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