[It was 26 degrees this morning at 5:30 a.m. when I began my walk -- minus 5 Celsius, for my overseas readers -- and as I walked, I reflected that perhaps Hell was truly freezing over. To warm myself, I devoted some time to reflecting on our current political situation. Herewith the product of my perambulatory musings.]
I return today to a subject on which I have had something to say recently, namely how to think about the many threats posed by a Trump presidency. This is a complex subject, for the threats are almost too numerous to list. In this post I will speak only of the domestic threats. The international military and economic threats are a subject for another post.
The first threat is that the new administration will be deeply hostile to almost everything that progressives have worked for and yearned for these past fifty years. The cabinet will be filled with individuals on record as opposing public education, environmental regulation, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, women’s reproductive rights, public housing, and virtually every other progressive domestic program that has been enacted, or that progressives have worked to enact. The new administration will be belligerently pro-business and pro-finance, it will vigorously oppose raising the minimum wage and indeed would probably favor eliminating the minimum wage altogether. It will fight against any sorts of safety regulations designed to protect workers. It will be hostile on religious grounds to Muslim Americans, will oppose any sort of normalization of the legal status of eleven million undocumented residents, and will in all likelihood seek to expel even those brought here as children from other countries who are law-abidingly pursuing the American dream. The new administration will be opposed to all reform of the mass incarceration system by means of which the state has imprisoned and then denied political rights to a large segment of America’s Black population. It will of course resist even such minor regulations of gun ownership and use as it has been possible to consider politically in this gun-crazy culture. In short, a progressive American’s nightmare, a conservative Republican’s wet dream.
We know how to fight these battles, for we have been fighting them since World War Two. We are not without weapons, including a Senate contingent of Democrats three votes from control. It is imperative that starting now we throw our support behind those elected officials who are fighting against the tidal wave of reactionary legislation coming our way. This means money, it means public statements, and it means volunteering for the mid-term elections two years from now.
All of this is familiar territory, but vitally important nonetheless. My strong belief is that each of us should fight in the way we find most comfortable for whatever we care about most. If I am focused on the minimum wage and you care intensely about the environment, we do not have a dispute, any more than the violins and the oboes of an orchestra have a dispute, or the foot soldiers and the fighter pilots have a dispute in a war. None of us has the power to make more than a little difference, so let each of us do what comes naturally. But for God’s sake let us all do something.
The second threat is that the new president will seek to use the repressive weapons of the state – the FBI, the IRS, the Justice Department – to attack and punish anyone who criticizes him. We have already seen the beginnings of this, six weeks before he is to be inaugurated. This too is familiar territory for those of us old enough, as I am, to remember Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover. Indeed, I have the honor of having been personally attacked by Westbrook Pegler and Spiro Agnew, a fact of which I am so proud that I list it under “Special Accomplishments” in my curriculum vitae. It was ugly then, and it will get ugly now.
We need to be strong, we need to be outspoken, we need to stand by those attacked regardless of whether we agree with them politically, and we must never make the mistake of imagining that the outcome is foreordained. The lives of a great many men and women were destroyed before those earlier horrors ended. Nor do we have the luxury of relying upon a courageous and principled press and media establishment. Many of those supposedly on the left in the media with the most high profile positions have already begun to kowtow to the president to be. Our strongest weapon is solidarity. Trump can be counted on to attack those well to our right as well as those whom we are accustomed to calling comrades. We must stand by them all. It would be a desperate mistake to take a malicious pleasure in the discomfiture of those we consider our foes, and to imagine that we need defend against unconstitutional attacks only those we call brothers and sisters. If the truth of this statement is not clear, I shall be happy to devote a post to explaining it.
But it is the third threat that frightens me the most, and that is the threat of incipient fascism in America. I use the term “fascism” descriptively, not pejoratively. Trump may be a narcissistic buffoon with attention deficit disorder, but he is also a man seized by a megalomaniac ambition and self-conception who seeks to circumvent all constitutional and conventional restraints on his power by whipping up irrational passions in his followers, focusing those passions on those stigmatized as outsiders, and using the instruments of the state to repress those he understands as his enemies. That is fascism.
Am I saying this is Weimar Germany? No, not at all. Germany’s situation in the thirties was quite different from America’s situation today. But am I saying that fascism can come to America as it same to Germany? Yes, I am, and rather more easily than we might like to imagine.
What to do? This is very definitely not a threat I have lived through personally, and I do not have the wisdom of experience to call on. The first thing we must do, over and over without relenting, is to use the right words to describe what we see. We will be mocked for using the word “fascist.” What is more, those who favor the substantive domestic policies described above will be loath to acknowledge the threat before them, even if they are horrified by it, for fear that they will lose this chance to enact the legislation they have so longed dreamed of. This is a serious problem, and we must think about how to deal with it.
Were I a religious man, I would turn to Scripture for guidance, but that, alas, is denied me. Perhaps I may end on a happier note by quoting Marx, who is neither God nor Evangel, but was, nonetheless, a man of superlative insight and wit. As we struggle for ways to think about Trump and his relation to Hitler or Mussolini, let us recall the opening words of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”