Monday, August 24, 2015

The Accidental Fascist

It's always dangerous to compare stuff to Hitler. There's even a well-known internet term, Godwin's Law, that warns against comparing stuff to Hitler. It's meant to underscore the point that comparing relatively minor items to Nazi Germany both exaggerates the contemporary harm and trivializes the historic horror. There's also a school of thought that, though there have sadly been many genocides before and since, the Holocaust was somehow historically unique and it's offensive to compare anything, even other genocides, to it.

So I know I'm walking a fine line here.

But let's look at America today, specifically at the current, unlikely Republican frontrunner.

Donald Trump is a man on a white horse who claims he and only he, through his unique personal qualities, can save us from this mess. He is simultaneously buffoonish yet charismatic, hostile to the political system, has a ridiculous haircut, and relies on simplistic, nationalistic slogans. He's obsessed with who is and isn't a citizen, and yet promises to maintain popular pensions and benefits for the "deserving" citizens. And most of all he scapegoats an unpopular ethnic group and promises to solve the "problem" by making them... go away.

You know who else? Way, way before he had power, when he was just a nut screaming in a tavern:
4. Only those who are our fellow countrymen can become citizens. Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen. Hence no Jew can be a countryman.
5. Those who are not citizens must live in Germany as foreigners and must be subject to the law of aliens.
7. We demand that the State shall above all undertake to ensure that every citizen shall have the possibility of living decently and earning a livelihood. If it should not be possible to feed the whole population, then aliens (non-citizens) must be expelled from the Reich.
8. Any further immigration of non-Germans must be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans who have entered Germany since August 2, 1914, shall be compelled to leave the Reich immediately.
-from the 25 Points of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, as announced by Adolf Hitler February 24, 1920

Yes, the first step down that long and horrible road was defining rights in terms of citizenship and defining citizenship to exclude specific groups.

I'm not calling anyone a Nazi here. But it sure looks like a duck and talks like a duck and steps like a goose.

There's a more apt, and less deliberately inflammatory, comparison, but I had to get your attention first with the deliberately inflammatory Hitler thing.

The more apt comparison would be to the current European nationalist parties that, fueled by hostility to "different" immigrants (replace our Hispanics with Muslims) have grown over the past few years, outfits like England's UKIP and France's National Front and Greece's Golden Dawn:
When Trump leaped to the head of the Republican field, he delivered the appearance of legitimacy to a moral vision once confined to the fevered fringe, elevating fantasies from the message boards and campgrounds to the center stage of American life. In doing so, he pulled America into a current that is coursing through other Western democracies—Britain, France, Spain, Greece, Scandinavia—where xenophobic, nationalist parties have emerged since the 2008 economic crisis to besiege middle-ground politicians. In country after country, voters beset by inequality and scarcity have reached past the sober promises of the center-left and the center-right to the spectre of a transcendent solution, no matter how cruel.
I've fretted about this for years, thinking that this sort of ultra-nationalist party was lurking in our future, just below the surface, and that there was a niche in a Republican primary for whichever candidate took the harshest anti-immigrant position. But I bet wrong in 2007 when I thought Tom Tancredo was going to break out of the pack.

Maybe he was just eight years too early and a few billion short?

Folks like Steve King always stop just short of saying mass deportation, saying "enforce the law" but not elaborating. The target audience was supposed to put two and two together, and not quite say it. From Trump's Alabama rally:
Trump’s appeal to Leo Renaldo, is, “That he’s going to send them packing,” explained the 65-year-old, who drove four hours from Mississippi for the event, before his wife interjected, telling him, “Don’t say that.”
And I thought Steve King was smart in not saying that...

Until Donald Trump said it and immediately skyrocketed in the polls.

They say the arc of the universe is toward progress, but that's only if you project your graph into a trend line. Zoom in on the individual data points, and it looks more like two steps forward, one back, one forward, two back, three sideways and one forward.

And Trumpism is a big step back. 

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross. - attributed to Sinclair Lewis
This is only a little bit about Donald Trump the man. This is about an ugly undercurrent of American history, a thread that runs through the Anti-Masonic Party and the Know Nothings and the secessionists and the segregationists.  We're not immune to the disease simply because we're a nation of immigrants - having successfully genocided two continents full of natives who were not immune to our diseases.

I saw Trump a couple months ago in Coralville, just before he announced he was running.  Some of the rhetoric was there, including Mexico paying for the border wall.  But it was still taking shape, and mass deportation wasn't in the mix yet.

My guess is Trump stumbled into the anti-immigrant niche and, being nothing if not a brilliant self-promoter, he saw a market to exploit.
While most elite-funded and elite-supported Republicans want to increase immigration and decrease Social Security, a significant number of voters (across both parties) want precisely the opposite — to increase Social Security and decrease immigration. So when Trump speaks out both against immigration and against fellow Republicans who want to cut Social Security, he's speaking out for a lot people.
And the more Trump rides the wave, the more the ugliness is openly expressed. In promoting himself - which is still what I think he's all about - Trump has taken skinhead ideas, combed over them, and dressed them up in a custom tailored suit.

Donald Trump, of all people, has accidentally discovered American neo-fascism.

I don't even know if he believes half the crap he says or not. Doesn't matter. He's cynically speaking to the worst in us, rather than the best in us, and a lot of his new found supporters are buying it. That's what matters.

What is this, then, if not fascism
Anyone who is in the state of Iowa that who is not here legally and who cannot demonstrate their legal status to the satisfaction of the local and state authorities here in the State of Iowa, become property of the State of Iowa. So if you are here without our permission, and we have given you two months to leave, and you're still here, and we find that you're still here after we we've given you the deadline to leave, then you become property of the State of Iowa. And we have a job for you. And we start using compelled labor, the people who are here illegally would therefore be owned by the state and become an asset of the state rather than a liability and we start inventing jobs for them to do.
You know who ELSE had forced labor camps.

Trumpism has a special American flavor of course, seasoned heavily with anti-feminism and anti-"political correctness" and with America's unique attitude toward economic class that has working stiffs actually identifying with trump.

But it's emerging faster here than it did in other countries. UKIP had been slogging along for a decade and a half before their "breakout" to 13% of the national vote in May's election. But Trump has leaped to roughly that level of overall national support (take his close to 30% in GOP polls and chop it in half) in mere weeks.

Some of that of course is our celebrity-obsessed culture, and some of that is his deep pockets. And some of that is our systemic dysfunction... and that worries me, because systemic dysfunction is what allows fringe groups to gain a foothold.

The only good news here is that these ultra-nationalist movements tend to peak at about 20, 25% of the full electorate. (Trump may be polling close to 30, but that's just for the GOP nomination, so factor in Democrats and chop it in half to get 15.) Even Hitler only peaked at 37% in a free election, and if Weimar Germany had been even slightly more functional he could have been stopped.

So I'm confident that America will ultimately reject this sort of anti-immigrant ultra-nationalism. Trumpism will collapse of its own internal contradictions.

But these kinds of movements can hurt a lot of people on the road to their demise. Figuratively and literally:
So two yahoos from Southie in my hometown of Boston severely beat up a Hispanic homeless guy earlier this week. While being arrested, one of the brothers reportedly told police that "Donald Trump was right, all of these illegals need to be deported."
You know who else...
Trumpism has already shifted the rhetoric of the other 17,391 Republican presidential candidates. No longer is anyone talking about a comprehensive reform plan. Now the rhetoric is about taking citizenship away from people who already have it.

I'm not arguing that every immigration reform policy short of permanent residency and path to citizenship, which I prefer, is "fascist." There are reasonable points of disagreement within both parties.

But certain items should be beyond the pale, and the mass deportation of 11 million people would be nothing short of a human rights crime.

For the record. No. I do not think Donald Trump is Hitler, and I do not think all his supporters are der Sturmabteilung. Some people sincerely, if simplistically, think a businessman should run the country, despite the vast differences between business and government.  Others haven't thought through all the implications of mass deportation, or are just drawn by the larger than life personality.  And we can't forget that at least 3/4 of Republicans, to their credit, continue to oppose Trump, and while he's the leading first choice (easy in a 17 way race) he's also the leading LAST choice.

I don't think Trump is Mussolini or Generalissimo Francisco Franco either. But I do think Trump is America's Nigel Farage or Marine LePen, and that's bad enough.

While the National Front is still strong in France, the nation had a moment of truth in 2002. They have a two-stage presidential election system, and the main party of the left was eliminated in the first round, setting up a runoff between incumbent Jacques Chirac (by American standards an old school moderate Republican) and Jean-Marie LePen of the National Front.

The entire political spectrum, from the Communists to the near right, rallied behind Chirac with the goal of defeating the National Front as soundly as possible.

The structure of our system is different, of course. The moment of truth will arrive in the Republican primary process. But I think - I HOPE - we rise to that moment and remember what America is supposed to be about.

No comments: