Defend Freedom and Steer Away From Fascism
Donald Trump and the movement that he has inspired threaten American liberty to a more serious degree than most of us have seen in our lifetimes, and it is crucial to meet these threats now in order to mitigate them.
In Donald Trump, observe a leader who runs on charisma and vague statements that work on peoples’ feelings. He does not just stretch the truth, but he is even anti-rational in the way that he blurts out statements and then acts as if he never said them or that it would be ridiculous to take them seriously. He has demonstrated that he has little sense of personal restraint and it is not clear how much institutions can restrain him. He has publicly stated a desire for power and privately boasted that with enough social capital he can do whatever he wants to women. He has expressed open hostility to media that is not loyal to him. He admires the governing style of a deceitful strongman and KGB officer. His campaign went beyond scapegoating to incite people to feel like they can be part of something great if they push out or push down the other, promising empowerment by holding power over others. The people who voted for him either looked the other way, or they were fooled by the fear or the promises he pushed, or they actually liked what he has done. Whatever their reasons were, the rest of the world now also has to deal with Trumpism in office.
It is no surprise that Trump has been conspicuously silent or evasive about some of his most odious fans, which include the KKK and racist cyberstalkers. Although he did belatedly disavow the verbal and graffiti threats made to political and demographic minorities following the election, he actually appointed as chief strategist a man responsible for giving a major media platform to modern-day fascists in search of a great leader.
We are living in a different world from the heyday of classical fascism, the 1920s to early 1940s, and Trump is a product of today’s unique circumstances. However, the conduct of Trump and the people he associates with make it prudent to look at the record of fascism for warnings and countermeasures. In fascism, loyalty to the leader is a primary principle of governance and civic virtue. There is typically some kind of cult behind a charismatic leader. Yet there is also a participatory process. Mussolini’s famous line “everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” shows the totalitarian intentions. (Giuseppe Finaldi, Mussolini and Italian Fascism, Routledge, Jan 14, 2014, 57 ; See also: “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism“)
The totalitarian goal of controlling society was only ever partially successful, but reaching toward this goal by assimilating more of society into its grasp is an operating principle of fascism. Such control does not stem from fear alone, but also involves inspiring people to participate in pushing the party line. A person in a fascist movement may lose individuality, but if they are open to the message, then they can gain a sense of empowerment from being part of a group that tells its members they are the strong, and they will dominate the weak. Joseph Goebbels remarked that “It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we would rather work on people until they are addicted to us.” (Quoted in Speielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History, Sixth Edition, 147) The regime created propaganda as well as numerous organizations to control different spheres of social life. In these days of outsourcing, contracting, and crowdsourcing, it is possible for a regime to accomplish a similar project through partnerships and incentives outside of direct state administration. In order to carry out its mission of social transformation, fascism seeks broad participation, and plants roots deeply into society.
Fascism presents a thoroughly cultivated image of order, but in reality it can be chaotic. The Nazi regime was full of bureaucratic infighting. Force of personality and personal connections could be more important than seemingly objective qualifications or even official duties. Even orders from the top were not always clear. Historian Ian Kershaw created the phrase “Working towards the Fuhrer” to describe the work of Nazi administrators trying to interpret the Fuhrer’s statements to create actual policy. Regardless of what Triumph of the Will tried to convey, a regime moving toward fascism should not be expected to operate in an orderly manner. The saying about how Mussolini made the trains run on time is actually the product of a propaganda campaign, and propaganda worked much better than actual railroad operations in fascist Italy.
Fascism carried a strong anti-intellectual and anti-rational mindset. Nazi leaders derided intellectuals and boasted that as strong-willed Aryans, “We think with our blood.” Goebbels gave a speech in which he said “the age of extreme intellectualism is over… the past is lying in flames… the future will rise from the flames within our hearts.” (Speilvogel and Redles, 146-147) Trying to grasp the intellectual basis of fascism is difficult because to a large degree it is a movement that operates on feeling. People believe in it because it makes them feel good to believe in it.
In fascism the regime is to represent the will of the united nation, and the nation is typically defined in terms of an ethnic community. The nation is not simply a political community with a common set of traditions, principles, and geographic connections. In the pursuit of power based in a particular political community, the competing social bonds are attacked. The question of which traditions will be incorporated into the national revival becomes critical as the ethnic definition of the nation rises in prominence. What defines the nation that must be made great again and who is taking it back from whom?
There are more worrying passages from the history of Nazi Germany, but it is important to remember that the current political situation is rooted in a different political moment. By now many have seen the New York Times profile of the Nazi movement from 1922, which stated that “several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” Unfortunately many people in the German establishment were willing to look the other way when it came to the worrisome ethnic policy of a guy who could get things done. The German establishment expected Hitler to moderate while in power. He was seen as a vulgar crowd-pleaser who could inspire the masses to a sense of national unity and purpose while keeping them away from the revolutionary left. The establishment was not able to control him like they thought they could.
While our attention is rightfully drawn to the similarities we see to fascist history, there are critical differences between now and then. A big difference is that the early fascists were shaped by their experience of facing mass death in the trenches with their countrymen during the First World War. While reverence for military values and a fascination with violence is certainly prevalent in American society, the obsession with violence and death that fascists thrive upon does not seem so widespread, and does not appear much in Trump. Trump’s personal history is not of a soldier turned demagogue, but of a con man who persuades people to trust him with their money which he drains before riding off with his lifestyle of wealth intact. If he continues in a fascist direction, there is good reason to believe that he will not be the catalyst of intentional mass murder.
Although the lessons of Putin’s Russia are striking, and Putin’s influence and worldview are important to study, the parallels with Russia can only go so far. Russia did not have a very functional or well established democratic government before Putin came to power. The type of civil society in which classical and current liberal values tend to grow had little space to develop under Communist Party rule, and the 1990s were far from stable times in Russia.
If a historical situation must be found to compare with the present, then the United States during its involvement in the First World War through the First Red Scare, 1917 through roughly 1920, would be instructive. Suspicion of foreigners and political dissidents was widespread, freedom of expression was suppressed, and organized racism grew. It was a fearful era, but progress has come since.
I understand that this writing could be considered alarmist. I do not mind. An alarm is a warning that there is a situation that needs to be addressed. A fire alarm is supposed to go off well before a building burns to the ground, but if it is ignored too long then everything around will burn.
There is much that can be done to prevent the country from taking a fascist course. If fascism requires participation, then non-participation is more than standing on the sidelines. Ensure that social or institutional spaces you can influence reject the culture of bigotry and bullying. Regardless of how easy the road to social empowerment may look when it runs on casting people out or pushing around outsiders, do not take that road. Take the high road of commanding respect for decent people.
Institutional resistance to modern day fascism can take many forms. Sanctuary cities may offer relatively safe living for people targeted by federal authorities or others doing the administration’s dirty work. Yet networks to warn of and resist deportation actions may be needed. Serious legal challenges may be ahead and supporting organizations like the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and those that aid refugees and migrants can become critical.
Consider personal resistance to the fascist direction. Insist on factual correctness against anti-intellectualism and political niceties. When a person is acting like a fascist and associates with fascists, it is okay to point this out. When the regime is lying, point it out loudly and repeatedly. I do not think that much respect will be won with weak statements of disapproval, and I do not think that Trump will have sufficient reason to moderate unless doing so has obvious political advantages.
Defensively, one should understand the legal options of protesters and people targeted for acts of political dissent. Read what the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild say. One should also consider methods of personal defense against people inspired to violence. Exercising the right to keep and bear arms can prevent some threats from being carried out, and it is a right that, perhaps surprisingly, might not be secure for everyone. There is a definite possibility that the no-fly list will be expanded to include people who have been investigated by partisan and power-hungry federal investigators with expanded budgets and loosened restraints, and this secretive list could be used to deny people other rights without due process.
Going on the offensive against modern-day fascism requires advancing an alternative. Participating in communities that embrace and defend diversity and respect the rights and dignity of the individual means making a better future. Community resilience and mutual aid are especially important to consider now that the government is led by someone who will likely make harmful economic and foreign policy decisions. Communications networks may be needed for emergency situations, including raids and arrests of dubious legality. This alternative community shows that this is not merely Trump’s world that we all live in, but that there is a world of decency assembling its strength and creating a better future.
Donald Trump has entangled himself with modern-day fascists and he will move the country toward fascism if it is politically expedient for him to do so. The world of individual liberty, of cooperation and compassion, must assemble its strength and make its strength known. We might be heading down a dark road, but we can turn a better way if we open our eyes and take the wheel.