When I was studying history and totalitarianism some 50 years ago, I never imagined that during my lifetime, a president of the United States would employ fascism to achieve his political goals. Conventional wisdom would presuppose that that the horrors of World War II would permanently inoculate our society against the destructive seduction of fascism. Nevertheless, the current president has shown himself willing to employ any means necessary to increase his political power, personal influence, and wealth. To achieve those self-serving ends, he uses a full array of fascist methods and tools.
Like the more notorious megalomaniacal fascist leaders, he projects a strong, patriarchal, all-knowing persona who can work wonders, irrespective of reality. He promotes a cult of personality that stimulates the fawning adulation of followers who find his delusional, simplistic worldview reassuring. Like other fascist leaders he relies upon demonization of his political opponents, racial stereotyping, and scapegoating of minorities.
Historically fascist leaders have used an unquestioned allegiance to the nation state to rally their base. This president uses all the symbols and memes of patriotism to engender an unquestioning allegiance to himself. He wraps himself in the flag, figuratively and literally, so that his actual goals, values, and ends cannot be questioned, nor the means he uses to achieve them. Because the ostensible goal of the fascist leader is the service of the all-important nation state, he cannot be questioned. To question such a leader is tantamount to treason or sedition.
Glorification of the military is a hallmark characteristic of fascist leadership, although some communist leaders have also sought to inflate their personal power by using the military as a backdrop. The current president loves to use demonstrations of military power and surrounds himself with generals until those generals no longer support his actions or pose uncomfortable questions.
The Constitution established three independent branches of government and a system of checks and balances to deter the abuses of monarchy. Like an authoritarian or totalitarian fascist leader, this president has declared his ownership of not only the executive branch, but also the legislative and judicial branches of government. He has no use for laws, protocols, boundaries, norms, or inspectors-general that do not serve him.
Fascist leaders have typically demanded strict loyalty to the party line established from the top down. This president has remade the Republican Party in his own image and those who challenge him have been purged. Traditional long-term Republican values have been repeatedly abandoned if they did not serve the short-term political calculus of the current leader.
Historically fascist leaders have employed disinformation and propaganda to increase their power. Our current president has exponentially increased the use of propaganda by leveraging the internet, social media, and media allies. He has no need for a dedicated Ministry of Propaganda when he can speak directly to his followers with Twitter and Fox. Obvious lies become credible with constant repetition. Opponents are peremptorily charged with the very accusations he is guilty of, thereby undercutting any rebuttal.
Fascist leaders have often resorted to made-for-media dramatic statements, red-baiting, bullying, and threats. This president routinely relies upon posturing, bullying and threats to attract media attention and influence others. He vilifies his political opponents as communist or socialist.
A free press is antithetical to the control of the narrative fascist leaders seek. Freedom of speech and a free press are essential elements of democratic societies that tolerate diverse views and reasoned debate. The press has the means to challenge the powerful reach of the presidential “bully pulpit” and correct misinformation, call out lies, and debunk false conspiracy theories. It is hardly surprising that this president who relies so heavily on falsehoods should characterize the press as the “enemy of the people” and label critical coverage as “fake news.”
Fascists leaders have often staged large rallies focused on themselves to suggest the broad support and allegiance of the citizenry. A catechism of booing, cheering, and chanting purportedly reflects the “voice of the people.” These narcissistic hero-worshipping photo opportunities are a means of providing legitimacy to a leader whose specific experience or policies might be questioned.
Fascism has often promised the return of a nation’s former glory, and this president has wholeheartedly adopted this time-honored trope and embroidered it on his signature red hats. The actual reality and character of the mythical past, or the ability to reclaim it, is unimportant. The concept of American Exceptionalism is easily appropriated to support an ethnocentric worldview but it is not unique to America. During WW II Italian, German and Japanese fascists all promised a return to an era when their racial, cultural, and military superiority was unquestioned. Indoctrination of the nation’s youth with revisionist histories supported their claims. This president recently proposed that the curriculum of schools be revised to eliminate any unflattering episodes of American history from texts.
Fascist leaders have often used the arbitrary assertation of power to prove the unquestionable dominance of their leadership. The current president has repeatedly asserted his authority to do whatever he desired. He wants us to forget the legal and democratic institutions that constrain his action and the repeated contradictions inherent in his compulsive lying. He expects us to forget history.
George Santayana has warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” During this election Americans should be asking what can be learned from 20th-century history and what does make America great?