Do me a favor: convince me that I’m being an alarmist?
During an interview about his book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale Professor, Jason Stanley, was asked if the American government was fascist. “I would never say it in an interview,” he responded. “It would be too dangerous. In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it’s too late to call it that.”
But the time may be near. Ironically, it is during periods of uncertainty—not knowing, for instance, if a hurricane will really strike, whether an authoritarian leader will execute a coup—that it is hardest to know what to do. It is tempting to deny the potential calamity. Those who insist it is coming look like alarmists. Sometimes, though, the “threat” is transformed into a reality before we know it, before we stop calling it a threat. We who have watched environmental degradation called a threat long after it is wreaking actual damage know this danger all too well.
On October of 2016, John McNeil of the Washington Post asked “How Fascist is Donald Trump?” Then he identified 11 characteristics of Fascism to help us judge whether the danger is imminent or distant. They are: hyper-nationalism; militarism; glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics; fetishization of youth; fetishization of masculinity; a “leader cult”; a “lost Golden Age” syndrome; self-definition by opposition;mass mobilization and mass party; a hierarchical party structure, which purges the disloyal; and theatricality. Most of these qualities are resonant in President Trump’s rhetoric and actions.
Let me add a few observations. Trump has persistently, fervently, tried to weaken the checks and balances that are supposed to limit (democratic) presidential power. For instance, he attacks the press. He now has an embarrassing degree of control over the Republican Congress. And, if Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution, becomes a Supreme Court judge, then Trump will further insulate himself from the balance of power the founding fathers specifically erected against tyranny.
The international context further strengthens the possibility of authoritarian rule in the United States by making strong-man rule increasingly normative. We need only think of Poland, Hungary, and Russia. Or turn our thoughts to increasingly powerful right wing movements in France, Germany, England, and even Sweden. Where are the bulwarks against the fall of democracy?
In a New Yorker review of Madeleine Albright’s new book, warning about the potential for fascism, Robin Wright noted this: On a Sunday morning in 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Asked if he worried about his association with Mussolini’s thinking, Trump was casually unbothered.
We have been warned about the possibility of Fascism by credible sources. And we may be standing on a precipice, easily tumbled by national crises—like the Reichstag fire that provided Hitler with an excuse to consolidate power, like a little war in Iran, that might “require” even more centralized power in the United States, or like a natural weather disaster that “demands” a larger than usual contingent of the national guard. These are the kind of events that could plunge us over the line and into a fascist abyss.
Even if the risk is 10%, don’t we have to take it literally, not as some metaphor used to criticize an dangerous presidency? In other words, if we take seriously the warnings, if we allow ourselves to think the unthinkable, if we believe that Fascism is a real, perhaps imminent possibility, what should we do?
At the least, we must exhaust all democratic options and, in particular, work to turn the House of Representatives now, then state legislatures over the next few election cycles, thus ending the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win political dominance, even as minority party.
But, with the possible exception of turning the House this November, these are long-term solutions. What if we at least hypothesize that the crisis is imminent. How can we avoid the “pale cast of thought,” the paralysis that empowered the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain, during the last century, and the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Poland, and Hungary, among them—in this century?
If we had already become an authoritarian state, I don’t think that we would have qualms about forming a resistance movement. Oddly enough, the moral choices grow easier as the enemy grows clearer.
I do appreciate that it is daunting to move from the idea of threat to its realization. None of us want to consider this until it is absolutely necessary. It would take a kind of courage that most of us have not been called upon to demonstrate. We might admire the French Resistance. We might romanticize the Republican struggle against Franco. We might wish that the Germans and Italians had begun to fight earlier. But what about us?
I don’t feel very brave and I don’t know what to do. But I am frightened. So I am writing this essay to pose the question more strongly than I see it presented in the national mainstream media. Even progressive venues such as The Daily Beast, Salon, and Politico have been reluctant to name the fascist threat as more than a threat. To me, that is like saying that environmental degradation threatens our future when we know that it already produced undeniable consequences.
At the very least, we must begin to talk with one another and, possibly, to do so in an organized way. We can ask what we should do “if.” We can begin to plan for contingencies. As Jason Stanley warns, there may come a time when we cannot have these conversations out in the open. Now we can.