A reader wrote to me this morning about Donald Trump and American fascism. Is Trump, with his anti-immigrant posturing and his generally bombastic demeanor, tapping into a “fascist spring” in America?
The question seems unduly alarming as well as absurd. But let’s pause for a moment. I recently saw on TV the results of a poll in which Americans were asked, “Which presidential candidate would best revive the American economy?” The clear winner: Donald Trump. Yes, maybe it’s just name recognition or an association of Trump’s name with money-making, but the result was nevertheless disturbing.
Here’s the thing: It’s easy to view Trump as a joke. His bad hair. His vulgar manner. His obvious bombast.
But guess who else was dismissed as a joke? Adolf Hitler.
Before he got his grip on power, many in Germany thought that Hitler was a joke: bad haircut, ill-fitting clothes, vulgar accent. Hitler was known as the “Bohemian Corporal,” a euphemism which in colloquial American English translates to “Hillbilly Grunt.” As a result, “good” Germans just couldn’t take Hitler that seriously. They underestimated him — and when they tried to move against him, it was far too late.
Of course, I’m not saying that Trump is some kind of Hitler. What I am saying is that popular demagogues are easy to make fun of — easy, that is, until they gain power.
Sinclair Lewis had it right: It Can Happen Here. All it takes is a megalomaniacal and messianic leader, a crisis to make the people desperate (such as the Great Depression that facilitated Hitler’s rise), various elites who cynically and opportunistically throw their support behind the “great leader,” and enough of the rest of us who choose, out of fear or indifference or ignorance, to do nothing.
Update (8/23/15): The Donald is still gaining in the polls, notes the New York Times, despite (or rather because of) the outrageous things he says:
In poll after poll of Republicans, Mr. Trump leads among women, despite having used terms like “fat pigs” and “disgusting animals” to denigrate some of them. He leads among evangelical Christians, despite saying he had never had a reason to ask God for forgiveness. He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters. He leads among the most frequent, likely voters, even though his appeal is greatest among those with little history of voting.
One thing is certain: Trump draws support from people who are simply tired of traditional candidates like Jeb Bush. But does Trump stand for anything other than himself? He’s notably vague on the issues, perhaps learning from the Obama Campaign in 2008 that it’s far better to sell vague slogans like “hope” and “change” to the American people. Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again!” — and that may be all that many Americans want to hear.