To scholars of fascism — who have been ringing the alarm bells since Trump began his climb to power in 2015 — the rally in Greenville felt like an escalation. Like the U.S. just made another leap toward outright fascism. “I am not easily shocked. But we are facing an emergency,” tweeted Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor and author of the book “How Fascism Works.” “Journalists must not get away with sugar coating this,” Stanley wrote. “This is the face of evil.” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who is an expert on fascism and propaganda, saw historical parallels in the Greenville rally. “Trump has created a corps of supporters fanatically loyal to him who turn his latest racist messages into group rituals (chants, slogans) and who hate the people he tells them to,” Ben-Ghiat told HuffPost. “All of this is consistent with the leader-follower relationship of fascist regimes.”
“Oh yea, it’s a fascist rally,” said Shane Burley, author of the book “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It.” “I think that this rally is a rhetorical and political escalation for Trump, establishing him firmly to the right of his 2016 election,” Burley told HuffPost in a text exchange. “Which is what he wants to do because he wants to double down on his base for support, and he is doing that by playing on racist populism to create that motivation.” This strategy, Burley said, will ensure that Trump supporters will “escalate their political behavior, which can be expressed violently, as we have seen with the rise of groups like Patriot Prayer.” “I think that the rhetoric he chose to use, both about the congresswoman and with regards to the antifascist left, will have the result of inspiring violence.” Inside the arena Wednesday, Trump supporters cheered on a brief act of violence. When a protester briefly interrupted the president’s speech, he was tackled by security guards and arrested. The crowd roared, breaking into a chant of “U-S-A!”
Dear Democrats: This is not complicated! Just nominate a decent, sane person, one committed to reunifying the country and creating more good jobs, a person who can gain the support of the independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women who abandoned Donald Trump in the midterms and thus swung the House of Representatives to the Democrats and could do the same for the presidency. And that candidate can win! But please, spare me the revolution! It can wait. Win the presidency, hold the House and narrow the spread in the Senate, and a lot of good things still can be accomplished. “No,” you say, “the left wants a revolution now!” O.K., I’ll give the left a revolution now: four more years of Donald Trump. That will be a revolution.
Four years of Trump feeling validated in all the crazy stuff he’s done and said. Four years of Trump unburdened by the need to run for re-election and able to amplify his racism, make Ivanka secretary of state, appoint even more crackpots to his cabinet and likely get to name two right-wing Supreme Court justices under the age of 40. Yes sir, that will be a revolution! It will be an overthrow of all the norms, values, rules and institutions that we cherish, that made us who we are and that have united us in this common project called the United States of America. If the fear of that doesn’t motivate the Democratic Party’s base, then shame on those people. Not all elections are equal. Some elections are a vote for great changes — like the Great Society. Others are a vote to save the country. This election is the latter.
This fascist ideology and its aesthetic are intoxicating for Trump’s voters and the millions of other Americans who share such values and beliefs. Racism, hostile sexism, nationalism, militarism, nativism and violence against the Other are not repellent to those Americans; rather, they are deeply compelling. The Democratic Party faces a great challenge in defeating such forces. Public opinion, social psychology and other research shows that today’s American conservatives are tribal, herd-minded and anti-intellectual. The post-civil rights era Republican Party has used racism to win and maintain power.
White Christian conservatives are a key constituency for today’s Republican Party, and many of them apparently believe that Donald Trump is a messenger and savior sent to them by God. White conservatives, especially right-wing Christians, also believe they are in a literal, existential struggle for survival against black and brown people and “the secular world.” Donald Trump has combined these attributes and further weaponized them in the form of overt white supremacy and white identity politics. In this right-wing social imaginary Donald Trump stands as savior and father figure. Loyalty and obedience to Trump provides life and salvation to his followers. As Trump himself told Politico’s Tim Alberta: “Nobody gave them hope. … I gave them hope. Now, the Republican Party is strong. They’ve got to remain faithful. And loyal.” Adding further strength to Donald Trump’s cult-like power is his and the Republican Party’s willingness to do anything to win. For Republicans and other conservatives, democracy is but a means to an end. They do not respect democracy as either a concept or an ideal. This is especially true as the United States becomes more racially diverse and there is a perception — which is grossly incorrect — that white people will no longer be the most powerful, privileged and dominant group in the country.
As part of this strategy of winning at all costs and by any means necessary, Trump, his Republican Party and the right-wing movement rely on voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression, voter intimidation, and gerrymandering to get power and then keep it. The Republicans have also invited and are eager to accept assistance from hostile foreign countries such as (but not limited to) Russia in order to win future elections by subverting American democracy. It is true that Democratic policies are generally much more popular among the American people than those offered by Republicans. But Republicans tell a much more compelling story to their voters. In that way, the Republicans have been waging a society-wide crusade for the last 50 years while the Democrats, with few exceptions, have argued over weak, status-quo consensus politics. This habit continues to hobble the Democrats in their race against Donald Trump. What great and compelling story can they tell the American people to win the 2020 election?
The Democrats had a potentially powerful narrative in their hands in the form of the treachery and obstruction revealed by the Mueller Report. But Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have evidently chosen not to impeach Trump, a decision that has further empowered his assault on democracy — and by implication has conferred upon him a thoroughly undeserved claim of “legitimacy”. If Trump’s crimes are really so great, why will the Democrats not impeach him? As Trump’s polling numbers continue to improve and the likelihood of his winning in 2020 increases daily, the Democrats must empower a master storyteller of their own. Will this be the familiar in the form of Joe Biden? Or instead a new and more exciting voice? The Democrats must choose correctly. Time is running out. If Trump wins again, he will write another chapter in his version of the American story. It will not be pretty or true and his followers will relish it. And Americans of conscience will feel even more like strangers in a strange land, outsiders in their own country as democracy dies even more under the Trump regime and his movement.
Please Do Not Take Our Warnings Lightly
Americans have lived with the symptoms for so long that, by now, many of us hardly pay more than a moment’s attention when they flare-up. We may observe, in passing, the numbness we feel when President Donald Trump threatens a political opponent with criminal prosecution. There may be a tingling sensation in our moral compass when Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner engage in diplomatic relations at the highest levels or when foreign governments line the president’s pockets. We shrug with resignation as we acknowledge that the Republican leadership in Congress will do nothing to respond after Trump has openly invited foreign countries to, once again, try to help him win an election. When yet another woman steps forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault or rape, we understand that there will be no congressional hearings to sort out what happened. We understand that Trump will face no consequences for a chilling racist attack against four non-white congresswomen. We know that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to conceive of anything Trump could do that would move his Republican allies in Congress to support his removal from office, and we see that many Democrats appear unwilling to even consider an impeachment inquiry. What we are experiencing is nothing less than constitutional failure. A fully functioning system would effectively respond to direct threats to constitutional democracy by a president who is a would-be authoritarian. In a functioning system, impeachment proceedings would have already begun, and Trump would face the prospect of being removed from office.
A “would-be authoritarian” is a politician who rejects the notion that ordinary rules apply to him. A would-be authoritarian sees the law as a shield to protect himself, his family and his allies, and also as a sword to punish perceived enemies. This is antithetical to constitutional or liberal democracy, which is based on the idea that free and fair elections are the starting point for legitimate governments. Winning an election is not a license to do whatever one likes. The rule of law applies to everyone. It requires that officials be held accountable for their trespasses and guarantees civil rights even to those who did not vote for the winner of an election. Would-be authoritarians aspire to a system that allows them to do as they please, free from pesky rules and informal norms. While constitutional democrats accept that their political opponents are legitimate rivals for power, would-be authoritarians see their opponents as enemies to be slandered, demonized and threatened with legal reprisals. Most authoritarians (including Trump himself) are not aspiring totalitarian dictators like Hitleror Stalinor Kim Jong Un. But it doesn’t take a totalitarian to destroy democracy, as we can see in authoritarian regimes like Russia, Hungary, or Turkey. Scholars have been ringing the alarm bells for quite some time when it comes to Trump. But some underestimate the danger, confidently predicting that norms will “snap back in the next presidency,” and few focus on the central question: Is Trump’s presidency evidence that the constitutional system has failed? Most experts who consider these issues debate whether what we’re observing is a “constitutional crisis.” That term, however, is vague and suggests an outcome that is still in doubt. Constitutional failure more precisely describes what we are seeing — a system that is simply not up to the task of responding to a clear danger from within.
Constitutional failure occurs when someone with authoritarian ambitions becomes president and takes steps to achieve those authoritarian goals, yet remains in office. A constitutional democracy with no effective mechanism for removing a would-be authoritarian from office is a failed system, incapable of defending itself against an existential threat. Critics might argue that this test jumps the gun because it defines system failure as occurring before a would-be authoritarian actually succeeds in dismantling constitutional democracy. Scholars warn, however, that authoritarian threats can build gradually. There may not be a dramatic moment when it is immediately obvious that the system is in danger. The point of describing a test for constitutional failure is so that we can take action before the would-be authoritarian succeeds in consolidating power — by which time it may be too late to act. Some may point to Robert Mueller’s testimony next week on Capitol Hill as having the potential to change the dynamic. But by now, expecting anything to move Congress to act is like Charlie Brown expecting that this is finally the time when Lucy will let him kick the football. There is no indication that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is open to an impeachment inquiry, and even less reason to believe that Senate Republicans would consider removing Trump from office in the unlikely event that the House impeaches him. I expect Mueller’s testimony to provide more evidence of constitutional failure —reminding us that the current system is simply incapable of imposing any consequences for the damning conduct the Mueller report describes.
So where does Trump getting this idea that ever more extreme racism is the way to win over voters? One major source is likely his favorite TV network and the only source of information he tends to take seriously: Fox News. For years now, Fox News has been mainstreaming arguments that used to be the province of fringe websites run by neo-Nazis and other groups who believe the U.S. is meant to be a country of white people and for white people — perhaps with others permitted in small numbers of they stay quiet and keep to themselves. Trump was a major factor in the early rumblings of white nationalism on the network, which gave him considerable airtime during his reality TV days to air conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Such “birther” theories rested fairly obviously, in the first place, on the belief that black people cannot be “real” Americans.
Since Trump was elected, the Fox News programming that promotes white nationalist ideas has slowly grown both in airtime and in severity. At Salon, we sounded the alarm in the early months of Trump’s presidency, when prime-time Fox News host Tucker Carlson began to experiment with segments that used euphemisms like “Western civilization” to package the idea that white people are inherently more civilized while people of color are a threat to national stability. Since then, Carlson and many of other Fox News pundits have only grown bolder. “Replacement theory” — the white nationalist idea that has spurred multiple terrorist attacks, holding that white people will somehow be removed and “replaced” by people of color — used to be confined to fringe neo-Nazi websites with atrocious early-2000s design aesthetics. Now that’s become a regular feature of slick Fox News segments, which suggest that immigrants of color are “invading the country” and can never be “fully American,” and that demographic changes from immigration are “more change than human beings are designed to digest” and inherently a threat to “your neighborhood.”
The network also hypes the idea that nonwhite immigrants are dirty and diseased, as well as inherently criminal. (For about the 400th time: Immigrants, documented or otherwise, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. There is no serious dispute about this.) Furthermore, because many immigrants speak languages other than English and may eat unfamiliar food or bring cultural practices that appear foreign to some, American society will soon be “tipping over a cliff.” This is the same kind of rhetoric that was used to demonize the Irish and Italian immigrants of the past, who were seen as threats to American culture due to scary foreign practices like putting garlic in food and praying with the Rosary. One hardly needs to mention the bigotry and discrimination directed at Jewish immigrants, who were barred from certain neighborhoods and many commercial establishments well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, most of the Fox News audience for this rhetoric, the president included, doesn’t know anything about that history, or care to learn.