President Donald Trump’s victorious campaign was remarkable for both inciting Americans’ incivility and fears and for exploiting them. Over the past months, the most troubling of the fears associated with President Trump is his proto-despot personality and his growing list of actions appallingly similar to foreign fascists. To me, these exceed all other concerns about his presidency. Will time prove so drastic an alarm unwarranted? Perhaps. But my being wrong offers little comfort. Let me explain. But first, let me point out the special gravity of my thesis.
My alarm in this post is not a typical partisan criticism, for though I have a number of these like anyone else, none of them rise to the level that concerns me here. The apprehension leading to this post is of a different sort, more a fear for the nature of the republic than about single decisions or circumstances within the operation of a republic. My point is much, much bigger than oil pipelines, crowd size, careless emails, egregiously small-minded tweets, or even healthcare insurance. I have described the personal characteristics that make Trump the worst presidential choice that voters have been presented with in decades, but just replaying those inadequacies is also not my point. Risking fascism is.
On December 12, I published a post titled “What does a proto-despot look like?” I warned that, though Trump might not turn out to be an active despot, “the signals [he] radiates on an almost daily basis are too frightening to ignore [and] too reminiscent of historical lessons we’d be foolish not to note.” I added that he “may yet become worthy of [the presidency], but meanwhile wariness of handing the [White House] keys” to a paranoid, thin-skinned, fact-averse man is a debt we all owe to the republic.
Only a complete Trump sycophant could disregard the account of Melik Kaylan’s January 10 Forbes article, “What the Trump Era Will Feel Like: Clues From Populist Regimes Around The World” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/melikkaylan/2017/01/10/what-the-trump-era-will-feel-like-clues-from-populist-regimes-around-the-world/#1f42ad8f61aa). Within 24 hours of inauguration, Trump’s despotic tendencies had already been displayed.
Mr. Kaylan began thusly: “I have now covered upwards of a dozen countries that have buckled under the emergent wave of populist leaders, from the Far East to the Mideast to Europe and the Americas. Many of the countries have done so quite democratically, at first. That emergent wave has crashed onto US shores in a fashion thoroughly precedented [sic] abroad. Recently, I wrote about how I’d seen all the tricks in the Trump campaign before, actually in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the 2012 national elections when the pro-US candidate lost to a pro-Russian populist. At that time, no one was ready to believe the Russians capable of influencing Western style elections. Many still don’t, even after Trump. We now have enough experience of populists in power in the West and elsewhere to guess intelligently at what’s to come in the US; what life will feel like under Trump. Here is a checklist to compare against in the coming months and years. We will all be happier if none of this comes to pass but the weight of evidence suggests the worst. Equally, none of this implies that supporters of Trump don’t have legitimate issues on their side which, sadly, other politicians won’t address. Which is how populists come to power.”
Kaylan’s list is enlightening. With them as backdrop, he considers Trump’s actions and statements, the fights he has stimulated, and the remedies he’s proposed. These are familiar, for we have all watched them unfold on the nightly news. They bear a frightening similarity with the sequence of lies, denials, immature behaviors, reversals, delegitimizing of all other sources of information, and other bizarre actions with which fascist “strong men” have arisen. I have spoken of Trump’s having the personality of a “proto despot,” but Kaylan’s broader experience enables the case to be made more convincingly.
Can I be wrong? Of course. Do I want to be wrong? Absolutely, freedom is too important to sacrifice to win a point. But as claimed in my first paragraph, my being wrong offers little comfort, for even a partial fascist deterioration is enough to justify being always on guard. We should be doing that anyway, but particularly with a president who takes little care to avoid showing symptoms of fascism. (A man waving a gun in a crowd must be treated by police as if he’d already fired it.). A president’s negligently frightening the populace by actions increasingly indistinct from fascism aborning is itself a massively irresponsible act, for fascism is not identified with certainty until it is too late to go back.
(Does any of this warning delegitimize Trump’s election? I don’t think so. Regardless how many troublesome circumstances unduly influenced voters, it was still voters who pulled the levers. Voters are ultimately accountable for their votes regardless of who tried to influence them.)
About sixty million voters—heedlessly, in my opinion, since Trump’s shallowness, despotic attitude, and untrustworthiness were on display all along—opted for the United States of America to have a president whose behavior is consonant with that of emerging fascists.
Consequently, it is no longer unthinkable that the United States might drift (or lurch) toward becoming a fascist state.