MEMBER BLOG: "Making America Hate Again" (by Elliot Cohen)
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What the Trump phenomenon teaches us about history and the future threat to American Democracy
Authored by Elliot Cohen
Some seventy years after the defeat of fascism in Europe, one of the two major political parties in the United States is promoting a presidential candidate who openly advocates the deportation of millions of immigrants and the tracking of millions of other citizens based on their religion.
How could the nation that responded to the global threat of fascism by proclaiming "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself" give rise to a demagogue who used fear to grow such a large and frightening political movement?
This small, well documented text analyzes the Trump phenomenon, examining historic similarities between the Trump campaign and earlier fascist movements, exploring the social and political conditions that enabled this ideology of hate to spread, and explaining why this threat to democracy will continue long after, and regardless of, the outcome of the 2016 election.
By publishing this two weeks before the 2016 Presidential Election I hope to call attention too an important aspect of what is happening because regardless of the election results it is important to understand this trend in our nations politics. You are invited to share your comments and thoughts with me on ElliotsReport.com
It would be mistake to think that the danger this essay warns of will be behind us once the election is over. The issues that Donald Trump on the right, and Bernie Sanders on the left, gave voice too need be addressed or the frustrations that allowed the Trump phenomenon to emerge will continue to simmer.
Only by addressing these underlying the conditions which made people susceptible to demagogic appeals we can prevent the hatred from growing and spreading. That so significant a portion of the population are so frustrated, angry and resentful of the existing political order that they would opt for such extreme change is a political warning sign. We ignore it at our peril.
WHAT PRECISELY IS FASCISM?
REPUBLICANS ARE CALLING THEIR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE A FASCIST:
WHAT EXACTLY DOES THAT MEAN?
I was nearly six months into watching Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign with a mixture of fascination and amusement, but also much fear, when Republicans began saying what I had long been thinking: that Trump was a fascist. That numerous Republicans have publicly announced they will not be voting for Trump, and that many actually label Trump a fascist should cause people to wonder: Why they would risk having their own party lose an election? It should also make us seriously consider the frightening possibility it is true, and, if so, ask: What made it so easy to ignite a widespread fascist movement in America? We need to determine it’s root causes, and address them, if we want the danger to truly be put behind us.
NEITHER LIBERAL NOR CONSERVATIVE: WHAT IS FASCISM?
Historically, when liberal democracies failed to address the dire economic problems created by the Great Depression, people became susceptible to appeals of charismatic demagogues offering themselves as strong leaders to replace those ineffective governments. Although fascist movements arose in several European nations, fascism itself - defined here the fascist control of the national government - rarely emerged. Only where circumstances became so dire, and no other solutions came forth, did fascist get elected to govern. Fascism prevailed in Italy in 1922, and Germany in 1933, where, owing to the distinct circumstances and cultures of the two nations it assumed very different forms.
What Fascism Isn’t
Before illustrating what fascism is, it is vital to understand what it is not. The military dictatorships of the 1960’s and 1970’s that took place in Brazil, Chile, Greece, Central and South America were updated versions of traditional military dictatorships, not fascism. The most significant difference is how military dictatorships come to power. Fascist do not seize power by coup d'état or through military might, but come to power by democratic means, through a duly elected political leader who leads a popular movement. Fascism is not just about an election, but about a dictatorial personality who uses demagoguery to generate a movement and gain control of government. Because a coup d'état or military dictatorship is imposed, and fascism results from democratic elections, fascism can be prevented.
Conservatism is not fascism. Many liberals consider conservative republicans to be basically the same as fascist with the only difference being a matter of degree. But there are distinct differences between conservatives and fascist. Conservatives look to an administrative civil service to run government, they believe in the government structure laid out in the constitution, and believe the conduct of society should be determined primarily by interactions between family, private businesses and religious institutions. Although conservatives tend to be nationalistic, the nationalism is moderated by the need to protect those traditional values.
Since fascist promise restoration of traditional values and oppose the left they attract conservative support. Historically fascist rarely broke entirely with conservatives, but relations are often tense. This is the case with Trump. Republican leaders who support his candidacy, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, often find themselves unwilling to defend, and even somewhat embarrassed by, Trump’s statements. Examples of this include Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel, the Khan family, and his effusive praise of Vladimir Putin.
Conservatives believe economy should be based on a free market, with minimal regulation. Fascist emphasize nationalism and support regulation of trade and the economy to achieve nationalistic goals. Conservatives strongly support private property rights. Under fascism property of foreigners or disfavored groups may be confiscated, and the favored nationality tends to receive better treatment in terms of employment opportunities and social welfare.
Fascist do not treat all people as human beings entitled to equal rights. Nationalism permeates government policy, including the allocation of education and employment opportunities, welfare benefits and the right to own property. Should fascism come to the United States citizenship and its benefits would be accorded or denied on the basis of characteristics deemed to be “American”. Even people born here could be treated as less than citizens if, for example, their parents are of Mexican origin.
Conservatives may oppose a particular administration, such as they have President Obama, but they do not oppose the system itself. They accept the principle of power sharing. Fascist seek a new order. Fascist have little respect for constitutional niceties such as the separation of powers. There is no independent judiciary in a fascist regime. Although both liberal and conservative politicians occasionally scorn judicial decisions they disagree with, the level of such critiques can not begin to compare to the manner in which Trump sought to intimidate federal judge Curiel.
Article III, which protects the independence of the judiciary assures that citizens can challenge the legality of government actions and acts as a check on the power of the government. Trump has repeatedly threatened judicial independence, both in questioning the legitimacy of Judge Curiel for ordering the public release of discovery materials in the Trump University fraud case, and disregarding other important judicial decisions that stand in the way of his political objectives.
By ruling that public officials could not sued for defamation unless a published statement is knowingly false, made with actual malice or made with reckless disregard for the truth the Supreme Court gave effect to the First Amendments ability to act as a check on government by protecting those who expose wrong doing by government officials or powerful people. Conservatives often complain about liberal media bias, but they don’t seriously suggest weakening this important First Amendment protection. Trump has stated numerous times his intent to do so by changing defamation laws to make it easier to sue the media.
Trump has also called for wholesale violations of the Fourth Amendment, saying police should use stop and frisk as it was used in New York City. This disregards the fact that a federal judge ruled that the way stop and frisk was used in New York was both racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. Trump’s disregard of judicial authority mirrors practices in the early years of fascist Germany, where people would be sent to concentration camps in defiance of court orders to release them.
What Fascism Is
Because fascism was eradicated over seventy years ago most people alive today have no memory or understanding of fascism. When they hear the word they imagine Gestapo with Swastika armbands, torture and concentration camps. Since Trump has never suggested those type of things most people conclude he is not a fascist. Content in this belief people conclude there is no danger fascism can ever happen here. The fact most Americans believe we face no such danger is the danger. It effectively blinds Americans from seeing what is happening and could be the very thing that allows fascism to suceed.
Marxist believe fascism is an effort to defend capitalism from popular movements seeking socialist reform or revolution. In 1935 the Communist International defined fascism as the “…terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism”. That such an assertion, made over 80 years ago, so accurately specified fascism as a response to threats to finance capitalism is remarkable considering that demands to break up big banking interest arose so close in time to the Trump phenomenon.
But perceptive as the Marxist definition of fascism is, it is woefully incomplete because it neglects to mention that at the core of fascism lies an emotional appeal to belligerent ultra-nationalism that promises to revive the nation from a period of crisis. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” perfectly captures the idea of a nation in decline, while promising change that looks not to the future, but to the past. A past where white men dominated political, social and cultural discourse, a past that many are frightened they have lost to a new multi-cultural society that they both fear and do not recognize.
Fascist nationalism is a nationalism not of the nation as a whole, but of the dominant national and/or ethnic group that perceives itself, rightly or wrongly, to be neglected or suffering. This is why fascist seek to scapegoat other races, religions or nationalities. This is why fascism embraces xenophobia.
Fascism is an opposition movement. It is anti-liberal and anti -Marxist, but it is also anti-conservative, in that fascist would replace existing forms of governance with a strong leader (dictatorial) type of government. A government that would be less respectful of traditional institutions, the separation of powers and constitutional liberties.
Recognizing fascism before it comes to power is important because history shows that once fascist get elected the majority of people willingly accept them. However after fascist are in power they undermine the democratic system that enabled them to get elected, and use government resources to dominate media, bully the legislature, conduct surveillance on opponents, and otherwise make it impossible to organize effective resistance. Once this occurs it is too late. That is why the time to stop fascist is before they come to power.