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.
These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures. There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks. Sounds just like Angela Merkel, right? Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church. Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism. One could mention Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and India’s Narendra Modi as well. Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by unemployment and austerity, right-wing “populist” parties are surging in Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, and even Sweden and Denmark. And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.
At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.
The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would: They control the media, pack the courts—hello, Brett Kavanaugh!—lay waste to regulatory agencies, “reform” education, abolish long-standing precedents, and use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear. While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. Meanwhile, plans to expand a denaturalization task force have rightly spooked millions of citizens. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.
Spines stiffened by their enraged constituents, Democrats in office have resisted all this much more than I thought possible. But even after Trump’s shambolic European tour, in which he declared the EU to be our “foe,” most Republican politicians—and most Republicans—are sticking with him. NeverTrumpers may populate the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, but the actually existing GOP is all about The Donald.
There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress. In the United States, we have a chance to rid the world of Trump in 2020. As for Trumpism, I’m not so sure. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The fundamentalist stay-home moms, the MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the Fox-addicted retirees, the hedge-fund multimillionaires and the gun nuts have found one another. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.