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 Meuller 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?

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When Bullies Become Tyrants

Ever since the he  swept into view last year, I have known the bully in Trump.  Only gradually have I realized how central it is to his persona and to his success.   I didn’t want to know that bullying could be so effective.

I’ve always hated bullying but haven’t fully credited its potential for power.  I’m an Alpha male myself, and always figured I could show up any bully who came my way.  I haven’t suffered the pain and indignities that women and my gentler friends have at the hands of such internally weak and injured buffoons.  For the most part, I haven’t suffered the tyranny that comes when bullies achieve institutional power.

That’s not entirely true.  I was a boy during the McCarthy period.  The FBI would occasionally come to the door of our apartment in the Bronx, asking after my father, who was always at work.  It was day time, after all.  In retrospect, I can see the visits as harassment, indirect bullying.  At the time, I was only mildly afraid.  Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover liked that, no doubt.  They wanted to create an air of anxiety in our culture, and they succeeded.

Now I see that there is no Trump without bullying. It is at the core of his “leadership.” His method is clear:  He enters the scene, any scene, with an air of implied threat, and feigned welcome.  He begins conversation with a criticism or an insult.  When he doesn’t get his way, he pushes.  When pushing fails, he manipulates.  When manipulation fails, he insults.  If the insults aren’t strong enough, he ups the ante through hyperbole and scandalous lies.  He is relentless.  He won’t stop until he has won…until he has backed people down, frightened them, worn them out, hurt them.

Trump fits well within our understanding of bullies.  Here are a couple of definitions that do him credit:  First: “Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are in some way smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully.” Second: “…bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by the following three minimum criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.[11] Bullying may thus be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Trump is not the first bully to gain political advantage.  His is a company of thousands, including McCarthy, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators.  Dictators are bullies by definition.  They almost always gain power by bullying, though the centrality of bullying is not always obvious to followers at first.

Here’s the tyrant’s profile, written long before the current president-elect came to power.  You decide who it calls to mind.  First:

  • Continual claims for attention and admiration
  • Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
  • Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
  • Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance.

You may object to my grouping Trump with tyrants.  So far he only has the potential to join the club, but he does have that potential.  The likelihood of potential turning into reality most likely depends on the conditions in the larger culture.  Following World War II, social scientists labored endlessly to identify the conditions that readied German for Hitler.  They focused on the anguish and anger of the nation following the humiliating peace treaty for World War I,  the country’s social dislocation and economic depression, the availability of ready made scapegoats, and the tendency towards  “authoritarian personalities” among the populous. These are people ready to surrender their own power in favor of a strongman, who could tell them what to do.  Many Trump supporters fit that same profile.  They did not vote for his policies—what policies?  They voted mostly for the promise of a fix, the highlighting of a bogeyman (immigrants) and the promise that he alone could make things right.

You might ask: why am I writing this essay when we already disapprove of Trump’s approach to leadership?  The reason is simple: I want to put words to what we all know.  I want to say it out loud.  I want to be clear about the direction the Trump bullying might take.  Bullying women is one thing.  Slanderous reactions to John Lewis and his terrible Congressional district (he means the Black areas of Atlanta) is another.  Bullying the press takes it a step further. . Imposing private security teams with the potential to be small armies take the trend too far. And trying to bully other countries, those who cannot and those who might retaliate, may speak mainly to the grandiosity that often goes with the bully.

You might say that people like Trump are “just” bullies, not tyrants, and it’s not fair to place Trump in their ranks.  But don’t forget that these tyrants didn’t begin that way.  Hitler, for example, portrayed himself as a “little man,” much aggrieved and neglected.  Mao, Fidel, even Hugo Chavez were said to be men of the people.  Dictatorships that don’t begin in coups, begin as populist rebellions that draw on the people’s yearning for change.  These populist leaders, once they have gained institutional position, turn rapidly into dictators.

Their initial campaigns seek out enemies—often an oppressed ethnic group, like the Jewish people, or a callous elite, like the money-lenders (read financiers or read Shylock).  Often enough, they are elected to office.  Then the transformation from democratic to dictatorial leadership happens quickly and decisively.  Here is how “leaders” move from bullying to tyranny:

Control of public information and opinion Use of the law for competition suppression
Vote fraud used to prevent the election of reformers Creation of a class of officials who are above the law
Undue official influence on trials and juries Subversion of internal checks and balances
Usurpation of undelegated powers Conversion of rights into privileges
Seeking a government monopoly on the capability and use of armed force Increasing public ignorance of their civic duties and reluctance to perform them
Militarization of law enforcement Political correctness
Infiltration and subversion of citizen groups that could be forces for reform Increasing dependency of the people on government
Suppression of investigators and whistle blowers Use of staged events to produce popular support

I could go into much greater detail about the transition from bullying populists to outright dictatorship, but I hope you’ve got the general idea.

The next and probably more important subject is: what to do.  That will take some deep thinking and concerted action.  Remember, bullies and tyrants do not yield to reason, to compassion, to ethical standards.  In other words, they do not respond to the most cherished tools that are used by a non-violent opposition.   For them, it is not just power itself, the ability to achieve what you want.  It is the power over others.  The pleasure, the thrill is in humbling enemies and doubters; it is the thrill of domination.  What’s more, wielding power distracts bullies from personal insecurities, minimizing what can  otherwise be incapacitating anxiety for bullies.

We know that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  We have a thousand small, often personal, examples of standing strong.  Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Walsh, who helped to dislodge Joe McCarthy from his perch, are shining examples of this approach.  They are heroes.  But it will take more than the courageous acts of individuals to keep Trump from tyranny.  It will take organized opposition.  Thank goodness, the opposition has begun.

Taking a Moment to Reflect

While almost everyone I know is gnashing their teeth, looking for something to break, or searching for something constructive to do, the Trump victory has left me strangely contemplative, almost calm.

Like so many others, I have terrible forebodings about the upcoming presidency.  It requires little to imagine the start of mass immigrant deportations and gross violations of civil rights for Muslims, journalists, and all of us who object to Trump’s ascendance.  He will further empower and enrich the crassest of the wealthy class and, simultaneously, he will profoundly disappoint those who put their faith in him.  He will accelerate the degradation of our planet and the degradation of our culture, legitimizing bigotry of all kinds.  He is already installing neo-fascists, like Stephen Bannon, within the heart of our government.  And the Bannon appointment probably foreshadows alliances with right wing governments in Austria, Hungary, Russia, France, and many other nations.  Is this the time when democracy is dumped into the trash heap of history?  The possibility is all too real, all too immediate.

Maybe, as thoughtful policy analysts like Steven Kinzer suggest, Trump will also have some positive effects, chief among them diminishing the chances of nuclear confrontation with Russia and backing off of the idea that we are responsible for world economic, social, and political order.  Hillary Clinton, after all, is but a warmed over cold warrior, and it’s time that we rid ourselves of bankrupt foreign policies, based on American exceptionalism.  It may be that Trump’s victory awakens our youth.  The world, with its massive demographic, political, and climate shifts demands a response of comparable dimensions.

There are lots of fine people telling us to resist and organize now.  Take this moment as a blessing in disguise.  Carpe diem.  It is only when the world is disrupted, in disequilibrium, that you can change it.  Isn’t that the message of all modern change theorists, from Prigogine in physics to Stephen Jay Gould in evolutionary biology to Eleanor Duckworth in education.  How else can we respond the vast demographic shifts brought on by migrations, droughts, genocides—and the shadow of the twentieth century when Hitler and Stalin, alone, murdered tens of millions of people.  We are a world that’s ready for a change—but change for the good is only one possibility.

All of this volcanic activity seems, in the short run, to have had a paradoxical effect on me.  It seems to have released me from the external chaos and turned me deep into myself.  The campaign’s outcomes are too raw, too painful to contemplate head on.  If I read the news at all, it’s to hurry through, to almost turn my head so I don’t see.  Having withdrawn from the news and from the anxious build-up to the November vote, I find myself calm, even relaxed. I am pretty sure that this is momentary but that does not make it less true.

It’s like entering a personal monastery, taking vows to remain until I find a new place for myself, a new way to see the world and my relation to it.  Even though part of me thinks this is bad, amoral at least, I am going to remain in my monastery until I’m ready to emerge.

To the extent that I am paying attention to world events, it is as an almost disinterested observer.  It doesn’t feel like we know enough to spring into action.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about the marches, the calls to resist and organize.  They have fed me all my life.  But I need to see what the Trump people are doing.  I need to get oriented. There will be time and reason and urgency enough to organize over the next several months, years, and decades.  The rush to action may be soothing—do something, anything to avoid feeling like a passive victim—but I don’t think it will have much of an impact right now.

It would not surprise me, for example, if Donald Trump is impeached within the next few years.  He criminal activities are unbounded.  His impulsiveness is likely to frighten even the most rabid Republicans.  We could be at war within a year.  If he is impeached, then Pence will be president, the type of outcome the Republican Right has wanted all along.  Short of impeachment, he may simply find himself in power struggles within his supposed party—he’s not a Republican, after all—struggles that will try his patience, leading him back to the businesses that he’s not supposed to attend to during the presidency.  Or, in the face of political and journalistic opposition, he may fully show his fascist colors, trying to dismantle democratic institutions and traditions.

In the meantime, I am more aware than ever that the upcoming fight is not primarily my fight.  It is not the fight for my generation.  It is the younger generations that will have to step forward.  They will have to lead.  This moment signals the passing of the guard.  We can—we must—support their leadership but support will be our primary role.  We will have to adjust to our loss of position, our loss of face, our many failures.

But I digress.  All along I have intended to say that I have retreated in order to gather myself.  And I wonder what the retreat will mean.  I wonder if it is time to pay more attention to questions of the soul.  These last few days, my pace has slowed.  I pay attention to the people who are close, to the food that I eat and the air that I breath. I have substituted philosophical texts for the political columns that kept my heart rate up.

Is this a failure of nerve?  A cop out?  Will I abandon my monastery before I am clear what to do?  Maybe.  But it feels good.  The rest has helped.   And, in the meantime, what can I do to stop the tide of history.  Why shouldn’t I take comfort in the next generations taking their rightful place in the defense of civilization.