The Donald Trump outrage of the week — that Muslims of all kinds should be barred entry to the United States — has rightly earned nearly universal rebuke. (Quite a few right-wing bloggers have remained mute, however, raising the old English common law adage, “Silence is consent.”) Many commentators have gone so far as to declaim Trump as, finally, unmasked as a fascist.
As journalist Joy Reid tweeted,
And this is echoed in hundreds, if not thousands of social media critiques of Trump’s outlandish proposals.
But is it fascism? Trump has, more than once, traduced minority populations, women, and immigrants and other foreigners, among others. This racism or xenophobia is reprehensible, of course, but it is hardly new to American politics. Apart from four score and seven years of slavery, the United States has promulgated such discriminatory gems as the 1790 naturalization act that mandated citizens had to be “white” only, the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) among other, later exclusions of Asians, and so on — right up to the 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan, John Birch Society, and other once-fringe groups underscored this essentially racist core of U.S. politics.
But few actually saw fascism in this. Fascism was practiced in Italy, Spain, and of course Germany beginning in the 1920s in Mussolini’s Italy, among other places. It was marked by hypernationalism, an authoritarian state formed by a charismatic leader, militarism, racial superiority, and potent, unremitting propaganda. It has largely been a European and Latin American phenomenon, with sizable fascist parties in Britain, France, Scandinavia, Hungary, and other East European countries. Turkey under Atatürk (1920-38) was in most respects fascist, but without Mussolini’s nastiness or foreign adventurism.
What’s been absent in American politics is fascism’s authoritarianism. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. The septic attitudes toward blacks and Muslims in particular, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the reliance on strong police and military action, the “corporatism” (alliance with large business firms), the anti-rational Romanticism and manipulation of religious sentiment — it’s all there, and has been for decades, mainly in the Republican Party.
Mussolini himself wrote in 1932 that
Fascism… believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it… it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage… Fascism denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress…
In these assertions, one can easily see the right wing in today’s America. Its systematic denial of voting rights, for example, fits perfectly with fascism’s critique of democracy, as does growing economic inequality fit with “the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality” Mussolini espouses.
Where the U.S. experience parts company with fascism is the all-encompassing power of the state. “Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State,” Mussolini wrote. For some groups in some places, of course, the state has been all-encompassing and repressive.
But the possibility of more authoritarian governance for all is conceivable: the surveillance state, the servile news media, the bread and circus quality of popular culture, the cultivated fears of immigrants and Muslims, hardening racism, the docility of civil society — all of these, more or less present today, make an authoritarian demagogue imaginable.
Consider the specific qualities of some of the White House aspirants in the GOP. Besides Trump, who still strikes me as an unlikely nominee, there are two serious contenders — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The latter is a vacillating opportunist who does not strike me as a budding Mussolini. But Cruz is another story.
While Trump was dominating the media early this week, Cruz was having his own escape from reality by holding a Senate hearing on the climate science “hoax,” the right’s febrile attempt to debunk climate science. It ‘s akin to Republicans’ anti-science campaigns against evolution, reproductive health, and stem-cell research, top say nothing of their relentless assault on science R&D budgets. The House chair of a science committee has even tried to intimidate scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration by subpoenaing emails in order to find evidence of a hoax — a witch hunt Cruz and other GOP hopefuls have apparently supported.
Cruz also spoke this week about how he would obliterate ISIS with nuclear weapons. “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” he said after Obama’s speech Sunday night.
These are the sorts of hard ideological attitudes that should worry the electorate as much as the xenophobia and racism (for which Trump has earned headlines, while most of the others nod in agreement, including Cruz). These are elements of fascism — anti-rational, bellicose, supremist. All that remains, truly, is for a true believer like Cruz to win the election, and, coupled with a pliant Republican Congress, see how much authoritarianism America can take.