Between the G6, the Singapore summit, and now the abomination unfolding on the Mexican border, the last two weeks have brought into far sharper focus what has been apparent since 2015: that Donald Trump’s vision for America is an authoritarian dictatorship, with him as the Great Leader for life.
The term “fascism” derives from the Italian “fascismo,” the Benito Mussolini movement which wed authoritarian governance with corporate-designed policies. For my entire adult life, dating to Ronald Reagan, elements of the left have called (mostly Republican) US leaders and policies fascist. In the Mussolini sense of corporate rule, the term has largely been accurate. For that matter, Amazon’s recent repeal of Seattle’s Employee Hours Tax meets that definition as well.
But what is now happening in Donald Trump’s presidency more closely tracks with the much more notorious 20th Century example of fascism.
“First, they came for immigrant babies, and I did not speak out, for I was not an immigrant baby…”
Only ten days ago, Donald Trump spurned and ridiculed the democratically leaders of what have traditionally been America’s closest allies. He went directly from that to a “summit” with perhaps the world’s single worst domestic human rights abuser, and spent the rest of the week singing that dictator’s praises – as he routinely does with bloodthirsty despots, who he invariably expresses admiration for.
The contrast between those two events underscored what Trump is clearly pining to do: replace the long-standing global political and economic dominance of Western democracies with a new global regime, dominated by the world’s three biggest authoritarian dictatorships: China, Russia, and the Trump-led United States.
Now, the literal kidnapping and disappearing of children and babies from their parents – parents who in many cases were trying to follow the proper legal steps for applying for political asylum, and themselves did nothing illegal – has been dragged out of the shadows and into the glare of world-wide outrage. And it just keeps getting worse.
Tonight, there have been three new developments: an AP report that the government is scrambling to establish what it is calls “tender age shelters” – a particularly nasty euphemism for baby prisons; a Capitol Hill meeting in which Trump reportedly told outraged lawmakers that he would stop his policy only if his wall is built; and multiple reports that officials in the Trump White House are delighted with the outrage they have intentionally provoked, in the belief that not only Trump’s base, but a majority of Americans share their racist obsession with using the most barbaric imaginable tactics against their randomly selected, brown-skinned victims. That even with the near-certainty that many of these parents will never see their children again, and that some of those kids will die as a result, a majority of Americans share their belief that such lives are meaningless.
How is this any different from the attitudes that prompted Hitler to target Jews, or Rwanda’s Hutus to massacre the Tutsi?
In these and so many other historical examples, authoritarian leaders justified their absolute power by whipping up the fear and anger of their supporters against a minority. There is little doubt that Donald Trump wants absolute power, chafes at our government’s limits on it (whether in Congress, the courts, media, the Mueller investigation, or the streets), and has been moving as quickly as he can since his inauguration to tear down existing democratic institutions and norms.
Remember, on the eve of the 2016 election, when polls had Clinton in the lead and Trump was telling his followers that the election was “rigged”? (Turns out it was, but that’s not what he meant.) There’s every reason now to fear that if Trump is impeached or simply loses (or thinks he might lose) the 2020 election, he won’t go. That’s what aspiring dictatorships do.
This wholly intentional controversy is a critical moment because it represents more than simply another instance of Trump’s steady efforts to destroy norms, push at the bounds of law and decency, and see what he can get away with. This is a policy, not law; it can be stopped, in our political system, by either Congress or the courts.
Congress, of course, is controlled by a Republican Party now wholly dominated by Trump. His congressional allies have, so far, almost always defended him, through outrage after scandal after crime. And Trump has, with the help of those congressional allies, been packing the federal courts with far-right ideological zealots at an unprecedented pace. The longer this goes on, the less likely it becomes that courts will rule against even the most horrifying Trump actions.
An ACLU lawsuit in San Diego will be the first court ruling on Trump’s border separation policy; and numerous local elected officials are taking actions to distance themselves from that policy. These are important steps, as are the countless rallies, direct actions, and other events springing up by the hour now as an expression of popular rage. But the plain fact is that nothing can truly stop Trump from these and further outrages except his removal from office. Trump and his literal and figurative crime family want this policy, and the outrage it has provoked. They’re almost certainly taking notes for future, hoped-for purges. As morally and legally repellent as Trump’s policy is, the need to resist it goes far beyond ending its specific abuses.
This month has been, for many Americans, the first time that Donald Trump’s dreams for an openly fascist, authoritarian government have come into sharp enough relief to break through lifetimes of denial that such a thing would even be possible. But it is. Understanding what Trump is truly about goes against our indoctrination, pretty much from the cradle, in American exceptionalism and in the the permanence and moral superiority of American democracy. As recently as a decade ago, there was widespread national disbelief that our government would torture people – and that was on foreign soil. Now, our government is instituting widespread, intentional, widespread torture and child abuse in ordinary American cities.
There’s nothing unique about human nature in America that immunizes us against the worst things human beings can do to each other.
What happens next matters a lot – not just for the sake of immigrants and their families, but for the future of the US as a flawed but basically free society. If a majority of Americans can now see where this road leads, but still can’t or won’t stop that train from running on time, we are in deep trouble – collectively and as individuals.
Now is not the time to tweet your dismay or shout at a windowless building or set up circular firing squads. Now is the time to unify and resist – and to keep resisting, in ways both creative and ordinary, through truth-telling and organizing and building alternative institutions, in elections and on the streets, until Donald Trump and his fascist enablers are driven far, far away from any positions of power.
The longer we wait, the harder it will be to succeed.