Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why I have refrained from calling Donald Trump a fascist.

Updated 2 25 2017
 I have refrained from calling the Trump administration fascist. It is not there yet.  It is too early to tell and the constraints of law and the Constitution may keep President Trump from putting some of his innate tendencies into practice. However, every day it seems Trump's actions resemble even more the examples of fascism as practiced in the 20th century.

The definition of fascism as a philosophy is complex, but actions can be the the definer, too.     Calling someone fascist brings to mind Hitler, the gas chambers, the hyper nationalism, the rallies and parades, and a goal of economic recovery based on ramping up the military/industrial complex,  blaming and scapegoating minorities, and feeding on the emotions of those who hate "others".   Hitler seems to personify it in many minds, though the 20th century ideological roots are actually in Italy and Mussolini and not all authoritarian governments are fascist.

 While President Trump certainly does not fit the extreme Hitler mold , there are some  similar  elements to the rise of fascism in Europe found in Trump's tweets and orders and  techniques,  such as holding rallies to whip up supporters' enthusiasm and hyper nationalism, exaggerating potential external security threats and the weakness of our military,  and the failure of an economy,. He is  ignoring the fact that  the economy  has the lowest unemployment rate  since 2009 and had  a pre-election robust Wall Street. True, the blue collar middle class has been left behind. Whatever Trump advocates, the US in 2017 is nowhere like Germany in the early 30's that was decimated by reparations and the Depression.

With crowd pleasing rhetoric and tweets, Trump  claims the only facts that are not fake  are those  considered true  by the Trump administration . He verbally delegitimizes  other centers of power,  courts and their judges,   and media.  Stephen Bannon is the president's most trusted and closest adviser and  is also an example  of the hatred factor found in fascism. Bannon had been CEO  of Brietbart ,the media public platform for white supremacists and ultra nationalists.  Leading  to Trump's own  rise on the political scene was "Obama was born in Kenya" birtherism crusade, considered by many to be dog whistles to racists. Whether or not Bannon and he are racists and bigots themselves is the lesser  issue.  Like Bannon  Trump tolerates and exploits racism for political gain, even being  reluctant to condemn bigotry until forced to. His Muslim ban obviously  appeals to religious bigots. Pressed for weeks to condemn Jewish cemetery vandalism and threats against religious centers, he finally made  a statement last week condemning anti-Semitism.

These last couple of weeks of his media relations were particularly disturbing and brought him a step closer to qualifying as at least a wannabe fascist.  Looking at how the fascist movement got into power in the last century, we can see some similarities.  One is an attempt to bully and control the press and to take over the messaging. Trump is beginning the process  by excluding "opposition" outlets.  CNN and the New York Times were kept    from the press "gaggle"at  non-teleivsed briefing at the White House and Trump and his spokespeople have  refused  to call on reporters who represented media promoting stories critical of him. These were obvious attempts at "punishing" CNN and the Tmes. Their sin: reporting on the Trump's possible  even closer relationship with Russians during the campaign.

The most serious media related  event raised  the question of whether his administration had tried to influence the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's colluding with the Russians. One version reported by the media was that Reince Priebus, Trump's chief of staff, had approached the FBI director asking him to tamp down a report being leaked from the agency as flawed because  there was no evidence any Russian contact involved Russian agents. The Trump administration did not deny the contact had been made with Russians, but said it was not their agents, and counter claimed  that the FBI director had approached Priebus. If the latter is true, then the FBI's impartiality and credibility in their Russian related investigations into Russian hacking and meddling in the 2016 elections  are jeopardized. If the administration initiated the contact with the FBI, then they are verging on  a Nixon-like cover-up and look guilty that there is fire in the smoke. Adding to suspicions that there is something there there,  as many have noted, Trump has never flatly denied that contact with  Russians and his campaign staff occurred, but instead has tried to deflect attention to "illegal leaks",  as a way to direct  public attention and media focus elsewhere and a way to scotch deeper probes.

 Either way , the exchange with the FBI flap is not good news for the Trump administration. In that dust up, what has been clear is that the Trump administration is fearful that the FBI or the other investigations being conducted by intelligence agencies  will find the smoking gun of collusion with  Russian agents. If that collusion turns out to be sanctioned or conducted by Donald Trump himself or others in his campaign acting under his direction, that  could lead to impeachment at worse or destroying the credibility, legitimacy,  and effectiveness of the administration at best.  The stakes are very high.

.Populism has also been an element in the rise of fascism.  Candidate Trump's appeal to the blue collar working demographic was more populist than corporate.  Ironically, a  corporatist element has been added  to  Trump's presidential administration with appointment of the team of billionaires to the various cabinet posts. These cabinet officers have been charged  to de-construct their departments, eliminating consumer and environmental protections which were designed to protect the middle class from corporate excesses.

The populist rationale Trump has  pitched to the public is that this pro-business, anti enviornment/consumer approach will lead to high paying job creation in the rust belt and  national economic growth. Those most affected by economic struggles are without a college education and robotics have replaced many of those jobs once held by human beings. Some blame unions, too, for holding back efficiencies. Trump has not provided any plan to fix those problems, but instead has blamed bad trade policies.  Whether protectionism will result in high paying jobs with a work force ill equipped to fill them or reduce robotics is doubtful. If  proof of Russian collusion does not lead to his defeat in 2020, his failure to provide promised economic growth and high paying job creation will. As counties who voted for Obama in the past  then went for  Trump in 2016 showed,  populism is a fickle beast.

Another parallel with the practice of German  fascism is Trump's reliance on militarism to promote US leadership in the world. The current world order he is de-constructing is one based on mutual defense treaties  (NATO) and multinattonal economic and trade arrangements. Instead, Trump's vision of leadership is relying  on military muscle  power as a threat to deter attacks and as a "might makes right" bully power over the rest of the world.  Where it does differ from Hitler's rise is that Hitler used military buildup in manufacturing as an argument to the public, promoting it  as a way to pull Germany out of the depression.

Donald Trump had wanted to display military weapons and missile launchers  in his inauguration parade, but  the US military declined that opportunity. Red Square type parades are not far from his mind. Whatever the reason for militarism, if diplomacy and treaties are not tried first, we can imagine where a crisis  might lead. For some in history promoting military conflict was a way to make the  "pledge to the leader" a patriotic duty. To increase an autocrat's power, the exaggeration of threats to national interests and persecution of ethnic groups  are familiar modus operandi.even in our current memories, from Milosevic's Balkan Wars in the 1990's to Russia's stealth invasions of the Crimea, Georgia, and the Ukraine. It is no wonder a recent poll showed the majority of Americans fear involvement in another major war.  The danger is that we are living in a nuclear age where miscalculations and political ambitions could lead to disasters far graeater than the world wars of the 1900's


There is a very comprehensive discussion of this : puts blame on the Rust Belt decline on unions
MIT looks at the impact of robotics and the need for greater worker education

Footnote:  while I usually do not use Wikipedia as a source, I did tap into their definition of fascism and its history.  It seemed comprehensive and well documented.  I did not rely on it alone , though, drawing on my undergraduate  background  in history and political science and first hand encounter with the results of fascism in an academic year spent in post-war Berlin in 1957. It was a  grass roots attempt to find out how and why it happened there . My intellectual curiosity has not dimmed over the years.  I number  among many life long friends and relatives by marriage the recounting of their  personal experiences and memories of the rise of fascism and communism in their native countries.

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