In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress). In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws. Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done. A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.
As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example. Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.
Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars. Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.
One thing is certain. Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government. And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch). No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.
Donald Trump’s faults are legion. But which ones are truly awful?
A crass womanizer who brags about his penis. But wait a minute. Lyndon B. Johnson was vulgar and crude and crass and a womanizer – and LBJ was easily eclipsed as a womanizer by John F. Kennedy.
A bigot who attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims among other “undesirables.” But wait a minute. Richard Nixon railed against the Blacks and the Jews, among other “enemies” of Nixon’s righteous “silent majority” of Americans.
An ignoramus who knows little of foreign policy. But wait a minute. Many presidential candidates have lacked foreign policy experience (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, to cite two recent examples).
A posturing tough-guy who supports torture for America’s enemies and the murder of terrorists’ families. But wait a minute. The Bush/Cheney administration freely used torture (they just called it “enhanced interrogation techniques”), and the Obama administration freely uses drones to “take out” terrorists and whoever may be with them (including innocent family members).
A serial liar who can’t be taken at his word. But wait a minute. Name any president, other than Jimmy Carter, who prioritized truth-telling.
A bully who bludgeons his opponents into submission. But wait a minute. Just think of LBJ, Nixon, and Dick Cheney (yes, he was a Vice President, but still). These men were all bullies.
A shameless showman who exploits the media while professing to hate it. But wait a minute. Nixon despised the media; the media colluded with Kennedy to hide his negative qualities; and Obama has cozied up to the corporate media even as he’s actively prosecuted whistleblowers.
Focusing on Trump’s many “awfuls” is not the best way to defeat him, since America’s presidents have hardly been choir boys. Put simply, Trump’s prejudicial attitudes toward women, minorities, and other groups or peoples he doesn’t like don’t mark him as exceptional, nor does his record of flip-flops on issues, as the American people have come to expect that politicians are basically liars.
Where Trump is vulnerable, I believe, is his tyrannical qualities. Trump’s past behavior suggests he sees himself as above the law. Put differently, he sees himself as a law unto himself. And if he wins the presidency I simply don’t believe he’ll honor his oath of office to the U.S. Constitution.
Remember during the Frost Interviews when Nixon said, If the president does it, that means it’s legal? That’s Trump in a nutshell. Recall during the Republican presidential debates when Trump said the U.S. military would obey his orders regardless of their legality under the U.S. Constitution. Yes, he later recanted that dictatorial position, but his initial answer revealed his essential nature: I’m in charge, I’ll do what I want, everyone else has to obey me.
Here “Star Trek” fans may recall an episode from the original series called “Space Seed,” featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan. A tyrant from Earth’s past, Khan speaks of unifying humanity under a strong leader. Spock’s reply is telling: “Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?”
Khan then waxes about the wonders of one-man rule, eventually blurting out, “We offered the world order!” The Donald, today’s version of Khan, offers to make America great again.
Trump has the makings of a tyrant. His approach to the presidency is fundamentally undemocratic. His statements and behavior suggest if he becomes president he’ll do what he wants and expect others to fall into line, even the U.S. military, which swears its oath to the U.S. Constitution and not to any one leader. At a time when Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war or to check executive warmaking prerogatives, a tyrant like Trump is an especially dangerous prospect as president.
Because of this, Trump is truly an awful choice for president.
A recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:
In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.
Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?
Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.
But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.
It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism
For Paxton, fascism is:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.
What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.
It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.
It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.
The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.
Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.
Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.