One of the incidental benefits of having written about politics here off and on for almost two decades is that I can see how many times I’ve used the words “fascist” or “fascism” in my public writing by searching a local backup of this site. Until 2016, one or the other had appeared only a few times, when quoting others: a political figure in Madagascar in 2002 talking about the supporters of his rival, and the poet Michael Rosen in 2015 (whose poem reads ominously today). It’s a word I’ve always used sparingly for fear of sapping its power.
I first used it here myself last year, when voicing fears in the days after the EU referendum of an apparently ascendant UKIP and the desire of many in England and Wales for a strong leader who would implement a hard Brexit. Those were fears of possible futures, but given how those particular events have unfolded I can’t say they’ve subsided much (UKIP is no longer ascendant, but only because the Tories have adopted their agenda). For Britain, though, they remain fears of a possible future. America has overtaken us.
Some of the evidence is still to emerge, but given what we already knew on 20 January about Russian electoral interference, FBI pronouncements, and the impact of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the inauguration of Trump marked the death of American democracy. That’s why I posted a picture here of a black-and-grey American flag covered in static. Since then, America has become something else, a quasi-democratic state at best, with a new anti-democratic regime facing the fierce resolve of the democratic American people (the majority, let us never forget) who are using every means they can to protest and resist before those means are taken away from them.
In its first two weeks (not even that!), Trump’s administration has shown itself unambiguously to be not just authoritarian but fascist. Trump clearly considers himself to be above any of the checks and balances of the American system of government, and given that his party controls Congress these are precious few in any case. Republican politicians show no sign of reining him in, seeing him as the means of acquiring everything on their lengthy wish list. Get yourself a little something: a stolen Supreme Court seat. Recommendations for you: abandoning the Paris climate accords. Customers who bought the repeal of the Affordable Care Act also bought the repeal of Roe vs. Wade.
Trump is giving them what they want, but his primary interest, as it’s always been, is himself and his own disturbed beliefs about what will Make America Great Again. And so America is to get his 2000-mile-long wall, an end to free trade, and an end to criticisms of and sanctions on Putin’s regime. Before the year is out, it may also get war with Iran, war with China, or both.
What makes Trump’s regime not just authoritarian but fascist, and fascist now and not in some prospective future, is its immediate impact on minorities, and specifically on racial minorities. The refusal to allow entry to refugees who had been cleared for it is appalling to anyone who cares about the 1951 Refugee Convention, but just as appalling is that there are, as of last Friday, legal permanent U.S. residents who have been denied the ability to return to their homes because of the country of their birth. Thousands more now cannot leave the U.S. for fear of the same happening to them. As someone who was a permanent resident of another country before I became a dual citizen, the thought of doing that to fellow human beings is intolerable.
That is bad enough, and enough to label the regime anti-democratic and indeed fascist, but worse is clearly in store. Trump’s wingman Steve Bannon is doing his best (worst) to ensure that his own white supremacist agenda is advanced through Trump, and will do more damage before Trump casts him aside in a fit of pique (as he has shown no hesitation in doing to those around him). The more unhinged of Trump’s followers have already shown a willingness to go beyond what even he has decreed, with one of them murdering six Muslims in neighbouring Quebec, and order-following border functionaries have barred entry to people from Muslim countries that aren’t even on his initial list. Antisemitism, too, has been stretching its ugly, leathery wings after years in relative hibernation.
Trump, meanwhile, is busy confirming that he isn’t just a bully but a bluffer, delivering speeches in “honor” of Black History Month that betray an ignorance of it that makes even this non-American cringe:
Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice...
I knew who Frederick Douglass was when I was a kid on the other side of the world, because he appeared on a U.S. stamp. I certainly knew he was no longer alive. The entire rambling speech shows how insensitively Trump will engage with African-Americans, before he rolls out his promised new police powers to repress them—again, the fascist imperative to oppress minorities to consolidate support among the (imagined, in this case) majority.
There are so many more awful details to explore in the story of the past thirteen days that I can hardly bear to, yet we know that they will seem insignificant against whatever happens in the next thirteen weeks or thirteen months. Already, talk amongst his political opponents of preparing for the 2018 Congressional elections is becoming less noticeable, not only because there’s so much else to fight right now, but because who can truly know if they will even happen? Some hold out hope that Trump will be impeached, but which Republicans would vote to impeach him? We need to fight for “politics as normal”, but can’t assume it. Trump could be president for life. The only saving grace is that he’s 70 and not 50; but his parents lived to 93 and 88.
Internet culture, and through it the political culture of the world, has been ill-served by a well-meaning observation dating to 1990, that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1”. In the political corners of the web that I’ve frequented, Godwin’s Law has sidelined many attempts to compare worrying actions of today’s governments with those of the Nazis. I’ve certainly kept it in mind myself: use these words sparingly, for fear of sapping their power. The trouble may be that it’s prevented conversations that could have made a difference in the years leading up to where we are today. Now, at least, any such inhibitions seem to have gone out the window. The Hitler comparisons are coming thick and fast.
I don’t think of Trump as a Nazi; that label is specific to a historical regime and its latterday acolytes. Trump is a fascist: a corporatist, kleptocratic, racist authoritarian. Fascism is bad enough. Fascism is Mussolini, in power for 22 years. Fascism is Franco, in power for 36. Fascism is civil war, world war: but never yet, thanks to the grace of historical timing, full-blown nuclear war. It’s unbearable to think that it now has its shot at the latter.
In the face of all this, where have my own countries’ leaders been? In my adopted home, our prime minister earned herself the nickname of “Theresa the Appeaser” by beating a path to Trump’s door with unseemly haste, and she’s hardly the only member of the UK government to voice support. In the home of my birth, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull made similar Chamberlain-esque noises last week, no doubt for fear of upsetting Australia’s delicate balance of competing relationships. Australia has been the staunchest ally of, and dependent on, American military power since the Second World War; we dutifully sent our troops to Korea, Vietnam, and twice to Iraq. But Australia is also, after thirty years of building closer ties, the developed world’s most China-reliant economy, with China accounting for a third of our trade. If Trump’s sabre-rattling over the South China Sea turns into war, where does that leave us? If Trump’s phone call with Turnbull over the weekend is any indication (and it surely is), then up the proverbial faecal creek.
We should grab the paddle while we still have it, and start putting as many miles and kilometres between ourselves and Trump while we can. We know that appeasement doesn’t work, and that collaborating with fascists leads nowhere good. The rest of the developed world is, for the time being, still largely sane. We should help the American resistance where we can, by working with each other to limit Trump’s horizons. For other countries, that means reminding ourselves that sanctions on apartheid South Africa worked, and can work again. It doesn’t mean priding ourselves that we’re front of the queue to do a trade deal with the man, or checking that we’re still good to send 1,250 hapless refugees into his gaping maw.
Writing this feels like the rhetorical equivalent of pushing the big red button, but the atmosphere has changed so completely, so suddenly, that it seems less like going nuclear and more like stating the obvious. American democracy is dead, though we hope it will one day return. Fascism is here again, in the West, today. Trump is not, and never has been, the leader of the free world, because that mantle passed from Obama straight to Merkel.
There are still ways we can all resist, wherever we are. For me, writing this is one.