It is a sign of the times — the kind involving the seven-horned beast, and the rain of fire, and the end of days — that recent news has been dominated by Kanye, Stormy and the misogynist boor who is president of the United States. It would be a circus if it were not a crime scene, complete with credible accusations of financial corruption, obstruction of justice and campaign collusion with a hostile foreign power.
But in the dark, scary basement of our politics, more basic questions lurk concerning what President Trump’s ascendance means about America. Is Trump ultimately an aberration or the forerunner of a new, degraded politics involving a racially divisive, ethno-nationalist populism? And is it alarmist to go all the way and call Trump a fascist?
With due respect to my leftist friends, the charge goes too far at this point. In an email exchange, one conservative leader told me: “I do think it’s basically mere alarmism, yes. We have a president whose shallow malevolence is matched only by his bottomless incompetence. But that’s not fascism. It’s more weakness than strength.”
In day-to-day policy matters — tax cuts and court appointments — Trump has generally hewn to Republican orthodoxy. (The exception is immigration policy, in which Trump has normalized great abuses.) The president has not changed the libel laws to cripple the news business — which he has repeatedly promised. He has not directly defied court orders — though he has publicly attacked judges. He has not destroyed the independence of federal law enforcement — though he has tried to undermine its credibility.
This represents the minimal political achievement — like using a jump rope as a hurdle. But the accusation of fascism must clear a high hurdle so that the term has content when it is necessary to employ.
And yet, it is impossible to listen closely to Trump without hearing echoes of fascist language and arguments. He describes a form of national unity based on deference to a single leader. He claims to lead a movement that speaks exclusively for American values. He defines this movement primarily through exclusion, by directing bigotry and contempt toward outsiders. He paints the picture of an idealized past, involving pride, ethnic solidarity and national greatness.
Fascism may not describe what Trump has done, as opposed to what he says. But what he says matters and can create its own dangerous dynamic. It is possible for a leader to be incompetent and still profoundly corrupt the people who follow him, undermining the virtues — tolerance, civility and compromise — that make democratic self-government work. It is possible for a foolish leader to leave the imprint of fascism on a portion of his followers. And the language used by Trump — particularly a certain racially tinged nostalgia and a tribal resentment for the other — strikes me as at a higher level of prominence and acceptance than at any time I can remember. So maybe, rather than fearing a fascist dictator, we should fear the legitimacy of fascist modes of thought in the Republican Party.
This is a more complex danger than most talk of fascism generally suggests. But it is a danger nonetheless.
And one event in particular could quickly heighten that danger. Consider what American politics would look like if Republicans — against all odds and expectations — were to keep the Senate and House. There might be many explanations for such a result — exceptional economic conditions, bad Democratic strategy, the rallying effect of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh among Republicans — but we know how the president would interpret it. He would regard such a victory as the complete vindication — the stamp of national approval — on his entire approach to politics.
All the last remaining opposition in the GOP would melt, and many of his supporters would be calling for retribution against enemies and traitors. The whole leadership of the FBI and Justice Department — anyone who ever displeased him — would be at immediate risk of replacement. Trump would take his victory as permission for even more brutal treatment of migrants. More generally, a leader with no commitment to the separation of powers, with no respect for the traditional self-restraints of the presidency, with savage disdain for the free press, with an admiration for authoritarians, with a history of menacing individuals and companies by name, and with a talent for division and dehumanization would feel unbound.
The boor, the bluffer, the bully would be a political colossus. Then the language of fascism might become less theoretical. Then alarmism would be realism.