by Akim Reinhardt
“It’s a long, long way from the Trump administration to an actual fascist dictatorship,” I said, “but it’s a straight line.”
Although generally reserved, Julius (I’ll call him) belly laughed a good while at that, his outburst fueled by personal experience. He’d spent his childhood in General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain. Specifically in Catalonia, that provincial hotbed of resistance during the Spanish Civil War, and target of fierce repression for nearly nearly four decades following. Franco’s authoritarian rule was ruthless: censorship; banning opposition parties; prisons full of Catalan political dissidents; some four-thousand Catalans executed from 1938-53; thousands more in exile.
Julius deeply loathes Donald Trump. But he also has no patience for hyperbolic claims that El Trumpo is a dictator. Because he knows better.
No, Donald Trump is definitely not an actual autocrat. Yes, he would very much love to be one, and is angrily stumbling and flailing in that direction. So while it’s misguided and even dangerous to cast this Trumpist moment as just a very bad version of politics as usual, it’s also ludicrous and even insulting to insist that Trump is a dictator.
When it comes to setting up and heading an authoritarian regime, Donald Trump is the Little Engine that Couldn’t. He’s certainly on the right track, huffing and puffing his way towards right wing autocracy, but oh my, that’s a mighty big hill; I just don’t think he’s gonna make it. Shame on those who equate him with Mussolini, Salazar, or Franco. Woe to those who normalize him.
Systemic checks, and of course Trump’s own staggering incompetence, will almost certainly prevent him from becoming a fascist strongman. Nonetheless, he has already said and done enough that it’s past time to ask how we have come even this far. Why and how has United States, the world’s oldest democracy, and until recently among the most stable, saddled itself with a man who would be king?
In the aftermath of World War II, many asked similar questions of Germany and Italy, and to a lesser extent Japan. Some of the answers proffered back then seem to hold little relevance now. Arguments about some ethnicities being predisposed to authoritarianism, for example, add nothing to our understanding. Other factors, however, are well worth our consideration, because not only are they evident in the U.S. case, but they are also recurring factors that have contributed to the rise of fascism and other forms of right wing populist authoritarianism for nearly a century now.
Democracy’s Vulnerabilities: Any political system that depends on citizens voting, whether in a republic where they mostly just elect rulers, or in a more direct democratic system where they vote on many more issues, is vulnerable to populist appeals. Additionally, democracies’ beloved press freedoms open up opportunity for crass propagandists like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and more recently Russian social media attacks. At the same time, not all populist appeals are bad; some populist appeals have helped the United States grow in positive ways by expanding the franchise and building its social welfare system. However, right wing populism tends to be quite awful, as we are being reminded. Manipulations of the uninformed, the angry, and the fearful can lead to coalitions that support morally bankrupt, authoritarian rulers. Remember, Mussolini was elected. Hitler was elected. Trump was elected.
Tribalism: We like to believe that technology has made us more sophisticated. However, the reality is that in many ways we’re not. Irrational thinking remains commonplace. If you want to get a sense of just how tribal people in modern developed nations can be, just observe how they behave as sports fans. From a cultural and intellectual standpoint, it’s utterly revolting. Filter that type of tribalism and irrationality into political action and you’ve got right wing extremism in action. Key to that, of course, is the process of scapegoating. In sports, it’s hating opposing team and blaming referees. In politics, it’s holding up a bogeyman for folks who fear the grown up version of things that go bump in the night: rumors of bloodthirsty and greedy minorities supposedly looking to kill, rape, burgle, and exploit them. The sad truth is that many, perhaps most people remain susceptible to scapegoating and other techniques that inflame sectarianism and tribal divisions. Right wing populists float upon such waves of anger and fear.
Supportive Administrations: Donald Trump is a case study in this, as was Hitler to a degree. Trump is, in many ways, inept. Trump is, in almost every way, a buffoon. How has he come this far? Obviously he caught lightening in a bottle; the timing and circumstances all favored him. But just as important, he also depends upon important support teams and mechanisms, including: a rotating inner circle of right wing nationalist advisers; a class of wealthy supporters ranging from close cronies to distant money mongers; a major political party that initially tried to keep him out, but now largely supports him as a means to cementing and furthering its own power; and a range of foreign actors eager exploit his vulnerabilities. No one can climb the mountain all by themselves, and certainly not a clownish charlatan likely burdened by an undiagnosed learning disability. “Autocrat” is a misnomer. Every ruler has a vast support system, and one has emerged around Trump.
Anxiety about Modernity: We cannot ignore the abstract factors that shape more concrete politics. Chief among them, I believe, is modernity: an evolving set of contested norms and attitudes about culture and society. Various cultural and social shifts produce great anxiety among those want things to remain the way they were. Changes in how we understand and manage ideas about race, gender, sexuality, capitalism, secularism, etc. lead to tension and create great upset among some people. And the right wing generally champions conservative practices and values. They have, historically, favored patriarchy, religion, heteronormativity, white supremacy, nativism, and older, established class orders. As modernity creates disruptions, some of which are ostensibly positive (eg. civil rights), and some of which are clearly not (eg. the decline of blue collar jobs and wages), the fallout will make some people crave simple and atavistic answers to complex questions. Which in turn will reinforce tribalism and make them vulnerable to propaganda.
Finally, as a historian, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the recent fiasco (to put it mildly) of U.S. officials breaking up immigrant families and sticking children in cages.
Many have rightly pointed out that black slave families were often subjected to forced breakups, typically through sales. That of course ended in 1865. Much more recently, however, federal and state officials along with private charities spent decades breaking up Native American families. From the 1880s-1934, it was official federal policy to forcibly seize Indigenous children from their parents and send them to government (or sometimes Christian parochial) schools. Federal politicians and bureaucrats from presidents on down devised, implemented, and openly endorsed tactics as severe as holding parents at gunpoint while their children were rounded up and sent off to schools, where they were indoctrinated to believe their cultures were savage and that they must become like white Americans in every aspect. This was part of a wider effort that most scholars now have no reticence about labeling as cultural genocide: a concerted campaign to absolutely destroy Indigenous cultures and societies. It’s also important to note that this was non-partisan behavior; both Republicans and Democrats were responsible for these atrocities.
In addition, during most of the 20th century, many thousands of Native children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted out to white homes, where they typically lost touch with their tribes, their biological families, and their Indigenous culture. Historian Margaret Jacobs is the premier scholar of this grisly topic. This practice was widespread until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.
Even more heart wrenching perhaps, thousands of Native women during the mid-20th century were subject to sterilization against their will. Lies, coercion, and simply performing the surgeries without their knowledge were all techniques that unscrupulous doctors employed to render Indigenous women infertile.
I mention all of this not only to enlighten readers about the past, but also as a coda to this essay’s introduction. The straight line from Trump to an actual right wing dictatorship exists not simply because he’s an awful human being. The fact is, there are many precedents in American history that, while not as of yet having led dictatorship, indicate that we are no different from any other people on the planet. We have been, and are capable of, doing horrible things while telling ourselves we are good and righteous, and making America and the world a better place.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com