Preparing for Fascism

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.

 

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?