The dangers of Trump’s “fascinating fascism”

By Roger Bowen

Three classic instances of fascism bloomed during the interwar years in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Japanese fascism was different from its European counterparts because it lacked a strong populist leader, but similar in that the fascist appeal attracted primarily older, less educated males who were members of the lower middle class and the working class. Germany and Italy, of course, had their fuhrers — Hitler and Mussolini — but Japanese fascism, like its German counterpart, preached purity of the race and suspicion of foreigners, and intentionally sought to appeal to emotion rather than reason.

The spirit of fascism has reared its ugly head again, but this time in the United States. “Trump” has quickly become a word used by white males in college to taunt students of other races. Two Northwestern University students recently defaced a chapel with swastikas, racist and homophobic slurs, and the word “Trump.” At Wichita State, a white man attacked a Muslim and a Hispanic student and repeatedly uttered “Trump” as he hit them. At several intercollegiate athletic events, white students chanted “Trump” at students of color who were supporting the opposition team.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said recently that he takes no responsibility for interracial conflicts at his rallies and, as widely reported, he even offered the services of his personal lawyer to defend an elderly white man who elbowed a young black man who was protesting against Trump’s use of racially divisive language.

One theory why such ugly incidents have taken place with ever greater frequency has less to do with The Donald himself and more to do with persistent forms of American racism evinced in the final year of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama. For seven years conservative white Americans have relentlessly lambasted Obama, from Mitch McConnell promising to make Obama a one-term president by blocking the President’s legislative initiatives to Donald Trump invoking the “birther” fantasy that denies Obama is an American citizen. Such older white men have tried to legitimize racism by cloaking their racial animus under the cover of partisan politics. Donald Trump’s dramatic rise as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee suggests that their tactics may be working.

President Obama agrees. He recently said, “Objectively, it’s fair to say that the Republican political elites and many of the information outlets — social media, news outlets, talk radio, television stations — have been feeding the Republican base for the last seven years a notion that everything I do is to be opposed; that cooperation or compromise somehow is betrayal.”

Oddly the conservative Wall Street Journal, which, as part of the Republican establishment, strongly opposes Trump’s candidacy, takes the editorial position that Obama himself is to blame for the rise of Trumpism. Obama, the Journal claims (e.g., see 12-13 March 2016), has presumed to speak on behalf of American values without having the moral authority to do so, and with the effect that all those who object to Obama’s liberal values “feel disenfranchised and powerless.” Trump, then, is merely the medium giving voice to the racist, homophobic, parochial, sexist, anti-foreign values of angry white guys. If only Obama had not championed gay rights, a cleaner environment, less war, better health care, outreach to Muslims, gender equality in the work place, fair treatment of all races, etc., then Donald Trump would not have the popular appeal he has today.

This is a recycled argument, echoing historians who have argued that Weimar Democracy (or interwar Italian democracy or Taisho democracy in Japan) paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The Journal’s reasoning: If Obama had been more conservative, Trump would have no political traction today. The Journal forgets that Obama was elected — twice — precisely because his liberal values captured the imagination of a majority of voters.

Voters in this election year should be diligent in combating the populist and fascistic appeal of The Donald. His xenophobia, flip-flop positions on the KKK, his hostility toward Muslims and Mexicans, his support of the use of torture and the punitive killing of terrorists’ families, his tendency to mock (or threaten lawsuit against) anyone who disagrees with him, and his tolerance of violent acts committed on his behalf are just some of the reasons to repudiate his candidacy. Yes, his is, as Susan Sontag said of Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl’s views, a “fascinating fascism.” A businessman who abhors political correctness, Trump knows squat about the Constitution and public and foreign policy, and is as self-regarding as any egoist in political history — but his fascinating fascism also poses horrific danger to democracy which, as history shows, may help usher in an era of fascism.

Roger Bowen is a political scientist living in Prospect Harbor. He is author of “Japan’s Dysfunctional Democracy.”

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