by Tony Wyman
The playbook that Donald Trump used to get elected and to maintain a passionate base of support is nothing of his own creation. Instead, it was borrowed from authoritarian politicians just like him who divided their people into two groups, the virtuous “us” and the corrupt “them,” to take over their countries and reshape them to their liking.
The tactics they used were consistent and predictable: evoke a glorious past when their nations were great; use arguments based on emotion, not fact, reason or truth, to inflame the passions of their faithful followers; attack the legitimacy of independent and mainstream news sources; and use both sexism and racism to put “others” in a subordinate position while amplifying themselves as the sole father-figure able to save the nation and return it to past glories.
While this is the political process that fascists have used throughout modern history, this isn’t to say that the MAGA movement is necessarily a fascist one or to suggest that there is an equivalency between Donald Trump and someone like Adolf Hitler. While the GOP under Mr. Trump has clearly abandoned many of its past libertarian leanings, it isn’t yet a full-blown fascist movement, not by a long shot.
At least, not yet.
But, what we are seeing under Mr. Trump is how such a far-right, fascist coalition could be constructed based on the grievances and fears of two groups that are essential to his hold on power: white evangelicals fearful that the return to power of secular liberals will endanger Christianity in America; and, white traditionalists fearful of the rise of racial minorities, women and Americans of unconventional sexual orientations who, they believe, are displacing them from positions of privilege in society they have held since the nation’s founding.
These groups believe their survival is threatened, that their status in American society is under assault, and that without a protector like Donald Trump, their days of cultural and economic supremacy in the country are numbered.
And, of course, to some extent, they may be right. While the number of Americans who identify as evangelicals has remained steady over the years, the numbers who claim no religious affiliation has climbed to the point where it is virtually the same as the Catholic Church, the largest church in America.
Women, racial and sexual minorities have made even more significant gains in American culture, both economically and in social status over the past decades. In 1950, for example, 60% of black women worked as domestic servants; today, one is running for president of the country.
This is why evangelicals are willing, even eager, to support a man as famously immoral as Donald Trump. Despite knowing he’s lived a life that’s made a mockery of the religious principles that evangelical Christians hold as essential to their religion, they are confident that he will protect their faith because they recognize that he sees it as traditionally American and a counterbalance to outside influences he sees as a threat to the nation’s identity.
It is also why white traditionalists, including those who have, historically, been Democratic voters, are so susceptible to Mr. Trump’s thinly coded white nationalist rhetoric. They hear, for the first time in decades, a president share their fears that immigrants, educated elites and progressive non-traditionalists are threatening the America they know and value, one where roles and relationships are clearly defined and enforced by cultural conventions.
The danger is these groups are willing to use the power of the state to suppress the democratic rights of their opponents because they believe the danger posed by these “enemies of the people,” as Mr. Trump has frequently described his political opponents and the media, is so great that suspending constitutional protections against the excessive and illegal use of government power may be necessary to save America. “Lock her up!” the president’s supporters chant gleefully at every rally, while Mr. Trump stands by, doing nothing to silence their cheers.
Although they have claimed they don’t share President Trump’s “go back where you came from” bigotry, they argued that immigrants from non-European nations (read: nations that aren’t white) are a threat to America’s heritage and should be limited in number. Amy Wax, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania, claimed that immigrants from non-european nations are responsible for the rise in “litter” in America and that the country would be better off with more white immigrants than non-white ones.
“Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism, means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites than non-whites,” Prof. Wax said at the Conservative Nationalism conference held in the nation’s capitol in July. This position isn’t “racist,” according to Prof. Wax, because her objection to black and brown immigrants is based on their culture, not their race.
Her defense is, of course, absurd. Her contention that the country is better off with fewer people whose skin isn’t white is the very essence of racism. But it is much more than just that; it is a defense of the America that Donald Trump envisioned during the 2016 election: An America that is white, Christian, straight and hostile to cultural change brought about by foreigners.
“These (race issues) are toxic topics,” Prof. Wax said in her speech at the conference, “that lie outside the Overton window in polite society, as evidenced by outraged reaction to Trump’s profane and grating question, ‘Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?’”
Her question drew a cascade of laughter from the audience.
“That needs to be regarded as a serious question and not just a rhetorical one.”
Formula for Fascism
A serious question about how many of “them” can be allowed in with “us” before the nation’s fundamental character is forever changed. Stoking that fear, that people who don’t look like us and who have traditions that aren’t compatible with ours, will come here in such numbers that they will forever change the country, has been a tactic fascists have used to enrage their support base throughout history. And it is a tactic that President Trump and his supporters have used since he first started running for office in 2015.
That raises the question of how many more tactics of authoritarians has the president and his supporters used since he became president? Just how much of a fascist is the president, if he’s a fascist at all?
The challenge of assessing this is political scientists have failed, really, to come to a consensus on a definitive list of characteristics of fascism. There have been a couple of attempts by Italian philosopher Umberto Eco and historian and novelist Lawrence Britt to define fascism, as well as work done by European political scientists to create a comprehensive list. All three do well to identify characteristics of fascists that many Americans would recognize in the way President Trump conducts himself and leads the nation. All three, however, in my view, bog down unnecessarily in the tactics of fascists, rather than in their general characteristics.
Consequently, none are as concise and simple to understand as the “formula for fascism” covered in the book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us vs. Them by Yale Professor Jason Stanley.
He identifies three essential features that are common in all fascist governments and that are, alarmingly, present in the Trump Administration, as well. They are:
- Conjuring up a “mythic past” that has been attacked and destroyed by liberals, elites, feminists or other enemies of the traditional state. This past elicits nostalgic memories of when the state was racially pure, when foreign influences didn’t contaminate the country’s predominant culture or religion, when only one language was spoken and when cultural traditions were patriarchal, placing men in positions of dominance over women. Fascist leaders are always men and they position themselves as father-figures who are the only ones who can fix the problems the nation has, the only ones strong enough to stand up to the nation’s enemies to return the country to its past greatness.
- Sowing discord, fear and division by “turning groups against each other.” Fascists exploit existing divisions in society and inflame racial, religious, ethnic and political divisions among groups for their own benefit. They don’t try to win over all the people, only enough to ensure they remain in power. They weaponize prejudice and exploit fear, often provoking followers to act violently towards groups out of favor of the leader. They exaggerate crimes committed by minorities or immigrants, scapegoating them as a means to justify repressive government action taken against opponents of the fascist leader.
- They use propaganda to “attack the truth” and create a “kind of anti-intellectualism” where supporters no longer care if what the leader says is based on fact. While all politicians lie, fascists routinely substitute lies and propaganda for truth for the sole purpose of poisoning the minds of their followers with a mythology about their leader and his political enemies. This poisoning creates a toxicity in the society as a whole that makes it virtually impossible for members of the community to interact civilly over politics without resorting to insults, threats and even violence.
So, if you accept Prof. Stanley’s definition of a fascist, Pres. Trump clearly qualifies. The question then is, what are the voters going to do about it?