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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Sometimes it is better to be wrong, and this election is definitely one of those times.

More than a year ago, I posted a column that inquired whether Donald Trump is “a real live fire-breathing fascist.” Based on what we had seen from him and his campaign even by then — his appeals to racial and religious bigotry, his xenophobic and truculent attitude toward other nations, his endorsements of violence, and his extremist “solution” to illegal immigration — the direction was disturbingly clear if not yet conclusive.

We have seen much more since then, of course. Trump has undermined the integrity of the democratic process itself, while suggesting he will refuse to accept the election result if he doesn’t win. He has urged his supporters to commit acts of violence, to intimidate opposition voters based on race or ethnicity, and he has publicly promised to imprison his opponent. He has questioned the independence of the judiciary and repeatedly menaced the media, bullying individual reporters and fulminating about harsher libel laws. And he has appointed a leading exponent of the “alt-right,” a man known for anti-Semitic outbursts and paranoid politics, to run his campaign.

The conclusion is inescapable: Whether or not Trump consciously considers himself a fascist, like the unsavory “alt-right” thugs who lionize him, he represents a fascistic current in American politics. If empowered on Election Day, that force is certain to inflict grave and perhaps irreparable damage to democracy as well as the future of this country and the planet. Already his movement has done the nation serious harm.

But the upwelling of authoritarian attitudes in and around the Republican Party anticipated Trump’s own rise by well over a decade. The polarizing anger, paranoid ideology, and uncompromising extremism that he has come to personify were all first exploited by Newt Gingrich, now a Trump adviser and surrogate.

In the years that followed 9/11, incursions against democracy quickly ensued as the United States government declared its will to discard constitutional guarantees and international treaty obligations in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Now those themes are amplified by Trump — who provokes a potential rupture with NATO, threatens a return to waterboarding “and worse” forms of torture, and warns that as president he would “have to do things that were frankly unthinkable” in the past.

During George W. Bush’s second term, I wrote It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril In The Age of Bush, a book outlining the dangers of that government’s violations of civil liberties, its alliance with repressive corporate and religious elements, its contempt for the Constitution, and its attempt to establish permanent partisan dominance over all three branches, “in a time of war.” The American electorate eventually dispensed with that regime’s most alarming attitudes and ambitions. But the political elements that yearned for authoritarian solutions remained active, and eventually reappeared, first as the Tea Party and then in the Trump movement.

My book derived its title and inspiration from It Can’t Happen Here, the 1935 anti-fascist bestseller by Sinclair Lewis, a long-forgotten work that is once again highly relevant with the rise of Trump. (So relevant that at a recent Clinton fundraiser in New York, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jon Hamm performed a scene from the eponymous Broadway play, based on the book, that Lewis opened to overflow audiences in 1936.)

 It Can’t Happen Here starts with the election of President Buzz Windrip, a charismatic politician with little intellectual curiosity but a great appeal to the regular guy; he is a man who “believes firmly in the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars” and considers almost all foreigners to be degenerate. He hates science and academia, flatters the ignorance of his followers, and presents himself as a defender of traditional values, righteousness, and godliness.

Windrip regularly and loudly expresses his contempt for the press (except the ultra-right Hearst media empire, precursor of the Murdoch machine), excoriating journalists for “plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions, and fill their greedy pocketbooks…” He often mentions that he has read the Bible at least a dozen times, although his religiosity is bogus. He regards himself as the only man who can solve the country’s dire problems, even if that means discarding constitutional procedures and protections. His populist rherotic is empty; his economic policy drives wages downward while his government implements a regressive tax system and a gigantic military buildup. To unite the country behind him, he plots a preemptive war against Mexico. After his election, there are no more, and his opponents are systematically imprisoned, exiled, or worse.

If the campaign of 2016 echoes many of the themes that Lewis embodied in Windrip, that’s because his book satirized fascist modes of thought — along with the deceptions and demagogy that might contrive to bring fascism to power in a democracy. Facing the election of 1936, and the perils of extremism at home and abroad, the great author, America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was deeply worried for democracy — just as we worry, 80 years later.

For this country’s sake, I wish I had been wrong last year about Trump and fascism, but I wasn’t. Today we must hope that the majority of Americans still cares enough for our institutions and freedoms to safeguard them from this vain, vengeful, and dangerous figure.

IMAGE: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a rally with supporters at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, U.S. September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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