Trumpism: A second American civil war?
America, the rock against which Fascism crashed in the last century, may have begun to slide,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright cautioned a few years back.
At its most fundamental level, fascism is aestheticized despotism. It’s the ritualized romanticization of violence and an oppressive order. It’s also the glamorization of a permanent state of crisis, which often attracts not only the disaffected and disenfranchised but also sections of the elite, including the intellectuals.
But despite its political troubles, America’s formal democratic institutions have remained largely intact. This is not a Weimar Republic.
Yet, one can’t fully discount the prospect of a “second civil war” in a country with a long history of civil strife; not to mention, notorious levels of gun violence and heavily armed far-right militia groups, who recently descended on Washington, DC.
And when combined with toxic partisanship, where up to 40 percent of the electorate sees the other side as downright “evil,” you get a particularly precarious situation.
For the past four years, outgoing President Donald Trump has been largely described as a “populist.” His liberal critics, however, have gone so far as to portray him as a fascist. Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has drawn direct parallels between Trump and fascist leaders, since “Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth.”
Snyder has compared Trump’s usage of the term “fake news”—as a smear tactic against critical coverage—to the Nazi term Lügenpresse (“lying press”). And there is also the element of media savvy. “The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter,” Snyder points out.
The circumstances of Trump’s rise to power are also telling. “Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating,” Snyder argues. “The financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones.”
In “How Fascism Works” (2018), American philosopher Jason Stanley questioned the historical specificity of fascism, since its core elements—the cult of personality, extreme nationalism, and para-military violence—have been replicated across time and space.
Earlier, the late Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who lived through the Mussolini days, made a similar argument, emphasizing the fact that fascism is fundamentally a frame of mind, rather than a narrow historical phenomenon. In simplest terms, Fascism is the rejection of the Enlightenment values that undergird our modern notions of pluralism and rationality.
As an inchoate ideology, fascism draws on three key elements, namely the cult of personality (centered around “the leader”), nationalism and the glorification of state power, and the deployment and glamorization of violence through para-military elements and, in its most sinister form, the “deep state.”
For years, Trump skillfully established a cult of personality combined with his unique brand of “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) nationalism. But the element of para-military violence was largely missing. Nor did Trump employ the kind of state-sponsored violence seen in post-Weimar Germany or its Italian counterpart. Courts and the opposition-controlled Congress also remained functional.
However, the violent assault on the Capitol, the ultimate symbol of American democracy, has raised serious questions as to whether Trump is just another “populist.” Perhaps a better way to understand what’s happening is to refer to a much older concept: Demagoguery.
As ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle saw it, demagogues are particularly dangerous precisely because they often translate their charisma into mob violence and the coercive co-optation of established democratic institutions.
Pre-election surveys showed that 20 percent of voters expressed openness to the use of violence in the event their candidate lost, while post-election surveys showed that a vast majority of Republicans are yet to accept Trump’s defeat.
Even more astonishing is the fact that nearly half of Republicans have expressed support for the Trump-instigated siege on the Capitol. As I wrote in my Nov. 3 article (“Will Donald Trump accept defeat?”), demagogues like Trump “don’t go gently into the night. They will fight back, often at the expense of the whole nation.”
America is a flagship democracy; the world has a direct stake in hoping that ultimately the better angels of America’s nature prevail.
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