What is a fascist? How many fascists have we? How dangerous are they? These are the questions that the New York Times posed to Henry A. Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, in April 1944.
In response, Wallace wrote “The Danger of American Fascism,” an essay in which he suggested that the number of American fascists and the threat they posed were directly connected to how fascism was defined. Wallace pointed out that several personality traits characterized fascist belief, arguing that a fascist is “one whose lust for money and power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.”
Wallace also claimed that fascists “always and everywhere can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power.” Fascists are “easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact” (my italics), he contended. Moreover, Wallace noted that fascists “pay lip service to democracy and the common welfare” and they “surreptitiously evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.” Finally, Wallace identified that fascists’ primary objective was to “capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they keep the common man in eternal subjection.”
Wallace was writing in the context of an existential threat to democracy posed by Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. However, his essay is prescient in that he identified the existence of a domestic form of American fascism that emerged from the political context of enlightened thought, rule of law and limited government. Wallace drew a clear distinction between European fascism and the kind of fascism found in the United States. Rather than resort to overt violence, American fascists would “poison the channels of public information,” Wallace reasoned. Likewise, he argued that American fascism was generally inert, not having reached the level of overt threat that it had reached in Europe. Despite this, Wallace argued that American fascism had the potential to become dangerous to democracy under that appropriate context; one in which a “purposeful coalition” emerges based on “demagoguery.”
British historian Karl Polanyi has written in his seminal book, The Great Transformation, that fascism can emerge in a society in reaction to “unsolved national issues.” Party polarization and gridlock in the US have created unsolved issues concerning health care, immigration reform and the “war on terror.” These volatile issues, in turn, have created the perfect political context for a demagogue to emerge in the United States.
With the election of Donald Trump, the purposeful coalition Wallace feared may have evolved. Trump is the first US president who has been seriously associated with fascist ideology. His coalition of white supremacists, xenophobes, plutocratic oligarchs and disaffected members of the working class have aligned with the mainstream Republican Party. The coalition’s political philosophy, rooted in reactionary populism and “American First” sloganeering, has quickly led to the United States’ systematic withdrawal from global leadership. Coupled with a disdain for multilateral collaboration, a rejection of globalization, and a focus on militarism and economic nationalism, Trumpism has taken the country down the perilous path of national chauvinism reminiscent of previous fascist states like Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar, or Peronist Argentina.
Unlike past Republican and Democratic presidents, Trump has disregarded long-standing traditions related to political protocol and decorum in the realm of political communication. He routinely makes unsubstantiated claims about political rivals, questioning their veracity and ethics. Trump’s claim that the Obama administration wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign and that Obama refused to take action regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as well as Trump’s incendiary tweets about federal judges who ruled against his executive orders on immigration, suggest a sense of paranoia commonly associated with autocrats. Trump has demonstrated a fundamental ignorance of democratic institutions associated with the rule of law, checks and balances, and the separation of powers. Common to autocratic leaders, Trump sees executive power as absolute and seems confounded when the legislative or judicial branches of government question his decisions. Trump has seemed willing to ignore norms that are fundamentally aligned with US democracy: equality before the law, freedom of the press, individual rights, due process and inclusiveness.
Typical of all autocratic leaders, Trump has a deep-seated distrust of the media. Calling journalists “enemies of the people,” Trump’s incessant claims that media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post create “fake news” is a common attribute of authoritarian regimes. In response to investigative reports that are critical of his administration, Trump engages in systematic tactics of disinformation. Trump has refined the art of evasion through communicating a multiplicity of falsehoods as a means of obfuscating charges of abuse of power and political misconduct.
The biggest dilemma for an autocrat is confronting the truth. Systematic strategies to implant misinformation have historically provided significant political dividends for demagogues. From Trump’s earliest forays in national politics, the truth was his biggest enemy. Trump discovered in the 2016 campaign that the perpetuation of lies and deceit could be converted into political capital. Lying on issues actually generated support from Trump’s political base, many of whom were low-information voters.
The hope by many that Trump would conform to traditional political norms once elected proved to be a chimera. Trump has obliterated the Orwellian dictum that lies are truth; in Trump’s worldview, truth does not exist. It is seen as a political liability. As president, the debasement of truth has become an important political strategy shaping much of his communication to the American public. Purposeful deceit has become one of the primary means by which Trump energizes and excites his supporters. It is the catalyst that drives their emotional connection to Trump, who is insistent on “telling it like it is” and fighting for “the people” as a challenge to the political elite.
For Trump, facts mean nothing. They are contrary to the desires of his political base. Connecting to his base is visceral; intellectualism is the antithesis of Trump’s immediate political objectives. By denying the existence of truth-based politics, Trump solidifies his populist vision and perpetuates one of fascism’s greatest mechanisms for acquiring absolute power: the force of emotion conquering the force of reason. As Timothy Snyder states in his insightful book On Tyranny, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.” Seen in this light, empirical evidence based on scientific investigation is superfluous; public policy is only useful when it is connected to human emotion and desire. This is all that matters in Trump’s vision for the US. As such, facts and scientific research are a ruse, a tool of the elite designed to consolidate power over “the people” and discredit Trump’s “America First” policies.
Truth is a necessity for democracy because citizens depend on truth-based decision-making to achieve reasoned judgments about public policy. In the Trump administration, the eradication of fact-based communication has normalized the denial of truth. As a result, democracy is clearly under siege. Henry Giroux makes an excellent argument when he writes, “normalization is code for retreat from any sense of moral or political responsibility, and it should be viewed as an act of political complicity with authoritarianism and condemned outright.” All Americans should take heed of this point. History has provided ample evidence of how institutional and civic complicity with autocratic rule erodes democracy. However, history has also demonstrated how engaged citizens can mobilize to resist this erosion. As Snyder argues, in order to confront autocracy, citizens need to become aware that democracy can disappear and mobilize to stop such a disastrous turn of events. In the age of Trump, there is no time for complacency.