The rise of Donald Trump — and the events of the last week — have promoted serious discussion of the question of whether fascism can in fact triumph in the United States of America.
I do not raise that question simply as a means of slurring an opposition political candidate, or movement. I raise it as a technical, analytic question that deserves a serious answer.
In 1935, during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novelist Sinclair Lewis published a semi-satirical novel entitled It Can’t Happen Here. In the novel, a United States senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected to the presidency, demanding that America return to patriotism and traditional values, and promising dramatic economic and social reforms. He argued that America needed a strong man to make the country great again.
After he is elected, Windrip imposes a semi-plutocratic totalitarian form of leadership supported by a paramilitary reminiscent of Europe’s brown shirts.
Now, 80 years later, the question of whether it could happen here once again confronts America.
Donald Trump, like the fascist leaders of Europe in the 1930s and their counterparts in South America in the 1970s and ’80s, argues that he — a strong leader — can “Make America Great Again.” Like earlier fascists, he addresses legitimate economic discontent by targeting international enemies, and internal threats that must be expunged from the body politic. In Trump’s case, the “internal enemy” is comprised of “illegal” immigrants who are “rapists and criminals” and who, he argues, take American jobs. But they also include Muslims — of any stripe. And, he doesn’t mind whipping up latent white racism wherever he can find it.
Like other fascist movements, Trump says out loud — and legitimates — the kind of hateful, violent language that was previously whispered only in the privacy of people’s living rooms.
And like previous generations of fascists, Trump frames his rhetoric in populist terms, while actually promoting policy solutions that would instead benefit plutocrats like himself.
And it’s worth noting, that while he doesn’t always use exactly the same rhetoric, Senator Ted Cruz shares many of Trump’s values.
It’s not hard to see why Trump has been successful in Republican primary politics.
Much of the elite media and Washington political class was blindsided by his appeal. But this is because many of them missed the central underlying fact of American politics: normal people haven’t had a raise in thirty years.
In the years 1986 to 2016, the real per capita gross domestic product — the best measure of the economic property of a society — increased 48 percent.
But virtually every dime of that increase went to the top 1 percent — and often the top .01 percent — of the population. Median household incomes barely budged. Measured in 2013 dollars, median household income was $50,488 in 1986. In 2013 it was $51,930.
There has been some fluctuation over the period. After dropping to $48,884 in 1993 — the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency — it increased to $56,080 in 1999. A year and a half later Clinton turned over the Oval office to George W. Bush.
Of course the economic record of Bush ended in utter catastrophe with the Great Recession. Since then, President Obama has built the economy back with a record 72 months of successive private sector job growth. But median household income still isn’t moving because the Republicans in Congress and the rules of the economic game still allow the corporate establishment to hang onto most of the fruits of that growth.
The iconic political result is the middle class Iowa focus group participant who said: “I haven’t had a raise in 30 years — and all of the growth has gone to those guys at the top, and all of the poor people at the bottom.”
Democrats Clinton and Sanders have answered by pointing to the 1 percent, the corporate CEOs and the wealthy — a political message which has the advantage of being true.
Trump and the Republicans have taken the opposite tack — whipping up antagonism to “immigrants,” “lazy people who don’t get a job,” and — frankly — anyone who is “not like you.” This of course has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth.
We know empirically the effect that increasing income inequality has on political polarization.
Several years ago, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal published a study showing a direct relationship between economic inequality and polarization in American politics.
They measured political polarization in congressional votes over the last century, and found a direct correlation with the percentage of income received by the top 1 percent of the electorate.
They also compared the Gini Index of income inequality with congressional vote polarization of the last half-century and found a comparable relationship.
Economic stagnation is the breeding ground for fear, racial hatred and extremist rhetoric. That is particularly true if other forms of social change simultaneously cause people to fear for their personal meaning and place in the world. An increasingly diverse America, the redefinition in relationships between men and women, gay and straight, is frightening to some Americans.
Racism is not the same thing as racial prejudice. Racism develops where a group of people’s meaning and status in life are tied to their self-definition, as “not Black,” or “not Brown.”. If personal meaning doesn’t come from excelling in your work life, or economic success, it’s a lot easier for people to be convinced that they need to define themselves through race and nationality.
It is no accident that fascism arose in Europe out of the economic depression of the 1930s, and in South America in a period of economic stagnation.
And Trump’s ability to dominate the Republican political dialogue is also the direct result of the behavior of Republican elites — ever since the resurgence of the “Conservative Movement” in the 1980s and especially since the Gingrich “revolution” and the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The GOP has been divided for decades into its social conservative/populist wing, and the business wing. In fact the business wing always called the shots — and used the mass wing of the party as cannon fodder to win elections so they could cut taxes for the wealthy, reduce government “regulation”, and cut trade deals that benefit huge corporations.
The business wing would provide the money to whip them to a frenzy during elections — and then do nothing for their economic well-being once they won. And they made matters worse by creating and funding the Tea Party movement that helped fuel the current anti-establishment Republican rebellion.
Now, the white working class component of the party has had enough and the Trump/Cruz campaigns have done everything they can to exploit their anti-establishment fury.
As I indicated in a HuffPost piece last August that predicted his success, Trump also has many personal advantages that have allowed him to capitalize on GOP primary politics.
Trump is credible at delivering that right wing populist message because he can claim that the “establishment” won’t own him, because he doesn’t need their money. He claims he is free to destroy the status quo, since he won’t owe anyone anything.
Trump understands that many voters, especially frustrated white, working class men, don’t care about his “policy proposals” or his “experience” in government. They want a tough son-of-a-bitch who will tear down the establishment that they believe has failed them. And Trump has spent his entire career learning how to behave like a tough son-of-a-bitch. His trademark line, after all, is: “you’re fired.”
Trump had spent 25 years learning how to generate attention to himself. He is one of the most experienced and successful self-promoters in modern America. That self-promotion has been at the heart of his success building a fortune.
Trump is no Bill Gates who invented an entire new industry. He is a latter-day P.T. Barnum — a brilliant promoter.
Of course part of his attraction lies in his willingness to say whatever he thinks might get attention. He thinks of himself as a bigger-than-life success who doesn’t need to win in order to be a big deal. That frees him to be “authentic” and outrageous.
And his skills at self-promotion are fed by an insatiable desire for attention. For Trump, attention appears to be the drug of choice. He craves it. He is driven by it. Don’t expect that drive to lessen. The Presidential race has allowed him to taste a stronger, more powerful drug than ever before.
One of the reasons he is so successful — and has such political endurance — is his unwillingness to ever allow himself to be put on the defensive.
Trump understands a key rule of politics: when you’re on the defense, you’re losing.
As a result, outrageous comments that would sink any other candidate don’t faze him. He never, ever apologizes — he just counter-punches. His skill staying on offense gives him a coating of political Teflon. Every time the pundit class decides that one comment or the other will certainly lead to his eminent political demise, he just plows ahead, unruffled.
As he constantly points out, he is very, very rich. He could stay in the race as long as he wants, without fear that his contributions would dry up. That was a huge advantage. No one questioned that he could stay in the race, and that created its own momentum.
Finally, to many people, Trump seems like a winner. Voters follow winners, not losers.
For many people, Trump appears to be a winner in life — at least in business. And he exudes the self-confidence that communicates success. No stench of personal or political failure here. His persona screams: winner.
And remember that human beings, after all, are pack animals — they travel in packs. Once he established himself as the leader of the GOP political pack, the sense of bandwagon has generated even more supporters. Bandwagon, after all, is an independent variable in politics.
All of this being the case, can Trump and his a new American Fascism triumph in this fall’s election?
We count him out at our own peril. The same people, who predicted he would never succeed in the primary, now argue that he will mean the demise of the Republican Party. That is entirely possible, but it won’t happen on its own.
America’s most important line of defense against Trump in the general election is, as it happens, one of his greatest strengths in the primary: America’s increasing diversity.
The fascists of Europe could scapegoat Jews because they were a very small percentage of the population. Trump has targeted Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans and he has certainly offended many women with his macho, patronizing rhetoric.
What’s more, millennials don’t even get the kind of racial and ethnic fear upon which Trump thrives.
Democrats must work hard to turnout all of those diverse constituencies in record numbers.
And to that, we have to add a clear, unequivocal populist economic message that demands an increase in the incomes of ordinary Americans — that demands that the political game can no longer be rigged through lobbyists and campaign contributors to benefit only corporate CEOs. We have to stand unequivocally for an economy that benefits everyone — not just the 1 percent and the wealthy. And we have to be completely clear that we are the party of economic growth because growth comes from the middle out — when ordinary people have money to spend in their pocket — not from the top down as some kind of “trickle down.”
Both of the Democratic contenders for president have adopted precisely that kind of message — and Democrats down the ballot must do so as well.
Progressives cannot afford to allow a consummate insider like Donald Trump to pretend that he is some sort of tribune for the working classes — or to position himself as an “outsider.” Donald Trump is about one thing: Donald Trump. And he has not hesitated to cut wages, outsource jobs, use bankruptcy to deprive workers and investors of what is theirs, and shamelessly use outright fraud.
And if Trump gets the nomination, we can’t be shy pointing out that in addition to his demagogic bigotry, and self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, he does not have the temperament to control the nuclear launch codes. If you think George W. Bush was a dangerous bull in a china closet when it came to America’s foreign policy — think about Donald Trump.
The rise of Donald Trump and his movement — and even if he doesn’t win, the Trumpification of the Republican Party — poses a grave danger to America. If Trump or Cruz become president it would be a tragedy beyond measure for our country.
But it also presents an historic opportunity for the progressive forces in America to win a wave election and move our country forward more fundamentally than at any other time in the last half century.
The only thing that is certain is that it’s up to us. After all, history is predetermined only by those who shape it.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.