The Danger Within

Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and a leading neoconservative who served in the Ronald Reagan administration, unleashed the fury of Newt Gingrich and other past and present GOP leaders in late May when he argued that Donald Trump represented the vanguard of a new fascism in the United States. I share two relevant quotations from Kagan’s argument below. The first treats how fascists behave while the second outlines the ways that those they challenge for leadership have often reacted to them:

This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called ‘fascism.’ Fascist movements, too, [as with Trump’s campaign] had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. ‘National socialism’ was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Fuhrer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who singlehandedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories—and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway. A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. … This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party—out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear—falling into line behind him.[1]

Whatever else may be said about Kagan’s argument, he was surely correct in his central contention that Trump, like prior demagogic leaders, has offered himself—that is, his person—as a policy prescription for the nation’s supposed ills and has engaged in ruthless, misleading and unjust scapegoating and demeaning of other political figures and minority populations during his campaign. But Gingrich did not engage these central concerns in his dismissal of Kagan’s essay. Instead, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who has suggested he would consider serving as Trump’s Vice Presidential running mate, was quoted in the New York Times as observing that Trump should not be compared to past fascist leaders principally because he does not command a cadre of murderous “brown shirts”:

Trump does not have a political structure in the sense that the fascists did. He doesn’t have the sort of ideology that they did. He has nobody who resembles the brown shirts. This is all just garbage.[2]

Three points are salient as one considers Gingrich’s comments. First, the warnings concerning Trump offered by a wide variety of individuals in addition to Kagan are not meant to be literal, nor can they fairly be dismissed as trash. They are intended instead to alert Americans that Trump’s promised sort of “leadership” has led historically to tyranny. It is true that the New York businessman does not oversee thousands of thugs as Hitler came to do in the 1920s, but that was not Kagan’s point and it misleads profoundly to argue that it was. Gingrich falls neatly into what Kagan called the “ambitious individual” category of politician responses to the rise of fascism.

Second, in a review of the first of a projected two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler by Volker Ullrich in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson comments that Hitler’s appeal arose in good part from the combination of his character traits and the context in which he offered those to the masses. Hitler’s characteristics are unnervingly familiar in our current national presidential nomination campaign: “What does mark him out is his conscious abandonment of conventional morality: the monstrous, shameless ease with which he lied, betrayed and murdered.” [3] While Trump has not murdered anyone, his behavior, in this campaign and historically, has comported with the first two traits listed.

But if these qualities are appealing to a portion of the American electorate, they are doing so because many who find them attractive are fearful and even paranoid about their perceived economic and social status, and about the role of government in the nation. Hitler rose to power in a situation of political chaos, fear and economic stagnation. While the conditions in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s were markedly worse overall by any measure than those now obtaining in the U.S., it seems clear that many of Trump’s supporters are drawn to him precisely because he promises to ease their economic situations and perceived decline in social standing while blaming “stupid people” and individuals of different skin color or religious beliefs for those woes. In short, Kagan’s analogy with past fascist leaders is not perfect, but it is no less unsettling for that fact, and it cannot be easily dismissed. Indeed, whether one agrees that Trump meets the formal definition of a fascist is beside the point. This is not a debate about etymology, but about the future of the nation, and there is no doubt that Trump is a demagogue who has proselytized in the present campaign for little besides the triumph of his ego while exploiting fears and hatred.

Finally, this fact points to a deeper malady and one for which many of the very leaders now jumping on the Trump bandwagon are partly responsible: the continued decline of what a young Abraham Lincoln called our nation’s “political religion” in his Lyceum Address in 1838. That lecture, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” concerned threats to the American regime. Lincoln saw the greatest peril to freedom as likely to arise from within the nation. For decades now, Republican leaders particularly, but not exclusively, have claimed that self-governance rightly represents a shambling afterthought in favor of a market-driven politics and economy. For decades, too, that Party has mobilized individuals to the polls on the basis of barely disguised appeals to discrimination against broad swathes of the country’s population, and today its leaders argue that the rights of citizenship should not be readily extended to the nation’s entire adult population. It could be argued that Trump has merely upped the ante and made these sorts of anti-democratic, meretricious and cynical claims more obvious by disparaging publicly and straightforwardly those of brown or black skin as scapegoats for the (overwhelmingly white) citizens who have rallied around him. Those white voters now constitute a de facto social movement whose supporters are willing to denigrate their nation’s political institutions and to deprive millions of their basic rights in the name of a demagogue’s paean to a false security linked to his personal capabilities.

Lincoln warned of just this eventuality and worried about what might cause it. He was, in this concern, as in so much else, prescient:

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently before they would ever think of exchanging it for another—yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.[4]

Instead of being chastised for their honesty and thoughtfulness, Kagan and others should be commended for highlighting the dangers evident in our current nomination politics and national campaign. That threat must not be “normalized” in favor of a quest for power, individual or institutional. All Americans must persistently be asked by journalists, candidates and their elected leaders alike if the dystopian, simplistic, hatred-filled society that Trump represents is the sort of nation in which they would like to live, and what such a society ultimately would portend for their individual freedom and rights, were it to come to fruition.

 

Notes

[1] Robert Kagan, “This is how fascism comes to America,” May 22, 2016, Brookings Institution, Order from Chaos, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2016/05/22-trump-fascism-in-america-kagan Accessed June 1, 2016.

[2] Peter Baker, “The Rise of Donald Trump Tracks Growing Debate over Global Fascism,” The New York Times, May 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/world/europe/rise-of-donald-trump-tracks-growing-debate-over-global-fascism.html?_r=0 Accessed June 1, 2016.

[3] Neal Ascherson, “Hopping in his Matchbox,” Review of Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939; Translated by Jefferson Chase, London Review of Books, 38 (11), June 2, 2016. 23-24 at 23.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois,” January 27, 1838. Abraham Lincoln Online, website, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm Accessed June 1, 2016.