Fascism and Us: What Makes for a Credible Threat, and Are We There Yet?

When I first traveled in Europe in 1963, I kept my distance from Germany.  The very hint of the German language when we neared its borders frightened and repulsed me.  The Holocaust was still fresh in mind.

Last week, Franny and I spent a few days in Berlin.  Time has created distance, softened my feelings, allayed my fears.  Decades of German liberalism and cultural tolerance have attracted me.  The brass Stumble Stones (Solpersteines) in front of countless homes, each identifying the Jewish resident who lived there before being murdered in the Holocaust, speak to a deep reckoning among the German people.  Angela Merkel’s embrace of refugees has had me cheering.  Her attempt to stand firm against Trump’s abuses, though it might cost her her leadership position, has been admirable.  In those stark old terms, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For the most part, we were not disappointed.  Berlin seems like open, optimistic city.  More like Paris than London, where we had just spent a week, with tree-lined avenues and thousands upon thousands of cafes line the streets, peopled by laughing and eagerly engaged young people.

But this may be what it appeared to Jews like me in the 1920’s and very early 1930’s, even as Nazis and Communists competed to overturn the Weimar Republic.  During that period, Berlin was bursting with a fierce and open discourse on the future of human society.

Then it happened.  Quickly, decisively and disastrously, Hitler and the Nazis were elected to power.  Remember that notion: they were elected. The liberals portrayed him as a thug, a buffoon, a liar and prophesied that he would soon be out of office.  They protected themselves with gallows humor.  They ‘knew’ that his rise represented an aberration in German society, when a minority outmaneuvered the majority.  Almost no one anticipated the use of the Reichstag Fire (the burning of the German Parliament) to serve as a national emergency that required the “temporary” creation of authoritarian rule.  But the ruse worked and the Nazis were instantly, and then inexorably, entrenched.

For decades after the defeat of Nazism in World War II, historians and social analysts searched for explanations for Hitler’s ascendance.  They argued that it grew directly out of German culture, with its myths of Aryan superiority.  They described the “authoritarian personality” that made the majority of Germans so responsive to Hitler’s call.  They noted how suffering during the Great Depression amplified the need for a savior.  In short, Nazism was portrayed as the inevitable outcome of cultural and economic forces.

But with the years, historians have come to see that the Nazi outcome was not inevitable.  The conditions were ripe, but people and decisions brought it to fruition.

When the Nazis first took power, people said that Hitler’s reign wouldn’t last, that the German people would come to their senses and the problems would pass.  This was the view of the Weimar liberals who had governed during the 1920’s; and it was the view of many Jews, who didn’t or, for lack of means, couldn’t, emigrate.  They missed the signs.  They simply couldn’t believe the Nazi menace would prove so cataclysmic.

This week, David Leonhardt, a New York Times journalist whom I admire, wrote that “this is not the time to despair or to panic.”  It is time to work as hard as we can, largely at the grassroots level, to build opposition to Trump and the hard right Republicans who protect him because they are convinced that he is useful in protecting their interests.

Normally, I would be in Leonhardt’s camp.  I have carried on a lifelong love affair with America and its Progressive traditions.  Over the years, though, I have grown more cautious, more skeptical about the untrammeled “power of the people,” more appreciative of the small “c” conservative checks and balances built into the Constitution and the trenchant dictates of our Bill of Rights. Still a patriot on my terms, I have become less of a romantic and more of a realistic democrat.

Where once the belief that the fundamental generosity of the human heart would lead to eternal progress, in which social and economic justice and equality would prevail, my eyes have now opened to the evil that men do.  I see the tendency to draw into tribes when we are threatened or simply feel threatened, then attack the “other” before the other attacks us.  I can’t help but see the almost explosive growth of nativism and outright racism in the United States and around the world.  And the nativists have formed into powerful groups, fueled, as Nazism was in Germany, by wealthy men, who thought it would serve their interests—and that they could control its excesses. These movements frighten me.

About a year ago, I wrote a couple of essays describing the parallels between Donald Trump and other fascist and authoritarian leaders.  I worried that fascism had grown too close.  Mostly the responses to these essays were tepid and slightly disapproving.  People thought me pessimistic, alarmist.  They thought my tone was too shrill.  The more psychologically minded wondered if I was just depressed.

I am sad to say that my fears have only grown. Trump and his Republican enablers have been systematically removing the constraints on his power.  With a second Supreme Court nominee, it is almost certain that the Court would deny challenges to his power.  With the disenfranchisement of the Mueller investigation, the challenge to Trump’s legitimacy is vanishing.  With the expansion of Executive Power, a century-long trend, the President can do more and more by fiat, claiming that he is the only one who knows the “will of the people.”  With our tendency to cover Executive Action of all sorts—from trade to immigration policy—under the veil of national security, the President is freer to dictate national policy.  As he does, Congress stands mute and impotent.  Finally, Trump has seemingly joined forces with Russia and against our European allies, which looks a little like the Nonaggression Pact that Hitler formed with Stalin prior to the second World War.

Despite the outrage of much of our press and of, I imagine, the disapproval of the majority of American citizens, Donald Trump seems to be moving almost ineluctably towards dictatorship.

Judge for yourselves.  Here is a definition of fascism: “…a form of radical authoritarian ultra-nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce…”  Does that not sound at least a little familiar? If Trump were to successfully muzzle the press, might this be possible?  Does Trump’s embrace of Putin, Erdogan in Turkey, Duerte in the Philippines, Kim in North Korea, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Assad in Syria, and other dictators around the world at least suggest that this is his ideal?

The accusation that we have hurled at pre-Nazi, “regular” Germans is that they missed the signs, that they never took Hitler seriously enough.  They didn’t fight hard enough or flee fast enough.  They couldn’t see how an elected leader could become a dictator.  How about us?

Could we have a Reichstag Fire of our own, a “national emergency” that “justifies” the consolidation of power in the hands of a narcissistic, power-hungry maniac?  Could he arrange a little war in Korea, Syria, or anyplace that demands greater executive strength—the quality he so admires in Putin?  How about an attack like the one in 2001?  By weakening our intelligence community, isn’t Trump making this more likely?   Might a few major hurricanes or wildfires provide an excuse?  There are so many potential crises that would do well enough as pretext to a “temporary” dictatorship.

Unlike Germany, the United States has not reckoned with it terrible past, with the enslavement, then oppression of Africans and African Americans, and with the virtual decimation of Native American nations.  We have been insufficiently reflective about our own culture, which may make us less able to deal with our current crisis.

Am I being alarmist here?  Maybe. But isn’t it worth sounding the alarm?  Shouldn’t we take more seriously this trend towards fascism? Shouldn’t we say that blinking light signaling a credible fascist threat has moved from yellow to red?.  And, if it has, what should we do?

17 thoughts on “Fascism and Us: What Makes for a Credible Threat, and Are We There Yet?”

  1. I’m right there with you. I am alarmed. Every day. I’m becoming saddened for my children’s future. Thanks for verbalizing our trauma.
    Diana

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    1. Thank you for this article. As an immigrant to this country, who grew up in the shadow of WW11 devastation, I am horrified to see history repeating itself. Where is the leadership from Democrats, Radicals and anyone who has a voice and can see what is happening?

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      1. The opposition is here but I don’t believe we have made ourselves heard by the Trump base. I think we need to show him for the greedy, disloyal man that he is. He is no patriot. He does not care about American values. We need to join hands with the base in exposing and opposing his traitorous values.

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  2. Barry your piece on Fascism and our situation with Trump and many in power in our country makes me think that you have read my thoughts and fears. I, like many others, learned at any early age to be warry of power in myself and others. As I have posted my opinions since 2016 with the growing since of danger.

    I truly believe that when power and wealth become the condition of the very few, a savior is sought by the many. “Saviors” are demented because they have the belief that they are better, smarter, stronger, and untouchable. That is know as Narcissism . The base that supports the demented rulers may not be demented ; but have been forced in despair, fear, and rage to be open and grateful for a “Savior”.

    The current situation here is even more dangerous because are governing system requires money in exchange for power. A Politician must join the club, (Party), and to keep his/her place, must “fit in” and raise money for the next election. Most of the money does not come from the people who live in his State.

    In 1945 I celebrated VE Day in England and Travelled with my father in Europe. I saw the destruction of cities and spoke with the people. I have seen and felt what fascism does. Our world is over run with fascist leaders. We Together
    must not let this happen in The United States.

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    1. David, it’s so important to identify fellow travelers. We can do that for one another. I appreciate your thoughts, which, as you say, mirror my own. Let’s keep each other up to date on what we all might do … Barry

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  3. Very well put, Barry. But how to help the disenfranchised, the people’s lives so eloquently described in the book “Hillbilly Elegy”…those, among others, are Trump’s people. They are filled with distrust and despair and honestly we’ve done nothing, as a society, to give them hope in the future, their future (terrible or no jobs, terrible schools, terrible, half dead communities). Easy to see why Trump was so appealing! At least they have a chance to get together at the rallies and yell their heads off, let off some steam. I can see the analogy that you are drawing, but if we don’t don’t take care of the least among us I’m afraid we deserve the consequences.

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    1. Thanks, Molly. There are always at least two ways to respond to your question about helping the disenfranchised. One is to propose a very progressive (enfranchising) agenda and leave behind the conservatism that the Democratic party has practiced since the Clinton years. The other is to challenge the “hillbillies” to come up with an agenda of their own and then fight them out in the open
      where their agenda is racist and other things. Both paths possess their own perils, but, of course, this is only the beginning of a much, much longer conversation. Thanks for writing; and here’s to continuing the dialogue.

      Barry

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  4. Barry, I don’t think you’re being alarmist. This is the time for all the alarm we can muster. I think those of us who live in Massachusetts, where our concerns are too easy to dismiss, must find ways to engage with likeminded people in red and purple states to say loudly and clearly “Enough!”

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  5. After overcoming my horror at the election of Trump, I thought that maybe the country needed to see how bad things would become under his type of leadership. Then we would return to living in a rational society. And Trump and his cronies did not disappoint in all the awful policies that they implemented, but his followers excused all that. More recently, I thought that his trade policies and international relationship blunders would affect pocketbooks and cause Americans to realize their Trump follies. Or perhaps the deplorables in states like Kentucky would realize that their medical and food benefits were under attack. But an article and quotations in the NY Times today show that his faithful are still faithful. I had expected a McCarthy moment: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” But now I don’t believe that will happen because, as seen in many science fiction books, the Trump supporters live in an alternative universe. Please, somebody, find a way to return these people to our own time and place.

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    1. The progression of your thoughts mirrors my own but I’m not sure we’ve ever had a rational society. Minds are molded by stomachs and images and a thousand different things. We sure haven’t managed to put them together in a way that sways both the progressives and the “deplorables,” even though it seems to me that we share goals.

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  6. I think we might be pretty well screwed and the America that we dreamed of will slide inexorably into some sort of fascist State over time.

    When a large segment of the population see this country as a God ordained white Christian country (not unlike the Aryan idea in Germany) and anybody who does not fit this profile is simply tolerated living here. As we legislate that “religious freedom” means I can use my beliefs to deny service or even aid to those who my religion say are “unworthy” we will allow discrimination to flourish (again).

    I live in a very red State where the nostalgia gene is very strong. All people here can seem to talk about is how much they miss the old days (the 50’s) and if we could only “get back to God” everything would be fine. There are many letters to the editor defending and praising Trump regardless of what he does or how he does it. They are very much in an “end justifies the means ” mindset. They, in many respects, want a strong man to come in an “take charge” and fix it all. This is not the only place in the US where people seem to want this. It is scary.

    Give up our freedoms (mostly others freedoms) for security. It is 1930 Germany all over again. I tend to watch WWII documentaries on Netflix and the similarities of then in Germany and now in the US are obvious and frightening (watch Nazi rallies and compare Trump rallies).

    We seem to have learned nothing from history.

    You are not wrong to be scared.

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  7. I’ve been watching the political developments from the relative safety of the other side of the border. We are alarmed here as well. There is, as you point out, an eerie similarity between the silence of Americans today, and the silence of Germans during the 1930s. Not everyone, of course, but enough of the population to give you pause.

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    1. Talking about the other side of the border, we were recently in London, Berlin, and Prague, and even conservative Brexit supporters were nonplussed and outraged about DT.

      Every day I wake up, take a look at the news, and well up with a sense of helpless rage–could he win this war? Then I’m tempted to retreat, which is how we live almost every hour of our lives. And then remind myself that we need to find something to do.

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  8. Barry,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. We must wake up and shake up what is happening to us as a people and as a country and across the world. We have been on this trajectory for quite some time. I get overwhelmed at different times but realize that giving up is not an option. It is helping wherever we see light or darkness and speaking up. The veil has been pulled back and the wizard has been exposed. It is us – all of us who stay indifferent and don’t speak up and don’t act with our resources of time, money and influence. Martin Luther King once remarked he was more afraid of the white moderate than the Ku Klux Klan.

    Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts to paper and circulating and speaking up.

    Marie

    Marie F. Downey Executive Director BEST Hospitality Training 617-542-1177, Ext. 207 http://www.BESThtc.org

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    1. Hi Marie,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think that all of us get overwhelmed and, even in the most sanguine times, wonder what in hell we can do to make a difference. MLK was surely right. We need to stop being polite and reasonable. Nonviolent protest may have looked reasonable but it wasn’t; it was aggressive and radical and demanding. We need something like that. We need leaders like that on the local and national levels.

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