The optics of the move were dramatic enough, but the message was all the more ominous. “Everything [Trump] has said and done is to inflame violence,” the Episcopal bishop of Washington later told my colleagues. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”
Critics warn of the country teetering into genuine crisis under his watch. “We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative, to my colleagues. “The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”
For the president, the tensions unleashed by the killing of George Floyd — an unarmed black man who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee — are a political opportunity. Trump invoked scattered instances of looting to threaten armed retribution on an entire protest movement. He cast the continued unrest as evidence of the weakness of his Democratic opponents. And he proposed alarming emergency measures, including the criminalization of an inchoate, decentralized network of anarchist and anti-fascist groups as “terrorists.”
That last step presents a question that may not need an answer: If Trump is against “antifascists,” then what is he for? This week, he tried to preempt reports that white supremacists had infiltrated the protests to stir violence by dismissing it out of hand with a tweet. And in a leaked phone call, he spoke baldly of dominating the protesters with violence, of punishing them with harsh prison sentences and of deploying the National Guard no matter the wishes of state governors.
We have known about the broader contours of Trumpism for quite some time: Its xenophobia, its nativist rage, its rallying of grievance against cosmopolitan elites, its celebration of military strength. But the current crisis, with an election less than half a year away, has accelerated a political unraveling some warned would come with Trump in power.
“It is time to embrace the parallels, to be unafraid to speak a clear truth: Whether by design or lack of it, Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state that they have increasingly organized on fascist principles,” wrote Adam Weinstein in the New Republic, pointing to the chaotic pretexts that enabled fascist movements in 1930s Germany and Italy to cement power.
Contemporary scholars of fascism caution against explicitly labeling Trump a fascist. But they point to the erosion underway during his presidency, the steady bending of norms and relentless attacks on those who don’t show absolute loyalty to him, from political rivals to the free press.
“We are still in a democracy and he cannot get away with it but he seems to keep trying,” Federico Finchelstein, a historian at the New School and author of “A Brief History of Fascist Lies,” told Today’s WorldView. “Fascists destroyed democracy from within and Trump so far is bastardizing democracy.”
Finchelstein described Trump’s stunt with the Bible as consummate fascist agitprop. “It was a display straight out of the fascist playbook, connecting political violence with religion,” he said. “Goebbels and Hitler would have been proud of Donald Trump. They would have appreciated the ways he lies and presents himself as a leader with a unique connection to the divine.”
Other analysts emphasize the importance of shifting the focus away from Trump to the political apparatus that supports him. “The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945,” wrote Anne Applebaum in an essay for the Atlantic that pilloried grandees of the current Republican Party as latter-day collaborators.
Trump’s political style is not wholly unique. He is part of a set of illiberal world leaders — from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to India’s Narendra Modi to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro — who govern and seek to win elections with ultranationalist platforms. Some of them, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been at it considerably longer than Trump and have provided a template of sorts for consolidating power.
“Erdogan has built a base by polarizing the country, demonizing his opponents, and cracking down and brutalizing demographics unlikely to vote for him,” Soner Cagaptay, author of “New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” told Today’s WorldView.
All of this has echoes in Trump’s presidency, Cagaptay noted. Erdogan has made “opposing him tantamount to opposing the nation,” he said. “It leaves no room for democracy.”