Sunday, April 15, 2018

Not All Fascists Have Funny Mustaches

Madeleine Albright's new book, "Fascism: A Warning," paints a rather alarming portrait not only of Donald Trump, but of the world in general. She writes,
If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.
 In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Albright elaborates further,
Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II. 
Warning signs include the relentless grab for more authority by governing parties in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland and Turkey — all United States allies. The raw anger that feeds fascism is evident across the Atlantic in the growth of nativist movements opposed to the idea of a united Europe, including in Germany, where the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland has emerged as the principal opposition party. The danger of despotism is on display in the Russia of Vladimir Putin — invader of Ukraine, meddler in foreign democracies, accused political assassin, brazen liar and proud son of the K.G.B. Putin has just been re-elected to a new six-year term, while in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, a ruthless ideologue, is poised to triumph in sham balloting next month. In China, Xi Jinping has persuaded a docile National People’s Congress to lift the constitutional limit on his tenure in power.
While Albright is careful not to accuse Trump of being a fascist, she does refer to him as "the most undemocratic president" in American history, which is quite a statement, given that Richard Nixon once occupied the Oval Office.

Critics of Albright would say she is being hyperbolic in her assertions. But I would say, given what we've seen from this president and the effect he has had in this country and across the globe, Albright may have hit the nail on the head.

One of the problems I see in trying to figure out Trump is that he doesn't seem to fit into any paradigm of known political figures. If we simply examine his past, he's primarily been a reality TV star with a flare for some rather eccentric statements. Prior to the election of Barack Obama, Trump described himself as a Democrat. He was more attuned to the liberal New York media, concerned only with ratings and buying up as much property as he could. As a businessman, he's had a sordid past, filing for bankruptcy six times and being the subject of several high-profile lawsuits.

But then he developed nativist tendencies during the Obama years. He became a birther and stoked fears within the alt-right to a fever pitch. He adopted a populist message during the 2016 campaign that resonated with a cross-section of the American electorate, which led to a surprising upset of Hillary Clinton.

But it has been his affinity for despots and his constant berating of established institutions like the free press and the justice system since he assumed office that has worried constitutional scholars the most. He may come across as a spoiled brat desperately in need of a time out, but the manner in which he chooses his words on Twitter suggests a far more sinister plot is at work here.

In an interview on The View, Albright referenced Mussolini, who once said that if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time nobody notices. When I think of Trump, the picture that comes to mind isn't so much a chicken getting plucked, but rather a constant drip, drip, drip effect. In short, Trump has so thoroughly pushed the envelope of accepted norms that one gets exhausted just keeping up with him.

And that may in fact be the method to his madness. Trump and his cohorts are counting on most of us becoming so weary of his antics that we ignore what's going on in the background, e.g., the systematic dismantling of the State Department, the politicalization of the Justice Department, the rollbacks of regulations and rewriting of laws that would otherwise act as a check on his authority. It is one thing to get into a Twitter war with the "failing" New York Times; it is quite another to change the libel laws, as he has threatened doing on more than one occasion.

There has been this temptation to simply brand Trump as some run of the mill narcissist who got lucky at just the right moment in American history; a man with no moral compass, bereft of any ideals or values; the consummate transactional president who lacks the intellectual curiosity to appreciate the enormity of the position he now holds. And to a large extent that is true.

But equally true is the fact that Trump, for all his depraved bombast, exhibits fascist tendencies that are every bit as reprehensible as those of his contemporaries like Putin in Russia and Kim in North Korea. He is to this century what Mussolini and Hitler were to theirs. The only thing separating Trump from a complete takeover of power is the incredible resiliency of the United States Constitution. And for that we can thank the Founders.

Not all fascists have funny mustaches; some just have incredibly bad combovers. Madeleine Albright understands that. And so should we.

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