Is the president a dangerous ideologue drawing on America's racist past—or a man more tasteless than sinister? Talia Lavin and Andrew Stuttaford debateby / August 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes: Talia Lavin
In the American political conversation, there seems to be a divide between those who see Trump as a sui generis horror—his vulgarity and brazenness arising like Aphrodite from sea-foam, to dominate American political and popular culture—and those who frustratedly point out that our current leadership is drawing on innate American traditions of hatred and terror that date back to the country’s inception. Broadly, one can call these two schools: “We’re better than this,” and “Well—no, we’re not.”
I’m in the latter camp. You don’t have to look too far to find the roots of the current administration. Look how the civil rights of black people are today continually, brutally violated. Just look at the Bush-era torture programme’s architects, all of them unpunished. If you do look further back, the ghosts of the lynched and the mass graves of genocide lurk in the American psyche; the descendants of those who perpetrated these crimes walk among us. But something doesn’t have to be uniquely terrible, or unprecedented, to be ghastly. And the current administration has long ago earned its role as inheritor to the worst instincts and actions of American history.
It’s no accident that Trump has enthusiastically adopted slogans that echo authoritarian and crypto-fascist movements of the past. “America First,” a Trumpian refrain, was the slogan of US Nazi sympathisers in the 1930s. “Enemy of the People,” when referring to the press, was a favourite epithet of Stalin’s. It’s not as if these historical echoes are secret, or as if Google is blocked in the White House. Occam’s razor suggests, therefore, that they are intentional: of a piece with the dehumanising rhetoric of “infestation” that Trump uses with regard to immigrants; with government secrecy and barbarity; with rampant disregard for the truth and florid, bald-faced corruption. I would argue for Occam’s razor in our language and outlook as well. Call a fascist a fascist, and check his actions before they can sink to the worst depths of the history of that word.
No: Andrew Stuttaford
“Fascism” once had a reasonably precise meaning, shaped by reference to specific ideas, policies and regimes. But, as early as 1944, George Orwell was complaining that it was a term used in ways that had degraded it to little more than a “swearword.” Nearly 75 years later that is still the case. After all, as insults go, “fascist” works very well.
Donald Trump (for whom I did not vote) is many things, many of them disreputable—or worse—but to label him a fascist is not only misleading, but credits this former Democrat, former independent and current Republican with a degree of intellectual coherence, however appalling, that he simply does not possess.
Puzzle your way through the often-contradictory political positions that Trump has adopted over the years, and you will not find too much consistency beyond his decades-long insistence that America is being exploited by its trading partners and its allies.
That is neither a fascist, nor always an unfair viewpoint, even if it can at times curdle into paranoia and xenophobia. It’s also worth noting that he has typically taken a hardline stance on crime and illegal immigration. These two topics have been legitimate causes of concern, but as we saw in 2016 they contain plenty of potential for a media-savvy political entrepreneur and his dog whistle.
Trump has an ear for a good catchphrase. “America First” has a shabby past, which he must have known, but in addition he will have known that, to an electorate not famous for its knowledge of history, those two words could be repackaged as a declaration of uncomplicated patriotism, nothing more. To deploy them was not sinister, but tasteless, something that will not have worried Trump.
That is a priority with disturbing consequences, but fascism will not be one of them.
There are many insults you can use to describe Donald Trump, his ridiculous appearance or the cesspit of his character. But “fascist” is not an insult in this case; it’s a descriptor, and a necessary and accurate one.
The Italian writer Emilio Gentile wrote about the “myths, rituals and symbols” of fascism, saying it created a kind of secular cult, aiming to “abolish the boundaries between the religious and political spheres.” The sight of red-hatted crowds cheering Trump at one of his rallies evokes this -secular cultishness. It is a crude kind of worship practised by the cult of Trump, with its own symbols and catchphrases. Indeed the name “Trump” is wielded as a weapon all over the US against racial and religious minorities, as schoolteachers have noted in particular.
Trump’s dog-whistle racism was a central feature of his campaign. But as president he has eased off, except when he wants to dominate the news cycle. Instead, with the help of like-minded aides, he sets the hounds on people he disfavours, primarily immigrants.
His “Muslim ban,” though initially struck down by courts, was reinstated and upheld by the judicial system, leading to countless US residents being cut off from relatives in other countries. Much worse was the barbaric policy of separating children from their parents at the border, and imprisoning children in inadequate and even improvised facilities. This revealed a staggering lack of humanity.
Even now, in defiance of a court deadline, 572 children have been functionally orphaned by the US government, which has no plan for reuniting these families. An administration willing to create such directives—and in command of forces willing to carry them out—is not flippantly called fascist, per Orwell’s worries. It is one whose innate fascism long ago began to reveal itself.
Sure, fascism operates as a kind of political religion, as does Communism. But those are ideologies of total immersion. It would have been absurd to watch the distinctly worshipful adulation of Obama in 2008 and conclude that Bolshevism was on the march. It is no less absurd to look at cheering “red-hatted crowds” and tremble at the thought of Il Duce redux.
You maintain that Trump’s name is wielded against minorities “all over the US,” and cite the claims made by schoolteachers. Well, despite those claims, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no increase in bullying between 2015 and 2017. That is not to deny that there were incidents or to downplay them. Nor is it to deny that, beyond the schoolyard, Trump’s rise gave a noisy racist fringe a sense of empowerment, but to see this as evidence that fascism is on its way is a mistake.
Turning to immigration, the so-called “Muslim ban,” a crudely drawn anti-terrorism measure, was introduced with a carelessness and—there is no getting away from this administration’s authoritarian instincts—a callousness that proved self-defeating. After pressure from the courts, the ban was weakened. It was diluted further by the Supreme Court. Checks and balances still work.
You mentioned the separation of migrant children from their families. This happened under Bush and Obama, but on nothing remotely like the same scale. What mainly changed matters was the Trump administration’s decision to start prosecuting “all” those caught crossing the border illegally. Children cannot legally be incarcerated, thus the callous resort to separations.
Yet, following protests, the policy was abandoned. A judge then ordered the administration to return the children to their families. In some 80 per cent of the cases it has done so. The failure to reunite the remainder is a result of bureaucratic failure and a horrifying lack of empathy: their parents had been deported.
Merely because the courts have—just—held in check the worst instincts of our racist demagogue of a president doesn’t mean we’re not in a moment of genuine national crisis. (It should be noted that Trump is doing his best to stack the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, with nominees.) The fact that public outcry and lawsuits could mitigate some of the damage done by a hideous policy of family separation doesn’t mean the instincts that gave rise to it are any less cruel, or that the minds behind it will not continue to inflict violence on those who can least resist it.
As for dismissing emboldened racists as a “fringe,” this should be done carefully in America—we have a dismal history of pure, unfettered white supremacy. This year, several open neo-Nazis are running, or have run, for elected office, from California to Illinois to North Carolina—all on the Republican ticket. The “Jewish question” has arisen repeatedly among these candidates.
This is no coincidence: the tone is set at the top. Trump, for all his crudeness, understands how to exploit racial fault lines. Witness his war against NFL athletes protesting against police violence. “Most of them want to show their ‘outrage’ over something most of them can’t define,” he says repeatedly, as if they have not explained eloquently that they are protesting against racist violence.
This racial demagoguery extends to Trump’s closest aides; Stephen Miller and Lee Cissna are working to denaturalise citizens, restrict legal immigration, and terrorise an undocumented populace of millions. All this is intended, as Laura Ingraham put it on Fox News, to prevent “demographic change” that scares the aging white majority.
There is no way to prevent demographic change and its political consequences without mass deportations, violent deterrence, restriction of visas, police terror and voter disenfranchisement.
This is a presidency of racist white fear and rage—anyone who knows anything about America knows it is a mistake to underestimate that force, a force I’m happy to call fascist.
As Nuremberg rallies go, the mid-August “Unite the Right” march in Washington DC, to mark the anniversary of last year’s lethal disturbances in Charlottesville, was a flop. Maybe two dozen people showed up. There is no “national crisis” in the sense that you mean.
It is true, disgustingly, that a handful of neo-Nazis are running on the Republican ticket (they have been disavowed by the party). These were in overwhelmingly Democratic districts that no Republican of any type would have any chance of winning. There was minimal turnout—the North Carolina nominee was picked with 824 votes—careless vetting and administrative mess-ups. In that Illinois “race” too there was only one Republican nominee.
To be sure, the Republicans will put up with other oddballs on their slate, as will the Democrats, and, yes, Trump is adept with a dog whistle. But, however unpleasant that may be, it is more means than end. This is not some sort of return to Jim Crow, or anything like it. Rather, it is part of a more direct assertion of America’s national interest, together with populism, and, of course, always, there is the self-promotion of Donald J Trump.
Trump’s agenda features tougher enforcement of immigration law. The votes are not there for the substantive reform that Trump favours—switching to a merit-based system on roughly Canadian lines. Enforcement of democratically passed laws is hardly shocking, but enforcement should be tempered with humanity, and there Trump more than Obama—no saint in this respect—falls short.
The guardrails of American democracy are holding, the judiciary is not being “stacked” and, in November’s midterm elections, the president will almost certainly lose the House—with results he will not enjoy.
The authoritarian streak I referred to earlier is real enough, but there is no drift to fascism.