing campaigns, and other forms of terror to deal with complex international problems. He admires the authoritarian character of regimes abroad. And like the fascists of the 1920s and ‘30s, Trump is openly contemptuous of forms of international solidarity that have proven essential to keeping our world intact amidst a world of poisonous nationalism. Far from perfect, internationalism has nonetheless allowed people to identify with each other across national boundaries, understand each other’s motives, and begin to address supra-national problems ranging from the conservation of biodiversity to the arms trade.
Trump’s convention speech was laced with talk of grievances and humiliation of the sort that animated fascists in Germany and elsewhere during the 1920s. Even the candidate’s convention speech nods to the inequality plaguing our country were notable for how extraordinarily bad they were at diagnosing the causes.
Trump argued that “law and order” was the answer to all of America’s ills. Outside of Trump’s brain, which isn’t all it’s made out to be, historical examples, experience, and logic point to unequal access to civil and economic rights as the true origin of our country’s problems.
Trump shares with other fascists and authoritarians more generally the belief that people’s individual behavior should be forcibly modified in order to make a model nation. Democrats--whether liberal, socialist, or otherwise--believe that rights are at the heart of any social contract, and that the realization of different combinations of those rights is what makes a good nation.
Trump shares with fascists his ready resort to violence. Until he got too much grief from responsible media, he was encouraging his supporters to attack protesters at his rallies, and the violent undertones of his entire message inspired assaults on Latinos in public places. He has bragged that he could murder people in the streets without his supporters batting an eye, suggesting that he would expect to enjoy similar impunity (perhaps very literally) should he take office as president.
Depending who in his party you ask, the first order of business in a Trump administration should be to either jail or kill his chief political rival. The ambivalence of the Trump campaign and its supporters over the appropriate fate for Hillary Clinton is hardly unprecedented...there were disagreements within the Nazi Party about how precisely to dispose of social democrats and communists.
There are those who use Trump’s lies about his foreign policy to excuse contemplating voting for him against Hillary Clinton’s neoconservatism. Indeed, Trump has mounted a trenchant critique of Clinton’s foreign policy. The problem with voting based on his critique is the same as with his economic criticisms: he’s a quack and a fraud, has misidentified the root causes, and has all the wrong answers. Trump was a supporter of the Iraq war until things began to go poorly. Trump’s rejoinder to Clinton’s real failings is to suggest that by magnifying her faults we can fix everything.
Clinton supports targeted drone strikes that go wrong, but Trump wants to carpet bomb the Middle East indiscriminately. Clinton supports an engorged security state, but Trump does too, and has pledged to bring back the torture that Clinton always repudiated, and to murder people entirely unaffiliated with any terrorist organization. Clinton’s diplomacy has not always been terribly skilful. Trump thinks that participation in international organizations, trust between nations, rational negotiation, and care for the welfare of our global brothers and sisters are signs of weakness. So did the fascists of the 1930s.
Anyone who thinks Trump represents some kind of benign isolationism is a fool. Anyone who somehow thinks that by voting for Trump they are doing Syrian or Iraqi civilians a favor is deluding themselves.
The repercussions of fascism are never confined by their host state’s borders, particularly when that host state is the world’s most powerful and well-armed state. By nature, fascism is an ideological complex in constant search of new enemies. Its toxic economics, its wild promises that stand at stark deviance with reality, its serial misdiagnoses of chronic problems, and its calculated fostering of domestic strife force it to seek out new victims, new scapegoats, and new groups destined for abuse or destruction. It is unchecked by liberalism’s respect for difference or for law (however inadequate some of those laws might be at times).
Political parties of the left and center in Weimar Germany failed to recognize the seriousness of the fascist threat. They let bad blood of the early 1920s and historical antipathy between liberals, social democrats, and communists prevent them addressing a common threat. Conservatives meanwhile fancied that they could control the Nazis even if they gained power, and hoped to use them to weaken the center and left parties.
We cannot credibly adopt their excuse of ignorance.
We have seen what fascist parties and powers do. We have seen the terror that unleashing ethnic nationalism, militarism, and racism can wreak. We can count the lives snuffed out by fascism, and many of our families have members who fought and in some cases died to extirpate fascism from Europe.
I was on the fence about supporting Hillary Clinton. I find her domestic policy uninspiring, her international outlook disturbing, and her easy entanglement with unsavory interests and individuals off-putting.
But now is not the time to vote based on a desire to punish the right-wing of the Democratic Party. The United States can survive four more years of tepid liberalism...after all, that has defined our politics for all but a short period for more than a century. It is the source of most of our ills, but we know how to manage it and thanks to Bernie Sanders we will emerge from this election cycle with the knowledge that there is an appetite for something far better. And if those of us on the left are vigilant and outspoken, we can mitigate the damage from another four years of neoconservatism.
On the other hand, I don’t think that a racially, religiously, linguistically, culturally diverse country like ours can walk away intact from four years of Donald Trump’s fascism. I don’t think our democracy can survive four years of presidentially-sanctioned, presidentially-protected, and presidentially-directed structural and physical violence targeting huge swathes of our population.
We call what Trump represents by the name we know to fear from what its earlier proponents did to Europe. And we must do what rational, responsible, and humane European political parties failed to do in the 1920s and 1930s and band together to give Trump and the Republican Party a tremendous defeat at the polls. A small margin will inspire the fascist candidate to incite violence. A landslide victory will have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton: it will be an endorsement of democracy against the deadly threat of fascism.
We need nothing less in our moment of peril. Fiat Lux.