Laws are meant to be broken. And so as Donald Trump edges ever closer to the White House, I am not surprised to see there’s been a precipitous uptick in violations of Godwin’s Law regarding the promiscuous use of the word “fascism.”
First promulgated by writer/lawyer Michael Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s Law states that in any online argument the longer it goes on the greater the probability that someone will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. At that point the person guilty of invoking Hitler against an opponent forfeits the argument.
It’s a shame “fascism” has been hurled so carelessly against ideas and individuals we dislike since the indiscriminate invocation of the “F-word” now discredits its correct use against the anti-democratic tendencies exhibited by the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee and many of his most loyal followers.
Fascism is a specific thing and not some idiosyncratic anomaly confined to a particular time and place in mid-20th century Europe. Indeed, fascism may be the most natural form of politics there is since “populist nationalism” (as scholars call it) feeds our instinctive hunger for identity, group solidarity and belonging.
Experts define fascism as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood. Fascism also manifests itself by cults of unity, energy and purity in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues -- without ethical or legal restraints -- the goal of internal cleansing and external expansion.
In times past when people felt their community under siege from strange and fearsome forces they did not understand, literacy tests or other qualifying measures were often administered before the rights of full citizenship were granted to marginalized “outside” groups.
After watching the rise of Donald Trump, I am tempted to insist that everyone be required to take T. W. Adorno’s famous “authoritarian personality” test.
I recently took professor Adorno’s test and discovered that my “F-score” (where “F” stands for “fascist”) is 2.63. This identifies me as a “liberal airhead” -- at the other end of the spectrum from those who “have trouble keeping the lint off of their brown shirts.”
Adorno’s F-score measures such characteristics as: conventionalism or conformity to traditional societal norms; authoritarian aggression against individuals who don’t adhere to conventional values; power, toughness and a preoccupation with the strong/weak, leader/follower dimension; stereotyping of the individuals within different groups; and finally anti-intraception, which is the rejection of inwardness, imagination, tender-mindedness and self-criticism.
To a disturbing degree, Donald Trump has been checking the boxes on the roll call used by scholars to distinguish fascist regimes from democratic ones.
There is, for example, Trump’s “America First,” “nobody is going to mess with us” boastfulness that reflects fascism’s chauvinistic nationalism.
Trump reflects the standard fascist disdain for human rights when he tries to persuade followers they should look the other way should a Trump Administration torture, execute, assassinate or incarcerate its “enemies.”
Trump has used his call for keeping all Muslims out of the United States as we build a thousand-mile wall across our southern border with Mexico to rally the American people into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate any perceived threat or foe – a classic fascist tactic.
Trump’s promise to “open up” the libel laws so he can more easily retaliate against reporters who oppose him is reminiscent of the state control and censorship of the press familiar in fascist regimes.
His boast that he is the “most militaristic” candidate in the race, one where Trump promises that a “wrecked” and “underfunded” military will get more even as he cuts taxes and domestic budgets elsewhere also reflects the disproportionate sway which the military, martial values and outright militarism enjoy in fascist societies.
And finally, Trump’s caddish, disgraceful behavior toward women – especially strong-minded women who contradict or challenge Trump’s standing and authority – is a symptom of the rampant sexism that exists in fascist regimes which are almost exclusively male-dominated and where traditional gender roles are rigidly enforced.
As conservative author Robert Kagan wrote this week in a Washington Post column titled, “This is how fascism comes to America,” The Republican Party’s treatment of Donald Trump as a “normal” political candidate would be laughable were the GOP’s craven surrender to “Trumpism” not so perilous to the republic.
The “Trump phenomenon,” as Kagan calls it, has nothing to do with policy or ideology or even the Republican Party that birthed this “singular threat to our democracy.”
Trump followers stick with him not because he offers remedies to their economic stagnation or dislocation, says Kagan, since Trump’s agenda is a cavalcade that “changes daily.”
Instead, says Kagan, what Trump’s followers like about him is that he offers “an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.”
What all of Trump’s “incoherent and contradictory utterances” have in common, says Kagan, is that they “provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger.”
I agree with Kagan. Trump is no fascist. But he is an egomaniac and a bully who empowers those pre-existing conditions in the American body politic that fuel fascist movements.
Trump’s “tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even approach” has tapped into what the Founding Fathers feared most when they first established our democratic republic, namely “popular passions unleashed -- the mobocracy,” says Kagan.
Where fascist movements and regimes have arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, Kagan says they too lacked a coherent ideology and clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. Instead, fascism appeared as a “bundle of contradictions united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed.”
And so, as Kagan says, this is how fascism comes to America: “Not with jackboots and salutes but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.”