Friday, March 4, 2016

The "F" Word

I don't feel comfortable using the label "fascist" or "Nazi" to refer to someone with a right-wing ideology that I find distasteful. However strongly I disagree with the policies of a Reagan or a Bush, however obnoxious I find Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, however insulting and hypocritical I find the whole Fox News crew, I don't use the aforementioned terms to describe their personalities or their politics.

Nor do care for the casual use of those words to mean something like "bully" or "mean person". The Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" episode was pretty funny, but I will always cringe at the term "Soup Nazi" itself. Words that evoke ideologies and events that culminated in the deaths of tens of millions of people and the physical and cultural devastation of an entire continent are not epithets to be thrown around casually.

As I watch the Trump political juggernaut rolling from one primary victory to the next, my inhibitions as far as using the "F" word are rapidly diminishing. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime, certainly not in America, but there it is.

It's hard to find a single concise definition of fascism, though anyone reading this probably has a general sense of what that word means. I will offer my definition of fascism as a political system characterized by authoritarian rule, violent repression of any and all opposition, chauvinistic nationalism, militarism and expansionism, and featuring a cult of personality around its leader, in whom all political authority ultimately rests. It distinguishes itself from other totalitarian political systems by seeking to incorporate all parts of society into the political system (as opposed to, say, various flavors of communism, which emphasize class conflict), and claims no divine mandate as the basis for the right to govern. I would describe Nazism as a variant of fascism that more sharply focuses the nationalistic/militaristic component into an ideology of racial purity and predestination to rule over all other races.

I usually think of fascism and Nazism as political movements that were peculiar to a specific historical period and were able to flourish due to the prevailing political, social and economic circumstances of that period.To be sure, there are still plenty of authoritarian regimes around, but none that would fully match the definition I've set out above. But now there's Trump. Is it fair to call him a fascist? Let's see.

Last week I found myself in New York City on business. After spending several hours in the train from Boston, and then spending the better part of the day sitting in meetings in a windowless conference room in an office high rise, I had to get out and just walk around a bit, despite the cold, rainy weather that evening. I took the subway from the financial district up to 59th street to check out a couple of stores that interested me, and then began walking back in the direction of lower Manhattan, intending to just walk until I didn't feel like walking any more, then take the subway the rest of the way back to my hotel.

Shortly after stepping out of the subway, I found myself facing a large residential high-rise with the name "Trump Park Avenue" in giant letters over the entrance. I continued my walk, heading down Fifth Avenue, soon coming upon the massive and imposing Trump Tower. I didn't go in, but looking through the glass front into the interior I could see the signs directing patrons to the Trump Grill, the Trump Bar, the Trump Cafe and various other things named Trump. It made me think of the many other things Donald has put his name on (here's a short list, in case you're curious). What is it with this guy's need to put his name on everything? Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires own tons of stuff, but none of them seems to share this urge.

Trump's cult of personality seems fairly laughable, but he clearly takes it pretty seriously. His web site offers a random grab-bag of policy statements, but his whole political program is still basically… himself: elect him and he will "make America great again", whatever that means, and never mind how he'll do it. Maybe since he has changed his positions so many times over the years, he's just keeping his options open. Or maybe it's because proposing a concrete policy or program just invites a lot of unhelpful scrutiny, as with his foolproof plan to defeat ISIS or his supposedly revenue-neutral tax reform plan. The bottom line is: he is Trump, he will fix whatever ails you by virtue of being Trump. I vaguely recall the federal government also having a Congress and a Supreme Court, but presumably he expects those to just fall in line behind President Trump.

Among the few concrete policies he has articulated is his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, which he has justified with a series of racist remarks about Mexicans. He has passed on bogus statistics about killing of whites by blacks. He insists that we must keep Muslims from entering the US, and has repeated his baseless claim that during the 9/11 attacks, "There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down". In other words, people who don't look like Trump have no business coming into the country—racism as the basis for government policy. And Trump's racist tendencies are not a recent, campaign-induced phenomenon, but rather a consistent pattern going back many years.

As distasteful as I find Trump's narcissistic personality cult and racist bent, to me the really concerning thing is the pattern of authoritarianism and the embrace of violence as a legitimate political tool that runs through so much of what he says and which seems to find such a consistently positive echo among his supporters.

The Trump/Putin mutual admiration society is well documented. Trump seems unconcerned when confronted by assertions that Putin is behind the series of murders of Russian journalists—it's only Putin's endorsement that matters to him. And while referring to him as a "madman", Trump simultaneously expressed admiration for Kim Jong-Un's violent purge of generals and party leaders: "And all of a sudden — and you know it's pretty amazing when you think of it — how does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it's a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss… It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one." So Kim having his political enemies dragged before some kangaroo court and then summarily executed is, to Trump, not a repulsive act; it's actually kind of cool.

Trump strongly supports the use of torture as an interrogation tool, insisting, "Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works… Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works." I'm not sure who "half these guys" are; maybe the Senate Intelligence Committee, who after six years of study released a report saying that little to no useful intelligence was acquired  through the CIA's post-9/11 "harsh interrogation" techniques? Not that that matters anyway, since Trump also says, "If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing." So much for due process.

Trump also makes it clear that he will tolerate no dissent at any of his campaign rallies. I imagine that any of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, would have disruptive protesters and hecklers removed from their rallies, but Trump is not satisfied with that: he wants dissent punished. In a rally in January in New Hampshire, following an interruption by a protester, Trump instructed the security guards to "Get him out of here!… “Don’t give him his coat. Don’t give him his coat! Keep his coat. Confiscate his coat. You know, it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside. You can keep his coat. Tell him we’ll send it to him in a couple of weeks." When another protester interrupted him, Trump again insisted, "OK, throw him out into the cold! Don’t give them their coat. No coats! No coats! Confiscate their coats!" This to the cheers and applause of his supporters.

At a more recent rally, Trump said of a protester that he would "like to punch him in the face". As the man was taken away by security, Trump pined for the "old days", when "You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher." Now, I'm not the oldest guy in the room, but (regrettably) I'm not the youngest either, and I don't know what "old days" he's referring to. Maybe the early 1960s in Birmingham, Alabama? Or maybe he just means that same Birmingham last November, when a Black Lives Matter protester was punched and kicked at one of his rallies, later eliciting from Trump the comment, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing." (The thing he was doing was protesting Trump.)

Or possibly he's thinking all the way back to the 1930s, when Nazi meetings and rallies were guarded by the SA (Sturmabteilung, aka storm troopers or "brownshirts"), the party's paramilitary force of thugs recruited from the ranks of the angry and unemployed, who did indeed deal with any opposition in that violent, Trump-approved manner. I can't imagine that Trump could actually create his own private army in 2016 America, but he has no inhibitions about appealing to the kind of people who would be his pool for recruiting. Former KKK head David Duke said in recent days that, "voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage", so clearly somebody is hearing the Trump dog whistle, which is about as subtle as a foghorn. Trump, clearly wanting to avoid alienating an important part of his base, first claimed not to know who David Duke was (even though it's well documented that Trump knows exactly who he is), then finally came out with a lukewarm disavowal of Duke's support that for me at least had the implied subtext, "I'm just doing this to make the press leave me alone."

I could go on, but let's total up the score. Authoritarian: yes. Violent repression of dissent: check. Nationalism/racism: yup. Militarism/expansionism: not so sure on that one, since Trump hasn't really articulated a policy beyond, "We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it… We’re going to have a president who is respected by Putin, respected by Iran." Oh, and, regarding ISIS, "I would bomb the shit out of them". Cult of personality: absolutely.

Chi non è con noi è contro di noi.

Does that make Trump a fascist? Well, he doesn't overtly espouse a fascist political program, but I have no doubt about his fascist mindset. The only reason I can think of not to put that label on him is that fascism is an ideology, and an ideology is something you genuinely believe in, and for the life of me, I can't tell whether Trump actually believes in anything beyond feeding his own ego.

Would a Trump administration institute some sort of totalitarian, single-party rule? I sort of doubt that would work, but who knows? I know that it was a different place and a different time, but it still sticks in the back of my mind that Hitler didn't come to power through some violent coup, he was elected and then successfully manipulated the system to quickly achieve absolute power. Just recently we heard Trump blustering on about how he's not so crazy about freedom of speech; not a good sign for someone who aspires to office in a democracy. We also heard from former CIA head Michael Hayden that he thinks the US military could refuse to carry out some of Trump's policies—what kind of political crisis would such a confrontation between the Commander in Chief and his top generals produce?

I tend to think that at some point reason will prevail and even if he gets as far as the Republican nomination, he will still never see the inside of the White House. But I also never imagined that he would get even this far. I guess I can take comfort in the thought that if he really became president, and things actually got really, really bad, My Favorite Wife and I could could always return to the progressive democratic country from which we moved to the US sixteen years ago, namely—irony of ironies—Germany.

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