By Richard Kagan
Recently, there has been a spate of predictions about fascism coming to America. Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, has just published “Fascism: A Warning” which like a political phone book lists the many threats President Trump has made to our democracy. Professor Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” provides an historical catalogue of examples describing how fascism has implanted itself in Europe in the last century. Both of these works equip the reader to understand the menace of a fascist future.
I would like to join with Paul Revere in sounding a signal about the threat of fascism to American democracy.
It is not helpful to call President Trump a fascist. This is like calling a CEO a bank or corporation. He may have the personality of a fascist, but he does not make the system of fascism. Nor is he the primary cause. Let me explain.
Certainly “Fascism” may be represented by a leader like Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, or the actions of Trump, however, it is better understood as a system of government. Laurence W. Britt published the most thorough and understandable definition of the term with fourteen categories. I will just list a few that are either part of our government or are becoming transplanted there.
Fascism creates a demography of fear: the enemy vs. the innocent. The division between the two is caused by xenophobia and scapegoating. In America, the abuse is fueled and justified by racism. Fascism in America became most prominent after the Civil War during the repeal of Reconstruction and the fight for Civil Rights.
A “Unifying Cause” for these attitudes ascribes evilness to one group and
virtue to the other. The marshaling of violence against this threatening enemy orchestrates an “obsession with national security, and with crime and punishment.” Today, our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has ordered the upgrade of the misdemeanors by undocumented immigrants to felonies. He has also allowed for the separation of mothers from their children during the incarceration of alleged undocumented immigrants.
The divide between religion and government is narrowed if not fused. With regard to the ruling philosophy of the government, the Constitution and the legal system are secondary to the tight relationship between religion and government. The admiration of the Ten Commandments reaches higher praise than the equal rights of all citizens.
The primary function of the government in domestic affairs is the enrichment of corporate power and financial elites. This emphasis on serving the wealthy leads to “rampant cronyism, and corruption” combined with anti-labor policies. This result is clearly observable in our government today. At no time has there been as much greed and self-aggrandizement in the executive branch. And the Congress has been unwilling to investigate or hold the executive branch to the law.
Two other preoccupations dominate the political and social lives of fascist governance. The military is supreme. This supremacy is not just in their sumptuous budget allowance. The military achieves high status with the glorification of their power and strength through the control of expensive weapons and lavish parades.
The stark example of this affection for the military occurred when President Trump declared to the Generals sitting around him that the FBI’s seizure of Michael Cohen’s files was “an attack on our country.”. This response implies that any criticism of the President and his inner circle should be seen as an attack against the United States. AS Frank Bruni interpreted this remark, it is “a blunt, unqualified phrase that you associate with planes dropping bombs or tearing into skyscrapers.” Bruni ends his column in the New York Times with the admonition that we should be more scared of the future.
The key to this fascist mentality is the fantasy that masculine leadership is a superior force. And in America or Europe it only exists in the white race. Other races or ethnicities are considered to be inferior and not worthy of citizenship or equal treatment. Linked to this patriarchal value system is the active promotion of misogyny or rampant sexism. Where women are seen in power, they are chosen for their gender loyalty to the leadership or elite. They are followers, interpreters, office aids and often in alliance with the offices of enforcement and control.
The executive order for using the National Guard at our border with Mexico clearer is Revere about fascism. This tour of duty provides an obvious opportunity to nurture a fascist community of military, border guards, Homeland Security, and governors along our borders. General Mattis has made no doubt about the use of these troops: They “will interact with migrants” or other detainees. This is a threat to many lives on both sides of the border. No matter if one is guilty or innocent, their existence as Hispanics lights them up as a target for suspicion that will result in interrogation, intimidation, and possibly physical abuse and detention. News of mistreatment will travel quickly throughout the communities in both nations resulting in an inevitable anger and suspicion of America. Novels like “Sulfur Springs” by William Krueger dramatically narrate the mixture of lives, motivations, and violence that percolate along the border among the Border Guards, the police, the families—both Caucasian and Hispanic—the humanitarian volunteers, and the drug dealers. Introducing the National Guard will only exacerbate the tragedies while paving a way for an American style fascism to become embedded along the Rio Grande.
A key identity marker for fascism is martial law through the police or National Guard. President Trump declared his policy and purpose: “We’re going to be doing things militarily. Until we can have a wall.” This open ended and vague declaration of intent is ominous due to the lack of a strategy. He has initiated the uninhibited threat of military force and the presumed use of martial law through the national guard or the armed forces. What makes this use of troops significantly different from President Bush and President Obama’s dispatch of National Guard units, is its threatened long-term demand. President Trump is making one of his deals: it is called a ransom. The troops must remain until the Wall is complete. Or until the Congress agrees to finance the Wall. Not law, not the Constitution, nor Human Rights are the principled foundations for this deal. What is important is the threat, the bullying, and the lack of any anchor in democratic practice.
The purpose of this column is to lay out an analytical way to understand the nature of
fascism and to use a due diligence checklist of topics to determine when it is occurring in America. We need to be clear headed about the term. Not just use it against a person as in calling him or her a fascist. We are talking about a series of institutional behaviors which are destructive of democracy which attack our founding principles of “the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.”
A final note. The origin of the word fascism is all you really need to know about the meaning of the term. In 1915, Mussolini adopted the term for his political party. Fascim refers to “a bundle” wooden rods which included an axe. The brutality represented by the word conveys the system and the people who administer it.
This editorial was originally published in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. It is reprinted with permission.
Dr. Kagan is a regular contributor to the Asian American Press and is considered a foremost scholar on Taiwan and China. He is a professor emeritus of East Asian history at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.