The “F” word — as in fascism.
Former president Donald Trump has crossed the line from a nationalist and so-called populist to a full-fledged fascist. And, much of the Republican political establishment and millions of his followers have joined him in his assault on democracy and his quest for permanent power.
That goal — permanent power — is the essence of fascism. Certainly, fascism meant different things in different countries. In Italy, where the concept was born under the aegis of Benito Mussolini, fascism equalled “corporatism,” the idea that individualism gave way to associations, “corporations,” to which citizens gave their loyalty and those associations undergirded the state. The German Nazi Party adopted some of the ideas of Italian fascism, but it stressed the the will of the charismatic leader, der Führer, coupled with anti-Semitism and a belief in violence as a social palliative. Other fascist movements coopted some of the ideas of Italian and German fascism while adding other elements.
But, the common unifying theme for all fascist movements is the quest for permanent power and the abandonment of existing democratic liberties. Fascism appeals to its followers by stressing community decline and victimhood while working with traditional elites who believe — erroneously — that they can control the putative fascist dictator. For fascists, elections are irrelevant. Fascists participate in electoral politics as a means to achieve their ends. Remember, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through the ballot box. Once in power, fascists either rig elections or refuse to conduct them.
Donald Trump’s fascistic impulse is evident in his attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. In this, the Republican Party is a willing participant. We should not be naïve and believe the only election at stake is the last one. Trump and his followers are determined to bring into disrepute the whole concept of democratic electoral politics. Last November’s presidential contest is only the starting point. Republicans throughout the nation are trying to undermine free and fair elections by purging voting rolls of those groups most likely to oppose the GOP, making it difficult for some to vote, and by giving inordinate power to Republican elected officials to determine the outcome of elections. Republican political leaders — who justify their assault on democracy by endorsing Trump’s “Big Lie” of a stolen election — are paving the way for the rise of an authoritarian, fascistic leader who will no longer hold meaningful elections.
Trump lacks a coherent political philosophy. His only guiding principle is self-aggrandizement. I am not even sure if Trump enjoyed being president. But, he detests losing. And, he appears to love the adulation of the crowd as well as those around him. The worst epithet in Trump’s limited vocabulary is calling an opponent a “loser.” Stressing the “Big Lie” allows Trump to present himself not as a loser, but as a victim of the “Deep State” and power elites who frustrated the will of the people.
Millions follow Trump because of fascism’s traditional offer of hope to the disaffected. If Trump is out of power because of the machinations of others, then those suffering declining political power, economic peril, or a perceived loss of social status are similarly victims of a government they believe no longer works for them and of other people who manipulate the system to their advantage: Jews in Germany, immigrants, Muslims, and Blacks in Trump’s America. As the novelist V.S. Naipaul observed about Argentina’s Juan Perón and his movement, “Peronism could offer hate as hope.” Sound familiar?
Fascism extols political violence. With the possible exception of the ”Redeemers” after Reconstruction (White southerners who used violence to undo the rights won by the formerly enslaved), violent anti-government movements in the United States have always been at the political fringes. Other violent domestic groups, the Weather Underground of the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan of the Civil Rights era, Puerto Rican nationalists, and pro-German sympathizers in the 1930s were never going to seize power. But, today, those who approve violence as a means to achieve political ends are not a small minority of the American body politic.
A poll taken shortly after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol found that 45 percent of Republicans backed the rioters. A Twitter thread that argues the January 6 protestors were right to believe that Trump was cheated in the election and justified to use violence to right that wrong received the endorsement of Donald Trump, Jr. and was read on Fox News by Tucker Carlson. This is the same Tucker Carlson, by the way, who is spending this week cozying up to Hungary’s autocratic leader, Viktor Orbán.
The “Big Lie” is Trump’s functional equivalent of Hitler’s stab-in-the-back myth — the idea the German Army did not lose World War I but was betrayed by Jews and weak politicians at home. Similarly, the January 6 unsuccessful coup becomes either analogous to Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and/or the Reichstag fire, the Nazi pretext for the total seizure of power in 1933. Most dispiriting of all is the elevation of insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt into a martyr reminiscent of Horst Wessel, whose shooting death at the hands of Communists in 1930 became a cause célèbre for the Nazis.
Babbitt was slain as she stormed the door in the Capitol that protected members of Congress. Trump called her an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman” and her co-insurrectionists “great people.” Trump even suggested that Babbitt had been shot by the personal-security detail for a high-ranking member of Congress. “I’ve heard also that it was the head of security for a certain high official. A Democrat. It’s gonna come out,” he said. Trump probably has no idea who Horst Wessel was, but he is engaging in the same manipulation of events the Nazis used on their way to power.
In 1933, leading German politicians, not themselves Nazis, and members of Germany’s economic elite abetted Hitler’s rise to power because they believed they could control the Nazi leader for their own purposes. They were wrong, as Benjamin Carter Hett shows in The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. Many of those conservative politicians soon fell victim to the Nazi regime they helped install. Equally wrong are all those Republican politicians and big-money backers of the “Big Lie” who believe they can control Trump and the movement Trump has unleashed. They may learn when the fascists come to power — Trump or someone after him — that only the true believers are safe. And, when that lesson is learned, it will be too late to seek redemption at the polls because those political leaders will have aided — inadvertently or not — the new American fascist dictator in the destruction of the nation’s electoral system.
Posted August 6, 2021