It’s time to say it plainly: Trumpism is fascism. And the election of Trump to the presidency was, in all likelihood, a coup d’etat.
An illegal or violent seizure of government—that’s the definition of a coup. It doesn’t have to start with tanks in the streets, a military takeover of Congress, jailing opposition leaders, or murdering journalists. Colluding with a foreign enemy to tamper with a democratic election in order to win power is an attempt at a ‘soft’ political coup. Eroding the legitimacy of the free press, the judicial system, the intelligence apparatus, and the Constitutional separation of powers moves the coup further towards autocratic rule.
While it has not been proven (yet) that Trump engaged in a traitorous collaboration with Russia to rig the election in his favor, it is reasonable to suspect that Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions are only a small part of this story. It is likely that Flynn is the fall guy, taking the bullet for his boss. The intrigues surrounding the Trump-Russia connection would no doubt make a compelling Hollywood political thriller. Trump, a narcissistic sociopath of the first order, makes a great anti-hero. He has extensive business connections to Russia that he refuses to reveal. Several of his staffers had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence during the campaign. The chief architect of Trump’s ascendancy, Steve Bannon, has openly avowed as his goal the “deconstruction of the administrative State.” Trump has never even tried to hide his admiration for former KGB operative and murderer, Vladimir Putin. Plus, Trump is accustomed to doing business with the Mafia and lying about it.
Given all this, who would think that Trump would have any qualms whatsoever about using a despotic foreign government to further his own power-grab?
The Advance of Fascism Americana
Trump’s campaign successfully instigated a populist movement rightly called fascist. Let’s be clear: fascism is not a dirty word the Left uses to smear the Right. Fascism’s ultimate aim is to install the absolute power of an authoritarian leader backed by the military, to destroy the rights of citizens, and to demolish the government’s ability to protect people from corporate greed. When we think of fascism, we think of Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Franco’s Spain. But the authoritarian nationalism of fascism exists on a spectrum, just as democracy does. Its most prominent features are: the de-legitimation of democracy; the construction of a one-party State; the adulation of a Strongman leader; a protectionist economic agenda; an amalgam of Corporate and State rule; the scapegoating of an “Enemy” by stoking popular racist and/or xenophobic prejudices; the collapse of legitimate media and its replacement by state-sponsored propaganda; and a mythology of a bygone era of greatness that will be restored by the Leader. (“Make America Great Again!” “I alone can fix it.”)
We are well on our way down this path. Trump & Co. has installed a cabinet of Generals, business tycoons, and billionaires invested in a corporate agenda that would remove any impediments, i.e., government oversight, to limit the reckless power of Wall St., including environmental protections and a rational response to climate disaster. The Republican Congress, for its part, is doing its best to entrench plutocracy by deregulating the finance industry and tilting the tax code even further toward enriching the wealthy. Republican-dominated State governments contribute their share by eroding the Voting Rights Act, women’s reproductive rights, etc. Trump has put the government on a fast track to the dissolution of the civil rights gained in the social movements of women, blacks and LGBT people in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Virtually everything coming out of the White House every day has an anti-democratic ring to it. The dismantling of the ACA is just the start of the attempt to drastically reduce if not destroy the entitlements and protections that democracy has provided to its poor and middle class citizens since the New Deal. The Muslim travel bans, dramatic deportations of non-criminal illegal immigrants, the “Presidential” scapegoating of immigrants as the chief source of what ails America from crime to poverty to unemployment—all these are typical fascist moves.
The lynchpin in the fascist enterprise is the replacement of facts with propaganda. Check out the White House website, which has become a marketing tool for Trump’s plans to steal America from the people he purportedly represents. Trump’s propaganda machine of “alternative facts” daily assaults the very idea of truth. This barrage of deception serves not only to undermine the legitimate press, but also to confuse and overwhelm the populace to the point that many stop thinking for themselves altogether—they simply take as truth only what the President says is so; while others disengage from politics and retreat to consumerist bystanderism—thus further cementing authoritarian rule.
There is nothing more essential to democracy than a free press. Fascism is well entrenched when sources of information that deviate from a demagogue’s version of “reality” are radically delegitimized or suppressed. It’s clear that this has been one of Trump’s most consistent and forceful intentions. Frequent White House twitter denunciations of the free press as ‘fake news’ and the ‘blacklisting’ of legitimate news outlets have now been amplified by barring news outlets from White House briefings and banning the traveling press altogether. Trump has declared the media the “opposition party” and “the enemy of the people”—a phrase used by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung to denote people on the State hit list.
Democracy Versus Fascism
Right now we are living in an interstitial space in which democracy and fascism are engaged in mortal combat.
The progress of Trump’s coup and the rollout of fascism are being played out inside our government in internecine warfare between those who support or tolerate Trump’s autocratic rule and those who would defy it.
The most obvious collaborators are Republican members of Congress who have been silent bystanders, at best, or worse, actively complicit. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and one or two others have been occasionally critical, but they are lone, inconsistent voices in the wilderness. Moreover, Republican criticisms are piecemeal complaints about specific policies that ignore Trump’s overall authoritarian agenda.
Trump’s hand-picked heads of government agencies and Cabinet departments are essential to the fascist advance. Many of them seem to have been chosen with the express aim of destroying the department they lead.
Of Trump’s henchmen, the most dangerous is his consigliere, Steve Bannon, who has openly proclaimed his intention to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment” to bring on a reactionary “revolution.” Bannon is a fundamentalist Catholic and white nationalist who believes that Western Civilization has lost its way because it has veered from the strict doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. He sees a global clash between Christianity and Islam as inevitable—a war he welcomes as the crisis necessary for the restoration of traditional patriarchal, capitalist, Christian values.
One of Bannon’s first moves in the Oval Office was to roll out the Muslim travel ban the same week that he handed Trump an executive order for his signature that, for the first time in U.S. history, gives a presidential appointee—Bannon himself—a seat at the table of the National Security Council. The order simultaneously removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence from the business of the NSC. (The latter are now invited to attend meetings only when their expertise is deemed “necessary”— by Bannon). Decisions about whether and when the U.S. will drop a bomb, assassinate a targeted ‘terrorist,’ or go to war, among other vital and deadly serious national security matters, are now largely in the hands of a non-elected 21st century Dr. Strangelove. Bannon has accomplished a brilliant fascistic political purge.
Bannon’s rise to power is part of the ongoing war between Trump and the intelligence/security establishment. Trump has denigrated the intelligence agencies and compared them to Nazis. The “leaks” about the contacts between Trump’s people (Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, etc.) and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak may be the intelligence community’s retaliation for Trump’s attacks on its legitimacy. Trump, in turn, has ordered an investigation of the “leakers.” FBI Director James Comey, who played a significant role in Hillary Clinton’s loss of the 2016 election, has come out against Trump’s claims that he was wire-tapped by President Obama. And on and on. In the midst of this unfolding political melodrama, who’s minding the store when it comes to national security? Chaos and flux seem to be in charge.
Where will the war between Trump’s brand of fascism Americana and our democratic institutions end?
Any predictions about this are on shaky ground, given the uncertainty of intra-governmental struggles for power and of ongoing widespread political activism—not to mention the vagaries of the President’s psychiatric pathologies. Nevertheless, I offer here a few likely scenarios:
1.The Congressional investigations of Russian election-tampering are not likely to include Trump’s role in the scandal. With few exceptions, Republican lawmakers have made it clear—through their resounding silence or their lackluster calls for minimal probes—that they don’t want to seriously investigate Trump. The committee doing the investigating, the Republican-dominated House Intelligence Committee, will be getting its information from the FBI. Even though Sessions has been forced to recuse himself by blatantly lying under oath, don’t expect this investigation to get to the heart of the matter. It is in the Republicans’ interest to keep supporting Trump so they can ram through every anti-democratic measure on their wish list. And it is in the interests of the security/intelligence community not to precipitate a constitutional crisis.
2. Will any person or institution bring Trump down? The actual ouster of a President requires that a majority of the House of Representatives vote for impeachment and two-thirds of the Senate vote for a conviction. Even then, a President could conceivably refuse to step down, which would force a full-tilt Constitutional crisis.
Do Trump’s assaults on truth and democracy rise to the level of an impeachable offense (as opposed to, say, a President lying about having his cock sucked by an intern)? Yes indeed. Will the Republican Congress impeach Trump? Don’t hold your breath. (Perhaps some Republicans will start to change their tune if they observe an increasing risk of being unseated at mid-term elections, or if the damaging “leaks” about Trump become a flood). There will certainly be more “leaks” within the intelligence community, the White House, and perhaps other government agencies, by patriots who appear to be giving the American people a heads-up about just how corrupt and dangerous Trump is. But unless it can be proven that Trump & Co. blatantly broke the law, Trump is likely to be protected by the Republican Congress and to carry on for the rest of his term (unless he dies in office).
3. The war games between Trump and the judiciary, the intelligence community, the media, and any public person or agency that dares to give him anything but the uncritical adulation to which he thinks he’s due, will continue ad nauseaum.
4. There will be more aggressive reporting damaging to Trump by the mainstream media, which may or may not yet realize that it is fighting for its life. As a whole, the media is lagging behind Trump. It doesn’t seem to have caught on that he is an out-and-out demagogue. The New York Times has started to use the word “lies” rather than terms like “falsehood” or “without evidence.” But the problem is not a succession of lies—it’s that lying is part of Trump’s job description. Trump, in turn, will get more and more aggressive in his attempts to disable the free press.
5. As the legitimacy of the President is threatened, a declaration of war on an “Enemy” nation could serve as a much-needed distraction and ersatz patriotic unifier. Trump is preparing us for this maneuver by declaring that the U.S. “never wins wars anymore” and calling for a huge increase in military spending.
Alternatively, If Trump starts to lose ground in a way that threatens to topple him, this would be just the right moment for a real or fabricated Muslim terrorist attack that could serve as the Reichstag fire, i.e., the pretext for a declaration of martial law to preserve “public safety.” Should this happen, we’d have Trump, backed by the military, uncensored, unmitigated, and set loose with no holds barred—and habeas corpus suspended. In which case, God help us all.
If there’s any good news in all of this, it’s that fascism doesn’t appear to be what the majority of Americans want. The Democrats are, for the most part, going all out to fight Trump’s agenda. Judges and an Attorney General have said no to Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The intelligence agencies are not letting Trump steal the country without a fight. The media is beginning to wake up to the existential threat Trump poses to their mission. And the “leakers” are continuing to get the word out.
Democracy in action is alive. Americans are organizing and resisting with a force and discipline I haven’t seen in my four decades as a social activist. Tens of thousands of people who have never been activists before are on the front lines. They know their Reps and Senators and are inundating them with calls and emails, confronting them face-to-face in town halls and at their doorsteps, holding their feet to the fire on every item in the Trump agenda. If an engaged, activist citizenry continues to put this kind of pressure on Republicans, we may avert the full flowering of fascism Americana.
In the end, the fate of democracy may come down to the conscience of a handful of Congressional Republicans who finally get what’s at stake and overcome their power-lust, greed, and cowardice to defend their country. Or to one Supreme Court Justice who has the courage to stand against Trump and for the Constitution.
When the history of this period is written, we will want to know the names of the “normalizers.” And we will want to know the names of those who were more than men in suits seeking to exploit the moment, however savage a moment it is, to enhance their corrupt power. We will want to know who had the moral courage to stand up and resist the fascist advance during our democracy’s darkest hour.