Trump: The 2016 Election and the Rise of American Fascism

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“Willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag’ ich Dir den Schädel ein (If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll smash your skull in)”

This Brownshirt slogan reflected the mindset of fanatic Nazi supporters, the street thugs who played an important role in helping Hitler destroy democracy in Germany and replace it with absolute power over a disoriented population. This extraordinary transformation took place within a four-month period between November 1932 and March 5,1933, the date of he last free election in Germany. Anyone who has studied this fateful moment in German history cannot fail to notice the similarities with what is currently happening in the United States.

Presidental candidate Donald Trump. Source: Flickr (Gage Skidmore).

In November 1932 the Nazis did well in the elections, but the traditional democratic parties on the right and left believed Hitler’s effectiveness would be short. After all, they reckoned, people would soon unmask the slogans for what they were – empty phrase-mongering. However, and tragically, the insecurity of the populace increased dramatically after the parliament building was burned down on February 28, 1933. A week later the March 5th election swept the Nazis into power thus ending democracy in Germany. The Germans clamored for a strong man with simple ideas who would empower them and free them from the victimhood that would be forced upon them by Soviet communism from the outside and from ineffective party babble on the inside.
American fascism is on the rise under the Trump banner. At first glance this claim may seem exaggerated, because there are no visible swastikas and no head-bashing armed storm troopers, and Trump uses none of Hitler’s hyperventilating antics. But what Trump and Hitler have in common is their approach to politics, which is/was radically new and geared to contemporary problems and uncertainties. The newness in both cases gave these two fascist movements added power at the onset.
The similarity between the two movements is striking when it comes to dealing with those who do not agree with them: dissenters are not just wrong, they are unpatriotic. This kind of fascist patriotism is most effective when expressed through collective action. Three examples will illustrate what I mean.
In a televised meeting of the Tea Party, the precursor to the Trump movement, a speaker concluded her speech as follows: “We know what to do with the terrorists: THEY lose and WE win.” Hearing this claim, the audience jumped to its feet in wild applause and cheers. Let’s say you are in this audience and you oppose terrorism but you don’t jump up. You merely want to add a comment of your own or ask a question such as, “Yes, I agree with you, but how do we go about fighting terrorism?” At that moment you are an outsider, on the wrong side, effectively dead. You did not rise and cheer and that alone makes you different, even suspect and unpatriotic in the eyes of the insiders. I have read reports of early Nazi meetings, before Hitler came to power, that displayed the same kind of dynamic rush that left you feeling like an outsider if you did not jump to your feet in unison with the others. A feeling of belonging eases at least temporarily the sense of being powerless. In a recent Trump rally in Chicago a heckler disturbed the meeting. He was escorted out of the auditorium. To remove him was justified, but his removal was accompanied by the intense chant of the crowd yelling, “USA! USA!” with Trump egging his supporters on.
These two incidents drive home the point that dissent is unpatriotic. If such incidents were restricted to rallies, one could live with them. Unfortunately, this trend goes beyond rallies to affect the present political culture in the United States as a whole. It was prepared by the right wing in Congress. A shut-down of our democratically elected government was threatened by the right, if congress fails to do its bidding by not backing its proposals and not voting for certain agenda items. Such a radical rejection of traditional decision-making renders democracy, with its desirable give and take, more and more dysfunctional. It eats away at democracy bit by bit the same way that anti-abortion laws in various states gradually hack away at women’s freedom to control their bodies.
The third example lies in the future. I predict that it will happen during the Republican convention in July. The Trump masses will be there demonstrating both inside the convention hall and outside in the streets of Cleveland. In this way US fascism will have a voice during this year’s presidential election. They will shout, “make America great again” with Donald Trump. They will invoke the American version of the slogan that propelled Hitler to power in Germany: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” – paraphrased: let’s forget our differences. It is high time that we all join together, without ifs, ands and buts, to save the USA. Only one man can do this and that is Donald Trump. We can disagree with him on specific issues, but first things first: we must give him the power “to make our country safe.”
In the meantime Trump will continue to employ traditional icons of American culture to give people a false sense of predictability. He recently presented his family to the public in a show of harmony created by a gentle father. Particularly evident was his daughter Ivanka, the perfect image of the beautiful and charismatic American woman. In evidence was the father’s deep admiration and respect for his daughter – a propaganda triumph that went a long way to neutralize his attacks on women as a whole.
In short, the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July will witness the arrival of a fascist movement in the USA. Will an American fascist revolution succeed? I do not think so, because the United States is more complex than Germany was in 1933, unless, of course, a cataclysmic event, such as a major attack by terrorists on American soil, or a major economic downturn occurs between now and November. What happens beyond 2016 is uncertain, but a fascist movement will be part of a political reality in the foreseeable future, because more than just political sloganeering and patriotism feeds it. Trump is the perfect symbol of the “selfie” society. Individualism is beginning to lose its constructive role in the productive tension between capitalism and democracy. Conflating virtual reality with reality only adds to the general disorientation. One can only hope that the traditional democratic forces in the US, ranging from the moderate Left to the moderate Right, return to the established practices of governance, by leaving until later their big differences to be solved within known political norms. Where are the days when Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond could duke it out verbally in the Senate all day long and then sit down at the end of the day to drink a bourbon together?
Frederic C. Tubach is Professor Emeritus of German, University of California, Berkeley. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Bordeaux, France. Born in San Francisco in 1930, he grew up from the age of three to eighteen in Kleinheubach, Germany. He is the author of German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich (University of California Press) and co-author of An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust (University of California Press).
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