Okay, look. I know most people don’t come to this blog for my political ramblings, and truth be told that’s not what I want to be doing with my time either. So I’ll make you all a deal: what follows is an extra-long and involved Trumpwatch post, and it will be the last such post I write for a good long while.
The last several weeks have been like standing on the deck of a cruise liner whose captain has just steered it into the path of an iceberg. A small handful of passengers are screaming at the top of our lungs that the captain is steering us into an iceberg and we need to do something about it, but the rest of the passengers keep telling us that we’re over-reacting, or ask us how we even define what an “iceberg” is anyway, or insist that the captain probably has a perfectly good reason for steering the ship into an iceberg and we need to give him a chance. Then one guy suggests storming the bridge so we can turn the ship around, but everyone else tut-tuts about how violence is wrong, and says that we need to engage the captain in rational discourse and try to convince him that steering ships into icebergs is wrong.
As I’ve stated numerous times already, I believe that the iceberg is real, we’re heading straight for it, and the only way to avoid the catastrophe is to get the captain’s tiny hands off the steering wheel as quickly as possible.
Dropping the metaphor, my position is that Donald Trump is an authoritarian politician, who has surrounded himself with other authoritarian politicians, all of whom aim to turn the United States into an authoritarian country, and that this process has already begun and is ongoing as we speak. In this post, I intend to lay out my reasons for thinking this, such that it can serve as a handy reference if I or anyone else needs to convince others.
I’ll lay out my argument in several parts. The first part will define the terms we’re going to be using to make sure everyone is on the same page. The second part will explain why I believe that America is in the middle of an authoritarian takeover by examining the hallmarks of fascism and relating them to current events. The third part will lay out a roadmap of what this will look like in practice, and the fourth and final part will explain why I believe the Unites States is uniquely susceptible to this form of government.
Without further ado:
1. What we talk about when we talk about fascism
I’m going to be using a number of terms over the course of this post, and it’s crucial that you understand exactly what I mean.Trump supporters and apologists will seek to waste your time with endless semantic arguments over word choices, so make sure you deploy these phrases carefully and correctly.
Authoritarianism is a form of government in which political power is centralized to a large degree, and in which ordinary citizens have limited political freedom or ability to influence the operations of government. Authoritarianism is both a spectrum and a wide umbrella which can exist in either right or left wing governments, tending to occupy the extreme ends of both sides. Nazi Germany, the USSR, modern day China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and any 20th century dictator you care to name are examples of countries considered authoritarian, but they’re not all authoritarian to the same degree or in the same way. Note that authoritarianism is not synonymous with complete political repression, and authoritarian states can still be democratic to a wide degree. I believe this is the form of government Trump is seeking to build; more specifically, a de facto one-party state with a heavy corporatist bent and limited democracy compared to the current state of affairs in the USA.
Totalitarianism is the extreme end of authoritarianism, in which every aspect of life is governed by the state. In a totalitarian country there is no distinction between personal and public life; even leisure time is open to being controlled and dictated by the government. Citizens have very few legal rights, and there is functionally no rule of law. Nazi Germany, the USSR at the height of Stalinism, and China under Mao are examples of totalitarian states. Totalitarianism usually involves a complete or near-complete level of political repression; one-party states and the outright legal banning of opposition parties is the norm. The economy is also state-controlled to a degree, ranging from a mixed economy to full state ownership of all businesses and property. For reasons I’ll explain later, I don’t believe that Trump’s government aspires to a fully totalitarian state, nor do I believe they could successfully build one if they were so inclined.
Fascism is a far-right form of government. It is both authoritarian and heavily rooted in extreme nationalism. Fascist governments have tended to be totalitarian, but this isn’t an absolute requirement. Fascism is non-democratic and ideologically opposed to democracy, believing that an authoritarian one-party state is better able to respond to threats both external and internal. It tends toward racism and elevates a particular class of people as being superior or more worthy of rights or life than others. Note that “fascist” is not just a catch-all term to describe any repressive measure or policy, nor is it transferable to the other end of the political spectrum*. It’s also historically contingent on specific conditions that existed in Europe during the interwar period, so its use in modern times is a bit murky; strictly speaking, I’d argue that the only “correct” groups to apply the label to are those like neo-nazis who deliberately carry on the tradition of earlier fascist states, but I also recognize that there’s a looser definition that’s applied aptly to groups and movements that hit all of the major criteria without employing things like romantic national idealism or charismatic leadership, and which are every bit as dangerous to freedom as a “strict” fascist government. Donald Trump’s regime is and will be “fascistic” in this manner, which is why I’m going to apply the common traits of fascism to argue that he’s an authoritarian politician.
*There’s debate about this, but it serves our purpose for this post
2. Why Donald Trump is a fascistic authoritarian
Now that we’ve got our terms down, let’s get to the main thesis: Donald Trump’s government is an authoritarian regime with fascistic leanings, and seeks to reshape the American government to better resemble this political ideology.
I’m going to be using this recently-viral image of the US Holocaust Memorial’s “early warning signs of facism”, which basically lays out in internet-ready list form everything I’ve been saying since November. Note that at this stage we’re moving out of the realm of political theory and into political experience; these warning signs haven’t been codified because the rise of fascism depends on them, but because they’ve been observed to occur before a fascist government gains power.
Powerful and continuing nationalism
I don’t actually have to explain this one, right? America is already nationalistic to a degree that comes off as mildly creepy to other countries; under Trump, this attitude is poised to reach heights not seen since the Cold War.
Disdain for human rights
Trump has openly promised a return to, and even escalation of, America’s war on terror interrogation policies. He’s floated the idea of killing terrorists’ family members. His Muslim ban locked green card holders out of their own country, separated families and saw legal citizens being detained at airports. If the rumours are to be believed, his next executive order will legalize a frightening array of discrimination against LGBT people.
Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
This has been ongoing since the beginning of Trump’s presidential bid. Illegal immigrants and terrorists (but actually just immigrants who aren’t white enough and muslims in general) have been foremost in Trump’s rhetoric, and have served as a way to get people of disparate causes and motivations to come together in supporting him. Notably, his heavy-handed rhetoric against these two groups was a key factor in securing the support of the alt-right.
Supremacy of the military
This, oddly, is one factor that doesn’t quite apply. Trump has pledged to “rebuild” the military (note: also a key promise of 20th century European fascists) and has made worrying boasts about increasing the US nuclear arsenal, but his campaign hasn’t focused as heavily on courting military support as I would have expected, and he recently demoted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the top echelon of the National Security council while elevating Breitbart.com’s former editor in chief (no, really).
This may be because he’s not actually sure of getting their support. In the early days of Hitler’s rule, he was careful to butter up to the army, realizing that some of the top brass were skeptical of him and that he couldn’t survive a military coup; other despots and dictators throughout history have likewise recognised the key importance of securing military support. I suspect that Trump and his government are treading carefully when it comes to the military, possibly ahead of a purge of disloyal elements.
Fascism is heavily intertwined with patriarchal conservatism and masculinity, and so it often comes packaged with a heavy dose of sexism even though it isn’t necessarily a key component. I don’t think I need to recount Trump’s own personal forays into misogyny, and it’s obvious that his agenda when it comes to things like abortion access and women’s health isn’t exactly going to be a shining beacon of feminism.
Controlled Mass Media
We’re on our way to this. Trump has been astonishingly hostile to the press since well before his inauguration, and he’ll seek to crush elements of the American media if only for petty personal reasons if nothing else. But rather than bringing the press under his control, I think he’ll seek instead to lock them out and deliver an edited selection of alternative facts directly to his followers.
Obsession with national security
This, more than anything else, is the one factor that’s characterized Trump’s presidency so far. The border wall, suspending America’s refugee program and locking green-card holders out of the country are all unprecedented actions, enacted in response to…nothing. There was no major terrorist attack that precipitated this panic about national security, no looming threat on the horizon.
Religion and government intertwined
This is an interesting one.
I don’t think Donald Trump is actually very religious himself–I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s privately an atheist–but he’s courted the religious right because that’s necessary for anyone trying to get anywhere in the Republican party these days (while we’re on the topic, opportunistically cosying up to religious institutions when it suited their needs was a common tactic in the 20th century European dictator playbook). On the other hand, Christian extremists have used his ascension to office as a way to further their own agenda, which in some cases basically involves turning the US into a theocracy. See for example possible education secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as this recent development.
Corporate power protected
I feel like this is another one that speaks for itself.
Labour power suppressed
As far as I know (and I’ll admit that trade unions and labour relations in the US aren’t something I’ve done a lot of reading on), Trump is currently bucking the trend here and has won some support from unions and labour groups by pledging to pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, as well as his general “America First” economic policy.
On the other hand, see the above point. When Trump’s cadre of billionaires and corporate supporters inevitably clash with ordinary blue collar workers pissed that he hasn’t miraculously brought back the manufacturing jobs like he promised, you can bet he’s going to side with his friends in big business.
Disdain for intellectuals and the arts
Coastal elites, anyone?
It hasn’t ben emphasised as much as his other talking points, but Trump’s central campaign thesis (or at least, one of the several campaign theses that he kept cycling between when it suited him) casting himself as a populist friend to the everyman rebelling against the privileged elites carries a distinct whiff of anti-intellectualism. This now-infamous New Yorker cartoon perfectly sums up the attitude at play: Washington has grown stagnant with entrenched political figures and ivory-tower academics who need to step out of the way and make room for people who understand the concerns of real Americans.
When you think about it, it was a pretty creative way of turning Hillary Clinton’s experience and undeniable qualification for the job against her.
Obsession with Crime and Punishment
As we discussed in a previous Trumpwatch post, the White House website explicitly describes Trump’s presidency as a “law and order” administration, and Trump himself threatened to “send the feds” into Chicago in response to an imaginary spike in crime, which appears to be a flippant promise to place an American city under martial law.
As with the Trump’s national security obsession, this talk of getting tough on crime isn’t coming in response to any particular pressing issue, and the administration has outright lied several times in order to justify the harsh rhetoric.
Rampant cronyism and corruption
Again, if you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention, you don’t need me to explain this for you.
Is it possible for these observations to produce a false positive? Could an incoming government carry all the telltale marks of fascism without developing into an actual authoritarian fascistic state? Yes, absolutely. The 20th century saw multiple American presidents who hit most or even all of these criteria without actually being fascists or presiding over fascistic governments.
But there are two more crucial elements required for fascism’s rise, and those are elements that I believe exist today in ways that didn’t during previous presidencies.
The first is a failure of democracy. After WWI, Europe was devastated both economically, structurally and in terms of morale; the Great Depression soon afterwards only deepened people’s misery. Weak, ineffectual governments like the Weimar Republic in Germany seemed powerless to help. Many people saw these conditions as a sign that democracy had failed, and that the time had come to throw it on the scrapheap alongside monarchy and other earlier forms of government.
Similar conditions exist in America today. For ordinary people, the pain of the recent recession is still very real in many parts of the country, and their leadership over the last two election cycles haven’t helped them (even if this isn’t true, Trump has done a very effective job of convincing people that it is). For Republicans, I think people underestimate how badly Obama’s presidency effected them. In particular, it was treated as conservative gospel that his first term was such a disaster that a landslide Romney victory in 2012 was inevitable; when that didn’t happen, I genuinely think many of them turned their backs on democracy completely, or at least decided that the system needs a radical overhaul.
The other factor is the presence of an enemy. Fascism’s trump card (no pun intended) was the looming presence of the USSR. If Europeans rejected nationalism, refused to be swayed by racism and saw through the short-sighted economic goals, then fascists could always portray themselves as the only ones capable of stopping a tide of Bolshevism from sweeping across the continent. Many people came to regard fascist regimes as a necessary evil required to defeat communism.
America certainly had an enemy during the cold war, and there were fascistic motions like the red scare undertaken in response, but as the US was still high on its World War II victory and a newly-minted national image as heroic Nazi-punchers (how times change), the country was disinclined to descend into full-blown authoritarianism (it probably helped that democracy and American Freedom were positioned as the ideological opposition of Communism and everything it stood for).
Today’s enemy is…well, it’s sort of immigrants and sort of ISIS, but mostly it’s the vague idea of scary brown people coming into America. Muslims and Hispanic immigrants are the perfect fascist boogeyman, because unlike communists concentrated in another country thousands of miles away they’re walking among us right now. Don’t you see all those people with their swarthy complexions, foreign languages and strange clothes? Don’t you think they’re up to something, coming into our country like this? We better stop any more of them from coming here. And we’ll watch the one who are already here. We’re putting them on a list. We’re moving them over here so we can keep an eye on them better. Don’t ask where they’ve gone, we’re taking care of it. Oh, some of your neighbours are in cahoots with them, so now we need to watch you as well. We’re watching everyone. It’s for your own good.
…if it sounds like I’m being flippant here, I’m not. It really is that simplistic and stupid, and people really do fall for it.
Those are the factors already in play; the only thing needed now is some sort of inciting incident. The Nazis used the Reichstag fire as a pretext to seize absolute power (the legal edict that got the ball rolling was literally called the Reichstag Fire Decree), declaring it to be the beginning of a Communist uprising that needed to be suppressed by any means necessary. The lesson we can learn from this is that the incident doesn’t need to be huge or devastating; it could be something as relatively small as another San Bernardino attack, rather than another 9/11.
3. A roadmap for the next four years
To be clear, I don’t think Trump is going to demolish American liberty in some grand, sweeping move of repression. He’s not going to ban the Democratic party, suspend elections and declare himself Supreme Overlord of America. But therein lies the danger. The slide into authoritarianism will occur by degrees. Each step will be easy to shrug off or ignore; it’s only when we look back after the fact that we’ll realize how far we’ve come.
It will begin–in fact it already has begun–by re-organizing the political machinery of the US in order to limit the Democratic party’s influence and ability to get people into office. Again, these measures won’t be anything as obvious as explicitly declaring a one-party government. They’ll be confusing, draconian and difficult for ordinary people to understand (think gerrymandering, something that not a lot of people know about), and they’ll in theory leave room for political opposition; but in practice, the Republicans want to stop the constant back-and-forth between them and the Democrats, and solidify permanent power.
How quickly will this happen? As quickly as possible, but before the mid-terms. That’s why I warned in my last post that the mid-terms themselves may not happen: by the time they come around, American democracy may look very different.
The repression of the media and of protesters will coincide with this. Efforts to lock the mainstream media out of access to the White House and sow doubt about the veracity of established news outlets are already underway; it will soon be joined (if it hasn’t already) by behind the scenes corporate efforts to starve media outlets of funding.
Efforts against protesters will come in the guise of state and local laws that give the police wider latitude to shut down and disperse protests, and to arrest people participating in them (see this proposed Indiana law for an example of how this will look). Expect the definitions of “riot” and “disorderly conduct” to become both broader and more vague, and to bring harsher penalties.
Again, these measures will not be carried out by the Trump Secret Police. It will be the same police force, the same military, the same institutions that are already present today, and that’s why this form of authoritarianism will be so insidious and so difficult to fight against.
Vulnerable groups will be targeted under this new regime, beginning with undocumented immigrants. The kind of mass deportation that Trump has at times promised will by necessity involve an infrastructure of detention which could, with a few adjustments, also be put to use rounding up and expelling Muslims. I suspect this is where Trump and his cronies were planning on getting as quickly as possible, but the legal and societal push-back against the Muslim ban (which for some reason seemed to take them by surprise) has probably severely delayed that timeline for now.
The status of LGBT people in Trump’s America is difficult to predict. Some of his statements in the past, as well as his proximity to the religious right, would indicate that repression of LGBT people is in the cards, but he’s also made repeated statements about “protecting” LGBT people, and if rumours are to be believed a planned executive order giving sweeping latitude for “religious freedom” protections has been scrapped due to his childrens’ influence.
I was a bit confused by this until I remembered an earlier time when Trump pledged to protect LGBT people: right after the Pulse nightclub shooting, when the pledge was a thinly-veiled promise to ban Muslims like the Pulse shooter from entering the country. And then I realized what’s going on: he’s playing marginalized and vulnerable groups against each other, using the idea of protecting LGBT people as cover for cracking down on Muslims. In the short-term, I expect we’ll see this occurring more and more often.
(Many people implicitly leave the “T” off the end of that acronym, so I suspect that if Trump’s religious hangers-on want to take another shot at those bathroom bills, Trump will be only too happy to go along with it).
In the middle of all of this, there will be efforts to inflate the power of the executive branch while de-powering other branches of government. It seems as if we’re rapidly heading for some sort of showdown in this regard, with Trump being blocked at every turn and petulantly flailing at the pesky judges and checks and balances keeping him from fulfilling his campaign promises, and how exactly that will go depends on a number of factors, like whether the military decides to throw its weight strongly behind either side. Absent anything drastic like that, I don’t think this is a direct fight that Trump can win; but the loss will sting, and he’ll move onto less direct methods of getting his way.
How quickly will all of this happen? Faster than you’re expecting. While writing this post I had to keep revising it because Trump’s actions continuously out-paced my predictions, and while I don’t expect that breakneck pace to last now that the rest of the government is (finally) digging their heels in and starting to push back, I reiterate what I said in my last post that we’re talking about months and not years.
Of course, given how much of a human failure cascade Trump is and the signs of chaos and disorganization within his administration, it’s entirely possible that his presidency will implode half an hour after this post goes live. In which case feel free to ignore the last 3500+ words.
4. It can happen here
Looking over the events of the last two weeks, I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t seen this sort of crisis sooner. America as a country is uniquely suited to authoritarianism and the elements of fascism that are present in Trump’s presidential persona in a way that few other countries on Earth are.
The fact is that America already enshrines many of the core tenets of authoritarianism and fascism into its national persona, and has been doing so for some time. Worship of the military and unthinking rah-rah patriotism became firmly entrenched during World War II and the Cold War; that America is exceptional and amazing and the Greatest Country On Earth is held as a gospel truth, and even many liberal Americans react with vehement anger if anyone suggests that this isn’t the case.
In religiously conservative areas, many people are brought up in an authoritarian environment and live within it all their lives. As children they’re raised using methods that emphasize total obedience as the most important virtues a person can learn, and as adults they’re told to accept the authority of the police, the military, religious figures and (certain elements of) government without question. Even more liberal parts of the country still feature the daily pledge of allegiance in schools, a ritual that would look right at home in a fascist American dictatorship (seriously, you guys have no idea how fucking creepy the sight of small children pledging undying loyalty to their country is if you haven’t grown up doing it).
America is a warlike country where violent action is glorified and held in high esteem. Much of its national mythology is based around victory in war, and the country’s less estimable military actions are swept under the rug or sugar-coated with the same dedication that holocaust deniers show to erasing their particular topic of interest from history.
And let’s not forget that the country was heavily built on acts of genocide and monstrous cruelty that easily rival the actions of any 20th-century dictator you care to name.
This is why I don’t treat Trump’s rise as some sort of shocking left-field tragedy, but as an inevitable end-point of the values and attitudes that the US has always held. Trump is not some random political aberration; he’s a monster that America itself created, and that’s part of why he may be so hard to stop.
But there’s a more positive side to the American character. The US is a highly-divided and fractious country, nearly impossible to unite on any topic, and there’s a strong streak of contrarianism and distrust of the federal government in many areas that will probably ensure the country never falls prey to fully-blown totalitarianism. If Trump’s presidency goes as bad as it has the potential to, he may find himself ruling over a nation rapidly splitting apart at the seams rather than a unified superpower, and that will be far better for the rest of the world.
And finally, I have to say that the scale of the recent protests surprised me, and still give me hope as long as people don’t grow complacent.
So that’s my take on where we are and where we’re going. Could I be wrong about all of this? Am I over-reacting and crying wolf? I sure hope so. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that we’re too often blindsided by events that we should have been able to see coming. No matter what happens over the next four years, let’s none of us say that we weren’t warned.