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Why America Won’t Go Fascist

Strong civil society makes today’s United States more resistant than 1930s Germany

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Let’s start with a dual premise:

  1. Donald Trump ≠ Adolf Hitler
    Both ran for office promising to make their countries great again, and both wrote self-aggrandizing books before gaining power. But Mein Kampf is a political manifesto and advocates genocide, while Art of the Deal isn’t and doesn’t.
  2. Trump’s campaign and presidency exhibit some fascist tendencies
    I don’t mean Donald Trump is a Nazi (see premise 1), just that he ran and leads in a way that bears closer resemblance to fascism in theory and practice than other post-WWII American presidents.

Fascist principles exhibited by Trump include:

Nationalism

Presents a zero-sum worldview, in which other countries gaining means America is losing. Prioritizes loyalty over individual liberty.

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” — inaugural address, January 20

Authoritarianism

Seen in Trump’s early reliance on executive orders, insistence that favorable fictions take precedence over objective truth (FAKE NEWS!), and general disrespect for democratic norms.

“The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” — top aide Stephen Miller, February 12

Militarism

Adopts an aggressive posture, nominates former military leaders to senior positions, advocates conquest of natural resources.

“ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because of the oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, they have some in Iraq, I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers, and that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left. And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months, you ever see these guys? How good they are, the great oil companies, they’ll rebuild it brand new… And I’ll take the oil.” — November 13, 2015

Populism

Claims extraordinary authority as an avatar of “the people” (meaning supporters, rather than everyone), attacks elites, and associates the nation more with a cultural identity than a system of laws.

Scapegoating Minorities

Among many possible examples: Trump played up an attack at the Louvre in France on February 3rd, in which a Muslim man with a knife killed no one, while ignoring an attack in Quebec on January 29th, in which a white man killed 6 at a Mosque.

“When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” — announcing his candidacy, June 16, 2015

Conspiracy Theories

Fascist leaders often blame problems on subversive elements, both without and within.

Corporatism

Seen in the president’s refusal to divest from Trump International, White House promotion of Trump family business interests, the crony capitalist deal with Carrier, tweets about individual companies, etc.

“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” — January 11, 2017

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Trump isn’t Hitler, and the Republicans aren’t Nazis. But the president’s fascist-like tendencies have prompted fears that the United States could slip into a uniquely American form of authoritarianism.

So many writers have drawn parallels between the start of the Trump era and pre-Nazi Germany it’s already large enough to be it’s own journalistic genre. In a typical example, Vox ran an article with this headline: “Post-truth is pre-fascism: a Holocaust historian on the Trump era.”

However, despite some similarities between today’s United States and the European countries that went fascist in the 20th century, there are some important, under-appreciated differences. Italy had WWI, a subsequently depressed economy, and constant government turnover before Mussolini took over in 1922. Germany was devastated by WWI and the Great Depression. Spain had the Depression and then a Civil War. But the American economy, civil society, and public institutions are all stronger, making the country less susceptible to fascist takeover.

I. The Economy

The Financial Crisis and Great Recession were painful, and negative effects still linger. But, even though it started off like the Great Depression, the overall experience ended up a lot milder.

Stock indices crashed just as hard in the United States, and harder around the world, but avoided the Depression’s lows.

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Global trade dropped more severely at the start of the Great Recession, but coordinated international efforts to avoid protectionism helped it rebound.

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TARP stabilized the U.S. financial system and bank stress tests mitigated panic-inducing uncertainty. Meanwhile, automatic stabilizers (unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc.), along with fiscal and monetary stimulus, helped maintain demand.

As a result, the U.S. economy shrank for three quarters from the end of 2008 through mid-2009. That compares to almost four years of negative growth starting in 1929.

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Also, the Federal Reserve used Quantitative Easing to prevent the Depression’s devastating deflation.

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Most important for politics, all of these factors kept job losses far below Great Depression levels.

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As that graph shows, the rate of job loss was similar at the beginning of both crises. However, thanks to a superior policy response, the unemployment rate peaked at 10% in October 2009, compared to 25% in 1933.

In January 1933 when the Nazis seized power, German unemployment was nearly 30%.

The American economy in 2017 has some problems, but the unemployment rate is 4.8%. Using the more expansive U-6 measure — which, unlike the official U-3, includes people who gave up looking for work, and those involuntarily working part-time — the rate is 9.4%. And U-6 peaked at 17.1%.

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With relatively low unemployment, growing GDP (albeit not as fast as we’d like), and stock markets reaching record highs, the current American economy is much stronger than Germany’s in the 1930s. As a result, fewer Americans are looking for a scapegoat, and more will oppose dramatic changes.

Mussolini had the MVSN (the Blackshirts) and Hitler had the SA (the Brownshirts) — paramilitary wings of their parties, loyal to them personally. Filled with angry, formerly-unemployed young men, these militias were instrumental in the fascists taking and holding power. The SA notoriously carried out many attacks against German Jews, including the mass violence of Kristallnacht in November 1938.

Since Trump’s election, the United States has seen an increase in antisemitic and racist graffiti, such as swastikas spray-painted onto synagogues. Latino students report increased bullying in schools. In February, a white man shot two Indian tech workers— legal residents — in Kansas, yelling “get out of my country.”

These incidents are concerning, but nowhere near the organized violence of the Brownshirts. A stronger economy means fewer potential recruits, and fewer citizens, both in and out of law enforcement, willing to look the other way.

II. Civil Society and Public Institutions

World War I wiped out a generation of German men and broke the German military. The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for the war and forced the Germans to pay reparations, harming their economy and humiliating their military, government, and people.

Nothing about the modern United States comes close. Donald Trump might say the military is “depleted,” but in post-WWI Germany, that was actually true.

The president may denounce overseas spending — from stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to support for allies in Europe and East Asia — like Hitler denounced war reparations. But a democratically elected American government made those choices, it wasn’t imposed by others.

Regardless, no matter what one thinks of American money supporting other countries, the U.S. economy, unlike Great Depression Germany, can handle it.

Without any equivalent of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, American civil society is in much better shape, which means there are more unofficial checks on Trump than Hitler.

The president’s attacks on the media have jolted the Fourth Estate out of Republican-said/Democrat-said stenography. And his administration’s attempts to push “alternative facts” have been met with strong pushback from all but the most pro-Trump outlets.

Congress has the most power to check the executive, and, with Trump’s party controlling both houses, it shows limited interest in opposing him. But remember, we’re not talking about normal political disagreements on health, tax, or education policy, but violations of the Constitution and a slide into authoritarianism.

Republicans seem willing to look the other way on Trump and his family’s numerous conflicts of interest — and the president’s refusal to release his tax returns — to maintain party unity. However, if things go further, public protests, angry constituents at town halls, media criticism, public embarrassment, and rebukes from donors could change some of their minds. Especially the few in swing districts.

Additionally, some Republicans, such as hawkish foreign policy Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, support investigations into whether the administration is compromised by Russia, as well as associated inquiries into perjury and obstruction.

And then there’s the courts. Federal judges struck down Trump’s first attempt at a travel/refugee ban. He rescinded it and tried again, but on March 19, a District Court judge in Hawaii issued a restraining order against the second version.

Banning travel from some Muslim-majority countries does not amount to fascism. Nor does stepping up efforts to reduce illegal immigration. But worst-case scenarios see those actions as precursors to something drastic, such as Muslim concentration camps, or forcibly deporting Latino Americans.

However, as accounts of Nazi Germany demonstrate, drastic actions don’t come out of nowhere. There’s a build up, a series of smaller measures, a “first they came for…”

But in 2017, Americans are speaking out.

After Trump announced the first ban, the ACLU collected over $24 million in online donations in three days, about six times the amount they raise online each year. And many law firms that provide low cost and pro bono services to immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are hiring thanks to spikes in donations.

American civil society is alive and well. Compared to 1930s Germany, the percentage of the population that feels it has nothing to lose is a lot smaller.

III. The “Deep State”

This is the conspiracy theory du jour, which means there are different definitions.

Left-wing versions prominently feature billionaires and corporations, and often include international dimensions (as in “who really runs the world”). The original idea comes from Turkey, where military coups overthrew elected governments because, they claimed, it was necessary to protect Ataturk’s founding vision.

But the basic idea is there are many individuals with positions that give them inside knowledge and governmental power who are not really accountable to the public. Federal employees, working in the foreign service, intelligence community, military, and various agencies, develop their own procedures, and hire and train their own people. The agencies are subject to Congressional committees and president-appointed bosses, but to a significant extent they do their own thing.

Many of the deep state theories that have become popular on the right — promoted by Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, and others — incorrectly assume a shared agenda and way too much coordination, requiring superhuman perfection to pull off.

However, it is fair to say unelected officials have exerted outsized political influence over the last year. For example, in late October, FBI agents threatened to leak additional details of the email investigation into Hillary Clinton, which put pressure on FBI Director James Comey.

I’m skeptical of claims Comey decided the election. There are too many variables in the final days to isolate one. However, the FBI rarely offers public comments on any investigation, let alone about a presidential candidate so close to an election.

Comey surely knew the headlines it would generate. He bears responsibility for his decision, but he made it knowing that information about Clinton’s emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop would become public knowledge, one way or the other.

Now elements of the deep state are in open revolt against Trump. (Well, open revolt for them, meaning they’re leaking a lot to reporters). Portions of the intelligence community believe he’s compromised by Russia, dangerously incompetent on foreign policy, and/or an insult to their agency and the country.

On January 21, one day after his inauguration, President Trump spoke at CIA headquarters in Langley. He gave his speech in front of the Memorial Wall, where 117 stars honor people from the Agency who died in the line of duty.

Trump used the opportunity to complain about the press, and argue about the number of people at his inauguration. He also brought a group of staffers to cheer him on.

The performance probably reinforced some negative opinions.

Since Trump’s inauguration, people with access to the White House leaked:

  • The transcript of the president’s phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which went poorly.
  • The transcript of his phone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. Armed Forces to Mexico to deal with “bad hombres down there.” The administration tried to wriggle out of this by saying Trump was joking.
  • A draft executive order, never actually signed, which gave legal protections to businesses that refuse to serve same-sex married couples on religious or “moral” grounds.
  • Details about Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s effort to stop leaks with a “phone check.” Yes, his anti-leak plan leaked.

These are embarrassing, and add up to a general image of incompetence. Political commentators highlight them and late night comedians make fun of them. But they’re mostly harmless.

Of potentially greater impact is a leaked memo from the Department of Homeland Security, in which intelligence analysts conclude that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” This contradicts the Trump administration’s rationale for banning travel from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The leaked memo, widely covered in the press, could influence public opinion, and may appear as evidence in legal briefs arguing against Trump’s travel/refugee ban.

That’s potential impact. For an actual impact, there’s the ousting of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Someone leaked details of Flynn’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and told reporters that acting Attorney General Sally Yates privately informed the White House but the president did nothing.

The leaks, covered extensively by the media, increased public pressure on the administration. Vice President Mike Pence had defended Flynn, and the president kept Yates’ report from Pence. The stories embarrassed Pence, and likely contributed to Flynn’s resignation.

But Flynn opponents in the Trump administration, rather than deep state employees, might bear responsibility.

There were also leaks about Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with Ambassador Kislyak, contravening a statement Sessions made in his confirmation hearings. And leaks about FBI investigations into communications and financial connections between various Trump associates and the Russian government.

However, to the extent the deep state played a role in any of these, it wouldn’t have taken more than a few individuals.

That’s a long way from Turkish military coups. But it shows government employees will keep the public informed if the Trump administration takes any steps towards seizing power.

IV. Fascism is a Choice

How you feel about the leaks at least partially depends on how you feel about Donald Trump. It’s unusual behavior, but he’s an unusual president. Deliberately leaking classified information is illegal. However, in some contexts, we call people who break the law to inform the public “whistleblowers.”

Here’s the question: is Trump a big enough threat to justify deep state employees violating the norm that they shouldn’t use their power to influence politics?

The more Trump acts authoritarian, the more these atypical political actors will check the president. Though there’s little deliberate coordination, they work symbiotically: the deep state leaks, the media publicizes, the public reacts. If sufficiently upset, the media and the public apply pressure, each encouraging the other, which the deep state can egg on with more leaks.

1930s Germany did not have a feedback loop like this. Too few opposed Hitler when he took power. Civil society and public institutions were too broken.

Think of this as a free society’s immune system.

The pushback we’ve seen is analogous to early intervention against disease. Addressing the problem at the first signs, perhaps overreacting, because the worst case scenarios are so awful. Free societies do not descend into authoritarianism all at once. Countering any motion in that direction prevents them from establishing a new baseline, a new normal to build upon.

The biggest danger remains a shock to the system, perhaps a terrorist attack, after which the administration fearmongers rather than calms, divides rather than unites, and claims expansive new powers, labeling anyone who does not display “total allegiance” as “enemies of the people.”

I’m not saying this is likely. Trump may not want to become a fascist dictator, and, even if he does, the administration might not be competent enough to pull it off. Actually seizing power requires acquiescence from the military and domestic security services — someone has to round up political dissidents — and there’s little sign they’d go along with it. However, if the president takes any steps in that direction, the American immune system will resist it.

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Conclusion

Some people who are freaking out will read this and accuse me of downplaying their concerns, telling them don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay.

But what I’m actually saying is things will be okay because they’re freaking out.

Large numbers of people freaking out can be dangerous. But, when the concerns are warranted, panic can be useful, spurring action to address the problem.

Potential pandemics (SARS, Ebola) and widespread technical problems (Y2K) all prompted panic, and all were addressed in time.

As those examples show, successfully preempting disaster prompts mockery: “See, I told you so. What’s the big deal? You freaked out over nothing.”

We’ll never know what would have happened if no one panicked. Maybe nothing. But the preemptive concerns led governments and companies to address the problems in advance, hiring thousands to patch the Y2K bug, and coordinating international efforts to contain SARS. All that probably made a difference.

The leaders of France and Poland considered launching a preventative war against Germany in the 1930s, but ultimately decided they did not want to be the ones to break the peace. With hindsight, we know the people freaking out about Hitler were right. And it’s such a big historical What If, that it’s hard to know what would have happened. But it’s safe to say people would lambaste France and Poland, call them aggressors, and insist Hitler didn’t really mean what he was saying, arguing “they shouldn’t have taken him literally; he was just tossing red meat to the rubes to gain power.”

If the United States does not go fascist — or slide into a milder, Putin-esque form of authoritarianism — we’ll surely see accusations of exaggeration and paranoia, and a slew of I-told-you-so’s. But, though it’s certainly possible the Trump administration does not want to take America in that direction, there’s enough evidence indicating some concern is warranted. And that concern, overblown or not, will galvanize civil society, making the nightmare scenario less likely.

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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