Is it fascism yet? When the actual Godwin says he’s suspending Godwin’s law, you’d better believe we are in trouble. I’ve always resisted applying the term to contemporary politics, because fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—a devastating world war, drastic economic upheaval, the fear of Bolshevism. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?
So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader: elected strongmen who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further, while inflaming powerful popular currents of authoritarianism, racism, nationalism, reactionary religion, misogyny, homophobia, and resentments of all kinds.
Putin is smarter, Trump is crazier; as a duo, they’re a bit like Pinky and the Brain, trying to take over the world. Between them they tell so many lies the media can’t keep up. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’” Asked whether he believed his own intelligence service or Putin,Trump rambled on about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and the DNC’s servers, a much-debunked conspiracy theory. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool. And sure enough, The New York Times reports that two weeks before his inauguration Trump was informed that Putin had personally ordered cyberattacks to influence the 2016 election—attacks that, at Helsinki, Trump denied took place, citing Putin’s own word for it.