Since the defeat of fascism in World War II, it’s been bad form in America to call a political opponent a fascist—or even a liar. But given Donald Trump’s career of long cons, his cult convention, his recent suggestions about changing Election Day, and his persistent efforts to sabotage the Postal Service, it’s now naive not to.
Trump is openly seeking to win reelection by getting within cheating distance of the popular vote—and then hoping that some combination of state voter ID laws, discarded mail-in ballots, dark-money super PACs, foreign interference, and the Electoral College will again make the loser the winner. He is essentially attempting an unconstitutional putsch from within government to hang on to power. (See Xi and Putin, and Hitler in the 1930s.)
MAGA Republicans, however, are in the grip of a “believing is seeing” content bias that protects their self-esteem and home team at the expense of obvious facts. Swayed by Trump’s cunning ability to use populist rhetoric to camouflage plutocratic policies, this credulous cohort denies all evidence of illegality, incompetence, disinformation, and epic narcissism, blissfully repeating the excuse du jour whenever he’s exposed for some outrage (it was a “joke,””the Clintons were worse,” “so what?,” ”fake news!”). But such a one-by-one-by-one approach is akin to seeing only the dots of a pointillist painting while missing the big picture.
Let’s calculate the sum of this bill of particulars:
• replacing the rule of law with the law of rule—courtesy of Bill Barr—as accused allies receive pardons and praise while enemies are threatened with arbitrary prosecution;
• engaging in multiple obstructions of justice, such as firing FBI director James Comey and urging White House counsel Don McGahn to lie to Mueller;
• basing an entire convention on himself—no platform, Trumps proliferating like Borgias—and on the daily violation of the anti-monarchical Hatch Act because “no one cares,” according to apologist Mark Meadows;
• worsening economic inequality by shifting trillions through tax breaks to “American Oligarchs,” in Andrea Bernstein’s useful phrase, who then gratefully support his assaults on environmental and consumer laws to make even more money;
• inciting violence by hyperbolic attacks on opponents, embracing neo-Nazis while ignoring warnings from the FBI about the number-one domestic threat, right-wing violence (as seen in the Kenosha murders on Tuesday);
• enthusiastically embracing many of the world’s leading dictators—Putin, Xi, Bolsonaro, Kim, Sisi, Duterte, Erdogan;
• repeating Covid-19 falsehoods in order to pressure Republican governors to prematurely reopen the economy and schools, causing the avoidable deaths of over 100,000 Americans, so far, according to leading epidemiologists;
• politicizing the civilian-run military by deploying them to cities with Black Lives Matter protests and other “Democrat cities,” conflating all peaceful protesters with a a small minority of violent militants;
• attempting to stymie postal delivery to, in effect, steal millions of mail-in ballots… and the election;
• digging his finger into the wounds of racism and dehumanizing people of color and immigrants as “animals,” “scum,” “vermin,” and “rapists” to excite white nationalists;
• erupting with a lava of lies—now up to an average of 22 a day, according to Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler—to bury rivals and reality (Goebbels in 1941 said, “There are so many lies that truth and swindle can scarcely be distinguished”);
• attempting to delegitimize the Fourth Estate as “enemies of the people,” using Stalin’s odious phrase;
• bullying neutral sources of information—the CDC, DNI, FDA, regulatory agencies—to bend their expected integrity to his political needs;
• rejecting science to advance his hunches and policies—on climate and Covid-19, for example—that threaten the well-being of millions of people around the world;
• milking public office for private gain by treating “his” federal government like he treated the Trump Organization;
• attempting to criminally extort the president of Ukraine in order to smear Joe Biden;
• firing career professionals and “independent” inspectors general for doing their job, increasingly having a government of cronies, cranks, multimillionaires, relatives, and unconfirmable third-raters;
• ignoring all congressional subpoenas (when Nixon ignored eight of them, it became the third article in his impeachment, “Contempt of Congress”);
• and saying things such as “I alone can fix it” and “with Article II, I can do whatever I want,” as well as praising the Chinese Communist party for showing its “power of strength” by slaughtering thousands in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Connect all these dots. What do you see? “They all have one purpose,” said Sally Yates, past acting attorney general, “to remove any check on his abuse of power.” The emerging picture is not transactional conservatism but rather a deviant fascism American-style. (For those still offended by the F-word, there’s more: For the first time in 58 elections, a president is refusing to agree beforehand to abide by the results.) That’s not mainstream but extreme.
Recent books by Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have traced Trump’s growing pattern of lies and lawlessness. Yes, nearly all presidents have occasionally engaged in hyperbole, lying, corner-cutting, or press-bashing, though none have done so daily, if not hourly. One falsehood does not undermine democracy, but 20,000+ can; one governmental reversal in court is not tyranny, but scores of such defeats reveal an administration at odds with the constitutional injunction to “faithfully executive the laws.”
If we added up the anti-democracy maneuvers of the prior 10 presidents over the past 60 years, they wouldn’t equal Trump alone in under four years—indeed, if you compare the eight close associates of Trump convicted or indicted in his almost-one term of office, that would again exceed those of all presidents combined (excepting Watergate felons) from Kennedy to Obama.
Steven Calabresi, a cofounder of the conservative Federalist Society, was driven to label Trump’s tweet seeking a postponed election “fascistic” and worthy of “immediate impeachment.” George Will called his administration a “gangster regime.” Ex-intel chiefs Brennan and Comey compared Trump to a mob boss.
After his in-your-face convention, what other laws will an unconstrained Trump now violate in order to win reelection? Are we approaching America’s brownshirt moment? If he walks, talks, and acts like a fascist, then good-faith Americans irrespective of party will conclude that Donald Trump is wrecking America so he can keep governing it.
The problem now is an ominous trend-line for the fall campaign: the 11-week interregnum if he loses, or the four years after January should he win another term. If a president brandishes his contempt for law and truth, disdains the separation of powers, appeals to racists and conspiracy theorists, foments a “culture of corruption,” provokes violence, coordinates with a hostile power to rig his election and consolidates political and economic power in a corporate state and then isn’t regarded as a fascist—or monarchist or tyrant—who would ever be? Or must we wait until it’s too late?
That’s why November is as urgent as the 1860 and 1932 presidential elections, when the country came close to tearing itself apart—first over slavery and then over laissez-faire capitalism. Now, too, there’s a binary choice: fascism for the few or democracy for all. After the failures of Mueller and impeachment, it’s now up to voters to return a landslide that not even the Electoral College can overturn.