Trump being sworn in — political cartoon gallery pic.twitter.com/bAlxBrbv2d
— Political Cartoon (@Cartoon4sale) November 10, 2016
Never mind if he meant it or not, Trump campaigned on it
Fascist. It’s a word that could have been designed to be spat out as an insult. The first syllable invites you to screw up your face and the second is little more than a glorified hiss. And a very good insult it is, one that’s easily thrown at anyone seeking to implement liberty-curtailing or discriminatory policies.
The problem is that’s it’s been so readily used as an insult for so long that it’s easy to miss the real thing when it rears its ugly head. And in America, it has reared its ugly head. Donald Trump won his election with a platform and behaviour that was essentially classically fascist.
Some will of course bridle at this. It’s one thing to laugh at him; it’s another make such a comment in earnest. After all, if we’re serious in that analysis, what does that sat about the electorate that picked him? Were they taken in? Did they not notice? Or did the dark side of the Land of the Free reassert itself in a spiritual echo of the Jim Crow laws, McCarthyism and the genocide of the Native Americans?
But facts are facts. Among the key aspects of fascism are a leadership cult; an intolerance of liberalism, legal process and democracy; the myth of the nation’s special destiny, that destiny being under threat and the leader as saviour; the identification of enemy groups, within and without, as hostile to the concept of the nation, and the demonization of those groups; an intolerance of the traditional elite and a courting of the working and lower-middle classes in opposition to them, emphasising the victim status of the ordinary man and woman and encouraging their anger; and a tolerance for and at times advocacy of the legitimacy of violence to solve problems.
Trump’s language and statements during the presidential campaign ticks pretty much every box. What marked him out as distinct from other presidential candidates past and present was his lack of restraint and his apparent lack of concern for the potential consequences of statements which were at best pandering to bigotry and at worst dog-whistles to violence.
Two objections might be levelled at this point. The first is easily dealt with, which is to the objection that he can’t be racist or sexist because he’s worked with women, blacks and others. But he’s also tarred the majority of Mexican immigrants as rapists and of muslims (and only muslims) as potential terrorists. It’s no more a defence that he works with some minorities than a skinhead football fan from the 1980s claiming that he can’t be racist because he supported Frank Bruno.
The second objection is that Trump was only playing electoral games and will govern more consensually, as indicated by his victory speech and his comments after meeting Obama. The speech and the comments were indeed conciliatory but the objection misses two points. Firstly, if there is a moderate side to him, we cannot yet know whether that is his authentic one and which side he’s been displaying for effect or popularity. But secondly, a pivot to the centre now cannot undo what he was willing to do and say during the campaign. We know his lack of restraint because it’s been on show for the last year and more. Just because he was able to control himself this week, it doesn’t mean that he’s turned over a new leaf or that what went before was fake.
And therein lies one of the biggest risks to his actions: he has stoked the fires of resentment and those who bought in to his saviour myth will want results. What happens if he cannot deliver – or if he doesn’t want to. Having legitimised behaviours and views seen previously as beyond the pale, the genie cannot easily be coaxed back into the bottle. Those who are angry now will still feel that their pain was legitimate, only that now they’ve been betrayed yet again.
Which is where it gets really dangerous, not just in the US but in Europe too because Trump’s victory again not only legitimising the far right but proves its potential electoral appeal. Next month, Austria goes back to the polls in their own presidential election. The neo-fascist FPÖ might well win. Next March, the Dutch hold their own elections, where the anti-Islam PVV looks set to make significant gains and may finish first. And then there’s the next big one, the French presidential election, where Marine Le Pen could top the first round vote. Could she win? After this last year, it would be foolish to write her chances off; her main opponents all bear Hillaryesque similarities. Further east, but for the leadership cult, Putin is defining the modern fascist template. Mussolini would approve.
Fortunately, the one big disadvantage that this generation’s fascists face that their predecessors in the 1920s and 30s didn’t is their inability to remould the state as a dictatorship. Trump might head a movement and talk the talk of locking his opponent up but his movement is without a body – the Republicans in the states and in congress are not necessarily with him, and the Supreme Court remains as a check on his power. There will be no American dictatorship any time soon.
Even so, since his election, the world has politely turned a blind eye to Trump’s campaign record, presumably out of respect for the office and its power. That’s a mistake. He should be called out for what he is.