As Trump ran for president I deliberatley withheld the term fascist from my comments. He was clearly sexist, racist, jingoist, solipsist, deluded, dangerously impulsive, and willfully ignorant of common facts, but I felt it would be a good idea to save the F-bomb for a culminating moment, when these characteristics coalesced with the open will to totalitarian power.
And I still believe we await that moment. But I also believe he signs of fascism are gathering too fast for liberal democrats to feel optimistic. Trump pretty obviously intends to use the state to enrich himself. The implicit idea that the state is an extension of his private property is deeply worrisome. Trump holds it in common with all other authoritarians of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Trump’s willingness to vest the mass stigmatization of minorites with the force of law is another deeply worrying sign. The “Muslim registry” would do just this.
And then there is the rally of November 19th, the Hitler salutes, the Nazi declamations. Those seem bad. Yes, yes, I hear and understand the objection that Trump can’t be blamed for all the deplorable things said and done in his name. Some fanatics will always slip through the cracks of raucous democratic discourse. And yet I must ask: who bears the main burden of protecting democratic discourse once it has been hectored in the national capital by Nazi louts? Is it up to us liberal democrats to wait and see if this pro-Trump group of Brown Shirts is a real thing, or might Trump feel obligated to take, shall we say, the nuclear option of obliterating the link between his agenda and these fascist wannabes?
Trump and his team also make no secret of their wish to control the press. The distance between aspiration and action in this area can be surprisingly short. Six years ago, when I started studying Turkey, it had a free and vibrant press. It was one of the things that made Turkish affairs interesting to me: there was such a variety of voices to take in. Then Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, started suing journalists who “insulted” him. Next he had his associates buy and tame as many media outlets as they could. Last year, in the coupe de grace, Erdogan simply declared what was left of the free press to be an ally of a movement to topple him (made up of ordinary-seeming Muslims who were actually disloyal Islamists–you can bet they’re on a registry in Ankara) and used his executive power to close their outlets, confiscate their assets and, in many cases, jail their employees. And in the space of six years, the free press in Turkey was dead, murdered in fact.
I’m not saying all this will come to fruition in Trump’s America, but let us not ignore the Munich-like goings on that seem to indicate Trump is acting on his worst instincts.
Here are two useful thoughts for the near future, as the fascism we feared becomes the fascism we can see.
First, for Trump to fulfill the biggest dreams of facsism, he must have handlers in the political establishment, and perhaps the military, who pave the way. The late Christopher Hitchens explains the value of elite patronage in a 1999 review of a book about Hitler’s rise:
“Do you recall the moment in The Silence of the Lambs when a moth chrysalis is discovered in the throat of a mutilated woman, and taken for examination? The entomologists at the Smithsonian lose no time in establishing that this sinister insect was present by design and had been carefully nurtured. “Somebody,” says the man with the tweezers, “grew this guy. Fed him honey and nightshade. Kept him warm. Somebody loved him.” The roach Hitler was just a drifter and a loser and a fantasist, but he was incubated all right, and shoved down the throats of the German people at the perfect psychological moment. . . . [and] Hitler found his patrons. A cabal of extreme nationalist and conservative officers in the army hired him as a spy, gave him some walking-around money, and noticed his talent for demagoguery. The leader of this group, Captain Karl Mayr, wrote a year or so later to one of his Fascist-minded civilian friends: “I’ve set up very capable young people. A Herr Hitler, for example, has become a motive force, a popular speaker of the first rank.”
In one sense, the cat is already out of the bag in our case: Trump is our president. But I think the important thing to watch now is how his closest advisors and more importantly, the gatekeepers of the government’s legislative and judicial branches will deal with him. Will they be able to curb his authoritarian appetite? Or will they try to use his “talent for demagoguery”? Will there be–Heaven prevent it–someone on the inside to “grow this guy”?
Second, there is the matter of Trump’s grassroots popularity among proto-fascists and his ability to control or cultivate their sentiment. In several of his essays, Martin Amis writes of the ability of ordinary people to achieve “escape velocity” from prevailing fact-laden opinion. Once they have become convinced of a handful of key grievances, which require no empirical credentials beyond subjective appeal, they can escape Earth’s gravity and loft their beliefs into glorious, frictionless orbit above the fray of “lower” opinions. I wrote somewhat spitefully about this mental switch and its significance for totalitarian rule last week.
I would also contend that one of the main purposes of Hitler’s large rallies was to harness the power of collective spectacle to achieve just the effect Amis had in mind, to override rational constraint on one’s political views. A human wave of fist-pumping neo-Nazis needs no evidence they are under threat of minorities’ wily machinations; they’re beyond all that.
So make no mistake about this: the Trump-Hitler fans at Saturday’s rally in the Reagan Building have achieved escape velocity. It would be banal to point out we must now watch to see how many people follow them. The crucial thing, I believe is to watch out for media that preach a mass conversion to this madness. I’ll bet Breitbart, for one, gets harnessed with no leash from the White House.